ALTHOUGH virtually no one in and around Metro Manila seems to be enthusiastic about it at all, we have at this point resigned ourselves to facing several days of appalling traffic gridlock next week, as the excessive “preparations” for the APEC summit will render several main roads and entire sections of the city inaccessible.
Given that a relatively small part of the population will actually have the means and the leisure to take the government’s suggestion and leave town during the four days of APEC events, the general consensus is that what we will experience in trying to move around and carry on our day-to-day business will remove any remaining doubts that the capacity of the road network in the metropolis has been exceeded many times over. With limited space for new roads and even tighter limits on how much the existing streets and highways can be upgraded to accommodate a constantly growing number of vehicles, the problem appears to be intractable – no matter what the government attempts, our road infrastructure will always be woefully inadequate, and traffic congestion a fact of life.
The most obvious solution, though an incomplete one, is to greatly expand and improve the system of public transportation: Building more and better light rail lines, and replacing outmoded, low-capacity, and environmentally harmful jeepneys and tricycles with cleaner and more efficient types of vehicles. Hardly anyone would disagree with this; even the Aquino Administration, as hopelessly incompetent and corrupt as it has been with respect to maintaining and managing infrastructure, acknowledges that public transportation needs to be improved.
To make a complete solution, however, we must address the issue most seem to wish to avoid, the “elephant on the road,” so to speak: The excessive and constantly growing number of private automobiles that make up the greater part (about 70 percent according to most estimates) of Metro Manila’s road traffic.
This is a most delicate issue, which is perhaps why the few attempts to address it so far have involved silly and instantly forgettable ideas such as requiring all car buyers to own a parking space, or organizing a “coding” system based on car brands. Nobody wants to discourage the growth of the auto industry here in the Philippines, because it creates a critical value chain across the economy. Likewise, nobody wants to discourage Filipino consumers from investing their hard-earned money in durable goods produced or assembled here; that likewise has significant positive impact on the economy.
But are we experiencing “too much of a good thing?” The current state of our snarled traffic around Metro Manila – and for that matter, in other populated places in the country – certainly suggests we are; and if the auto sector continues to grow as we all hope it does, the prognosis for a future in which Filipino car owners can actually enjoy owning and using their vehicles does not look good.
There is no easy answer to the dilemma, but we believe the best time to examine it is now, when plans are being laid for a new national administration. Development strategies and policies that sustainably work to the mutual advantage of a growing manufacturing sector, the consumer market, and all road users should be the nation’s goal, and approached with the seriousness the issue demands.
But we must stress that reduction of cars can only be accepted when good, clean, efficient public utility vehicles–trains, buses, minibuses, etc.– have become available as in Hong Kong and Singapore and other cities.