I grew up traveling the stretch of Maharlika Highway that traverses Sto. Tomas and Alaminos in Batangas and San Pablo in Laguna, to get to Tiaong Quezon. Summers with the family were spent in a bahay kubo there, as it was spent in the then untouched beaches of Guis-Guis. Those trips were quick and easy, very rarely were we held up in traffic or get lost in the changing landscape caused by development.
Now more than two decades later, a trip to Tiaong will not only mean facing heavy traffic; it can also mean two hours spent on a highway-turned-parking lot.
This is exactly what happened to us over the weekend. It was an uneventful ride through SLEX and Batangas, until we got stuck in traffic as we entered San Pablo. This stretched on until the turn-off point between the town of San Pablo and the highway that leads to Quezon. We spent a good two hours in that highway.
Why? Because there is an SM City San Pablo, standing quite beautifully, actually (I think it’s one of the better designed SM malls) along the highway.
SM’s security guards—all three of them by the exit—were prioritizing SM customers’ cars leaving the shopping complex. Because these SM customers were not only swerving into the two lanes of the highway, they were also at this point, taking up one lane meant for cars going in the opposite direction.
Of course the moment you take up a lane not yours, you pretty much f**k the traffic up. And once we were coasting down that highway to Tiaong, after two hours of being stuck there, we found that the opposite lane had it worse: their parking lot stretched to the arc that welcomed us to Quezon province.
All because SM City San Pablo decided that they deserved one more lane of the national highway. Never mind that the rest of us shall suffer the consequences.
And there are consequences to being stuck in heavy traffic like this one. If you’re a jeepney or bus driver, you’ve just lost the chance at hitting your boundary for the day. If you’re a delivery truck operator or driver, then that’s a delivery undone, one that you will have to pay for with extra time working. If you were like me, looking forward to working in the quiet of Tiaong, then that was two hours of doing nothing versus being productive. Time is money, isn’t it? And money is lost in traffic like this one.
All because of SM City San Pablo, right smack in the middle of a national highway.
This can only mean that a stalled car or an accident, the untimely road repair—these things that are supposed to cause traffic but which we should be able to fix quickly so we can go our merry way—these now happen and are made 10 times worse by your neighborhood SM Mall.
And traffic is the least of it. Elsewhere in the country, it is said that floods have gotten worse because of one SM Mall built where it shouldn’t be. More recently, the 47th SM Mall in the country treated its moviegoers to rainwater dripping through its ceiling. It doesn’t take half a brain to realize that a monstrosity that is an SM Mall, an SM Hypermart, or an SMDC condominium will affect the ecology of a given space, and that has to be the premise of any development at all. How will it affect the city in which it rises? How will it affect where rain might fall, where water might go, where trash will be thrown? What kind of congestion will it create?
I’m the last person to blame SM for everything that is wrong about the landscape of this city. As I do think that in the end it is the local governments that approve these SM developments, it is the people who sell their land and buildings to SM, who should be more responsible about having them build a mall (or a grocery, or a condo) where no one has before.
Because there is such a thing as talking to SM and SMDC. There is such a thing as controlling the kind of developments that they want to imagine for this country. There was Olivier Ochanine after all, chief conductor and musical conductor of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, talking SMDC into saving the Phil-Am Life Theater. There is too the wonderfully un-SM Hypermart in the middle of Sta. Ana Manila, that disappears into the landscape of the local market and commerce, not at all a monstrosity out to eat local business alive. That same SM Hypermart has a heritage site to one side of its structure, and has also kept an old tree alive and well, amidst the development.
In the end too, the task at hand is to plan our cities better, yes? To imagine what any given city might look like, and how development should happen. Approving an SM or SMDC development shouldn’t just be about the taxes to be gained through it, or the kind of jobs this will generate for the populace. It should be about the bigger picture of a community that will not be adversely affected, in any way, by the monster of a mall.
On the way back to Manila, we took the road less traveled, a highway that passes through the towns of Liliw, San Pablo, Calauan, Los Baños. It was my first time on that highway, and was just about enjoying the lack of heavy traffic, when we hit a choke point in Calamba, from where we were supposed to exit to SLEX. It was confusing too, that one needed to do a strange u-turn to get to that exit, and as we did what the confusing arrows were telling us, it suddenly became clear why there was this build-up.
Lo and behold, there was SM City Calamba.