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Can Metro Manila mayors solve traffic in 60 days?


The 2019 State of the Nation Address of President Duterte included a directive to the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) and Metro Manila mayors to solve traffic. A few days later, the Department of Interior and
Local Government announced they would be issuing a memorandum ordering the mayors to audit their roads and clear their streets of illegally-parked vehicles. Mayors who fail to solve the traffic problem in their cities within 60 days would be recommended for suspension.

Improving mobility and alleviating traffic require much more than clearing roads of obstructions. We need to have a lasting solution, not just a palliative. Removing illegally parked vehicles can help, but it will have minimal effect on congestion if all it does is create more road space for cars (the least efficient use of road space).

To place the burden entirely on the mayors would be unfair. While cities and mayors definitely have a role in addressing traffic congestion, the national agencies such as the Department of Transportation (DOTr) and
Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) need to be a big part of the solution.

More road space for cars attracts further car use; before we know it, we are back to the same level of congestion. The better option would be to use the “freed-up” road space for improved public transport, walking or cycling.

The theme should be “Kalsada Para Sa Lahat”—roads for all users, not only for the wealthy who have access to cars.

In a metropolis like Manila, there is a lot of “suppressed” or “pent-up” travel demand—all of us limit or restrict our daily journeys because getting around the city is so difficult and time-consuming. If car travel is eased by additional road space, car owners will naturally increase their rate of car use; soon after, more cars will be back on the road. This is known as the principle of induced demand.

If we try to solve traffic by expanding roads for cars, it is like “buying bigger pants to cure obesity.” Instead, we need streets that will provide sustainable transportation options to meet the needs of different segments of our society. This boils down to doing three things:

1) Make walking, cycling and public transport attractive, convenient and safe so they become the preferred choices for the regular travel of Metro Manila commuters, even if they own a car or motorcycle.

2) Introduce measures that discourage car use, such as road congestion charges (such as in Singapore and London) and taxes on non-residential parking spaces.

3) Create dense, multi-use neighborhoods that enable people to reach their jobs, shopping and essential services with fewer and shorter trips.

We already know that a big reason for traffic congestion in Metro Manila is the poor quality of public transport. In general, using public transport in Metro Manila during rush hour is an ordeal, with lots of inconvenience and unpredictability. As a result, most public transport users aspire to have a private car as soon as they can afford to.

Except for franchising of tricycles, city governments have very little control over public transport services; public transport is largely the purview of national agencies such as DOTr and the Land Transport Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB). For traffic and mobility to be improved in Metro Manila, the national agencies need to work closely with local government units (LGUs) and MMDA to raise the quality of public transport and make it attractive for all. Mayors cannot do this on their own.

Throughout the country, DOTr is working furiously to improve rail-based public transport. A lot is happening with the expansion of LRT1 and LRT2, the upgrading of MRT3, the rehabilitation of the PNR system, and the addition of MRT7 and the Metro Manila Subway. However, even with the completion of these big and small rail projects, trains will be able to serve less than a quarter of the public transport needs in the metropolis.

If rail services are the only public transport with predictable travel times, trains will continue to be jam-packed with commuters. Long queues and overcrowded trains will not attract car users to shift to public transport. Both road-based and rail-based public transport should be high quality and abundant, so that car users will leave their cars at home.

The Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program (PUVMP) is a big step in the right direction– PUVMP will not only replace the old, polluting, unsafe vehicle fleet, it will also transform the industry business model to one that is free of hazardous and inefficient on-street competition.

But PUVMP needs more resources and technical support, so that implementation can be accelerated. The subsidy for old vehicle replacement should be substantially increased; a scrappage program (to dispose of old polluting transport vehicles properly) is missing; capacity building and technical assistance for local government units and for transport operators and drivers should be ramped up. But this is not enough.

Where possible, buses and jeepneys should be predictable, convenient and fast. All over the world, this is best achieved by creating dedicated lanes for public transport, so that buses are separated from “friction” with private motor vehicles.

On congested roads, the solution is to assign a lane for the exclusive use of public transport vehicles, so they can move a larger number of people. Instead of all lanes being clogged with cars and other vehicles, allow one lane to flow freely with high capacity public transport. This way, car users in traffic will think, “If I took that bus, I could be home by now.” This is the key principle behind bus rapid transit or BRT.

At the same time, MMDA and the 17 LGUs of Metro Manila need to focus on policies and projects to promote walking and cycling in every neighborhood—with the aim of creating a network of safe walkways and bikeways that connect different parts of the city. Clearing Metro Manila roads of illegal structures and illegal parking provides the best opportunity to make our metropolis pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.

Many car users and commuters would gladly switch to a bicycle if safe bike lanes were found all over the city. Similarly, the absence of proper sidewalks has discouraged many people from walking and using public transport.

In planning this integrated network for “active transport”, MMDA has an important coordinating role. Imagine, if each LGU in Metro Manila were to develop 10 kilometers of protected bike lanes every year (needing only a tiny fraction of each LGU’s budget), our metropolis would have a safe cycling network of over 500 kilometers before the end of the Duterte administration. This is the kind of transportation infrastructure we need to transform the character of Metro Manila and make it livable.

MMDA and the Metro Manila local governments can definitely do a lot to improve traffic. But LGUs cannot be the only ones accountable for any failure to solve traffic. The national agencies need to play their parts in pursuing inclusive and sustainable mobility for all—not just for people who have cars.

Robert Y. Siy is a development economist, city and regional planner, and public transport advocate. He can be reached at mobilitymatters.ph@yahoo.com or followed on Twitter @RobertRsiy

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