Metro Manila’s monstrous traffic jams

The lurking menace to health and economy

1

(First of two parts)

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trafficWe may all be aware of the health hazards of traffic jams to some extent, how air pollution brought about by hundreds of thousands of vehicles in gridlock at almost all intersections of Metro Manila streets during peak hours cause lung problems, in addition to kidney and heart troubles.

But very few would probably know the magnitude of economic losses the Philippines also suffers from the road bottlenecks that at certain hours of the day paralyze industries and social services.

Traffic jams have been wreaking havoc on the economy as well as people’s lives.

In  2011 alone, Metro  Manila  lost  P137.5  billion  to  traffic  congestion,  according  to  the  National  Center  for Transportation Studies (NCTS).

For the past 11  years,  cumulative losses  have reached P1.5  trillion,  with  fuel losses accounting for P4.2 billion. The NCTS traces the heavy losses to the delayed transport of goods and services.

The problem is expected to worsen, with experts predicting the Philippines will lose P6 billion a day in 2030 due to traffic jams.

The  World  Health  Organization  (WHO)  said  air  pollution  is  killing  millions  worldwide,  including  those  in developing countries like the Philippines.

The  Metropolitan  Manila  Development  Authority  (MMDA)  said  dirty  air  threatens  the  lives  of  12  million residents.

By 2030, the number of local commuters would reach about 7.4 million a day, according to the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a staggering figure that the country’s current transportation system cannot handle.

The MMDA had admitted that “major roads are no longer sufficient to accommodate the rapidly rising traffic volume.”

Compounding the problem are old traffic signals, bad roads and the absence of an efficient public transportation system. But the biggest drawback appears to be the lack of discipline among drivers.

Corruption also plays a big role. Many motorists believe they can get away with traffic violations since traffic enforcers are easily bribed.
One solution proposed by Shizuo Iwata, JICA consultant, is to make good use of the railway system so it can accommodate 41 percent of passengers while public transport (jeeps and buses) and cars should carry 33 percent and 26 percent of passengers, respectively.

The MMDA is doing its share in decongesting traffic by moving bus terminals away from EDSA, going after illegal and unregistered vehicles, and pursuing infrastructure projects to make traveling more pleasant.

According to the MMDA, Metro Manila has a population of 12 million at night and 15 million during the day. Most of the people use the roads, but the effects of traffic congestion are clearly seen and felt along EDSA where over two million vehicles, including 12,000 buses, pass daily.

At peak hours, vehicular speed drops to five kilometers per hour. A small accident at a busy intersection can paralyze traffic for hours.

Immediate action is needed because Metro Manila’s last major road rehabilitation program occurred over 20 years ago. Although a lot of improvements have been made since, these cannot cope with the growing number of malls and establishments that contribute to the clogging of EDSA.

The spillover effect of cars from congested roads to secondary roads and side streets also affects quiet neighborhoods and lowers real estate prices.

Invisible danger

But even more disturbing are the invisible effects of heavy traffic on the health and well-being of Filipinos.

Air pollution worsened because of the millions of vehicles on the road. Despite the government crackdown on smoke belchers and attempts to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, the MMDA said air pollution remains a big threat to Metro Manila residents.

The WHO defines air pollution as the contamination of the indoor or outdoor environment by chemical, physical or biological means. Many cars pollute the air by spewing out ozone, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

Worldwide, dirty air killed seven million people in 2012. Deaths from outdoor air pollution are caused mainly by ischemic heart disease (40 percent); stroke (40 percent), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (11 percent), lung cancer (six percent), and acute lower respiratory infections (three percent).

In a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in October 2013, Michael Brauer of the School of Population and Public Health, University of British Columbia, and his colleagues blamed traffic-related air pollution for the development of asthma in both children and adults.

The authors said that in Canada alone, more people die prematurely from air pollution than from traffic accidents. The problem affects about 10 million people or 32 percent of the population who live near highways or major roads where they are exposed to elevated levels of pollution.

In another study, Jonathan I. Levy, professor of environmental health in the Department of Environmental Health at Boston University School of Public Health, looked at the economic costs of traffic congestion that is experienced not only in the United States but around the world.

Levy and his colleagues studied the effects of traffic congestion-related pollution in 83 cities and found that pollutants in motor vehicle emissions caused 4,000 premature deaths in 2000 and approximately $31 billion in health costs.

By 2020, they predict that there will be 1,600 premature deaths and $13 billion in total social costs due to the traffic problem. These numbers are expected to drop with the use of cleaner vehicles with lower emissions, but researchers said this is only a temporary effect.

Those figures are expected to rise to 1,900 premature deaths and $17 billion in costs in 2030.

From bad to worse

The Philippines is not the only country where heavy traffic is a big problem. In 2011, The Guardian reported that there were a billion cars on the planet. In 2010, 35 million new vehicles were sold worldwide. That translates to over 95,000 more cars being added to the planet daily.

Almost half of these new vehicles came from China that is considered the fastest growing market for vehicles.

While efforts to push fuel-efficient green cars with reduced emissions are being made to save the Earth, not too many of these vehicles have been sold. Take the Prius, which is considered the world’s most commercially successful hybrid car. In 2010, Toyota managed to sell only one unit in China where sports utility vehicle sales are increasing.

“Despite all the promises of green growth and reduced emissions, traditional car sales are accelerating, while efforts to shift towards ‘greener’ hybrid and electric vehicles are stuck in neutral, particularly in the place where it matters most,” The Guardian said.

Today, the situation has gone from bad to worse. In 2012, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) said the country lost P2.4 billion a day due to traffic problems and it seems unlikely that things will improve in the near future.

Particle pollution

Most of the ill-effects associated with motor vehicle emissions come from particle pollution (also known as particulate matter or PM). PM is made up of solid particles or liquid droplets that float in the air. Large particles like dust, dirt or smoke are visible but the small ones can only be seen with an electron microscope.

“These particles come in many sizes and shapes and can be made up of hundreds of different chemicals. Some particles, known as primary particles, are emitted directly from a source, such as construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, smokestacks or fires.

Others form in complicated reactions in the atmosphere of chemicals such as sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides that are emitted from power plants, industries and automobiles. These particles, known as secondary particles, make up most of the fine particle pollution,” according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Fine particles from cars are 30 times smaller than human hair. When these almost invisible particles enter the lungs through the nose or throat, they cause a host of health problems like premature deaths in people with heart or lung disease, heart attacks, irregular heartbeats, asthma, decreased lung function, and respiratory symptoms like coughing or difficulty breathing.

“People with heart or lung diseases, children and older adults are most likely to be affected by particle pollution exposure. However, even if you are healthy, you may experience temporary symptoms from exposure to elevated levels of particle pollution,” EPA said.

(Tomorrow: Increasing road rage incidents alarm officials)

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