Mobility is a basic human need. Without mobility, people are unable to access what they require for everyday life — proper nutrition, health care and education; economic opportunities and jobs also remain out of reach. Sadly, society to date has done a poor job of providing decent mobility for its citizens.
We see this every day: The office worker who travels three hours each way from Fairview in Quezon City to Ayala Avenue. The student who queues nearly an hour at the MRT station to ride a train packed with passengers already weary from their morning commute. The cyclist pedaling through diesel fumes along roads designed only for cars. Bus stops on EDSA at rush hour overflowing with anxious commuters uncertain as to when they might get home.
We are rising earlier and earlier to get to school or work while getting home later and later, constantly sleep deprived. The hazards of moving around our city include breathing heavily polluted air. Black carbon, the ultrafine particles in the air that cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases also known as PM2.5, has been measured at two to five times the acceptable level along Metro Manila roads that are heavily congested during rush hour, affecting those located as far as 300 meters from the road.
Traffic and poor mobility are eroding our national wealth and potential. Each of us can think of a friend or relative who has given up a dream school, a dream job, or even a dream relationship simply because the daily travel to the dream was too onerous. We have made choices far short of our potential because of the strain of a long daily commute.
The daily economic cost of constrained mobility is staggering — measured in 2014 at P2.4 billion and today at P3.5 billion. This amounts to P1.3 trillion per year, equivalent to one-third of the 2018 national budget. This does not even count the social and personal cost of not being able to spend sufficient time with loved ones.
This is an emergency at the top of the scale and it can still get far worse. Are we doing enough to contain this huge cost? What action can we take today to ease the suffering of millions of commuters? Do we have the right diagnosis and solution?
The unpleasant experiences of our commuters are pushing more and more of them to shift to using private cars or motorcycles for daily travel. This is because public transport is insufficient, unsafe, unreliable and often inaccessible. Even for the “last mile”, there are often no sidewalks or bike lanes to get us from our homes to the train station or bus stop. At a time when incomes are rising and GDP growth is high, many Filipinos are highly motivated to own cars or motorcycles as soon as they can afford to.
Year after year, car dealers set new records in vehicle sales. In 2017, 476,000 new motor vehicles were sold in the Philippines, about 5 percent more than the previous year. (This number does not even include the estimated 1.4 million new motorcycles in 2017.)
If we think today’s traffic is bad, it can still get much, much worse … if we do nothing. Brand new cars can be driven out of the lot with a downpayment of P20,000. With about 60 percent of GDP coming from the Greater Manila area (Metro Manila and surrounding provinces), one can reasonably assume that 50 percent of new vehicles end up in Greater Manila. This translates to over 500 vehicles daily being added to Metro Manila’s car population.
No wonder traffic gets worse each passing month. To keep the level of congestion constant, one would have to build 10 kilometers of road every day to accommodate the 500 additional vehicles. It is not feasible to build more roads, bridges, elevated highways and flyovers or to widen streets to keep pace with the number of new vehicles on the road. Infrastructure to benefit cars may provide temporary relief but any new road space eventually attracts further car use (also called “induced demand”) that quickly negates any positive impact.
We have tried decade after decade to ease traffic with more and better infrastructure for private car use, each time ending up with even more congestion. What’s worse is that we have prioritized infrastructure for cars over more efficient mobility options (even though car owners account for less than 10 percent of the population). A common example is the reduction in sidewalks in order to give more road space to motor vehicles (have a look at the recently reduced sidewalk along EDSA in front of Camp Aguinaldo). Brings to mind the saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over, and expecting a different result.”
It is time to abandon an antiquated strategy that seeks to accommodate and serve an ever-increasing number of private motor vehicles; we already know the outcome. The only sustainable solution is to make public transport, walking and cycling high quality and widely accessible, so these become the preferred options for daily travel, even for those who own cars or motorcycles. We have no choice.
Robert Y. Siy is a development economist, city and regional planner and a public transport advocate (email@example.com)