Great cities all over the world recognize that pedestrians are the priority. Cities that are walkable are healthier, happier and more attractive for investment and for a skilled and talented labor force.
What are progressive cities doing? Rather than widening roads for cars, sidewalks are widened. Instead of building elevated crosswalks so that cars can travel with fewer interruptions, ground-level crosswalks are preserved and expanded so that pedestrians (especially the elderly, mothers using strollers, and persons with disabilities) have better access. In place of parking lots and expressways, the cities are creating car-free zones and linear parks, offering citizens additional green space, safe playgrounds and more venues for recreation.
Interestingly enough, cities that have reduced their road space for cars (a practice known as “road diet”) to favor sustainable mobility options (walking, cycling and mass transit) have ended up with much less traffic. Instead of road reduction bringing more congestion, the results have been the opposite—smoother traffic flow and more efficient movement of people.
With Congress preparing the 2020 budget and with local governments newly installed, we should remind our local leaders, legislators, and transport officials that among the most visible, cost-effective, quick-gestation, pro-poor, climate-friendly and high impact public investments are sidewalks–if possible, designed with leafy trees for shade.
And given that hundreds of kilometers of road in Metro Manila are currently being cleared of illegally-parked vehicles and unauthorized structures, there is huge opportunity to transform the road space into proper sidewalks (and bicycle lanes) rather than additional lanes for cars.
Freeing up road space for cars benefits mainly more affluent Filipinos, attracts greater car use, and leads eventually to more traffic congestion. If the freed-up road space is used instead to encourage alternative travel modes (public transport, walking or cycling), the economic benefits are distributed more broadly.
More importantly, the promotion of non-car mobility options helps to reduce the demand for car use, leading to less traffic congestion.
Last week, the following tweet on this subject by Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Marvic Leonen went viral: “After an exhaustive analysis, various experts have come to a common solution to solve vehicular traffic–
walking. I propose a massive infrastructure program that privileges pedestrians which consists of clearing sidewalks, creating a network of covered walks and replanting trees along these walks. Pedestrians before cars.”
“In Metro Manila, sidewalks are used as parking spaces for cars. More roads are built for cars. Walking is discouraged or made dangerous. Taxpayers actually subsidize private car owners when they are allowed to park on sidewalks and roads. The true cost of owning a car is not borne by the car owner. This plus easy financing provided by car companies to own a car contributes to traffic.”
“Those with cars burn carbon and incrementally contribute to air pollution. However, they are protected from its immediate consequences. The pedestrian and commuter who cannot afford suffer the consequences.”
In his brief message, Justice Leonen underscored one of the glaring inequities in Philippine public
spending: When hundreds of billions in public funds are spent annually on roads and bridges for cars, this pattern of expenditure delivers a huge subsidy to the small minority of car users—already the most affluent in our society. A more equitable and environmentally-sustainable expenditure program would be achieved with more resources devoted to public transport services, walkways and bike paths.
I’d like to use the rest of this column to capture parts of a Facebook post by Philip Peckson, instructor of urban humanities and literature at the University of Asia and the Pacific. This was Philip’s reaction to Marvic Leonen’s tweet:
“Finally, an eminent Filipino has put his weight behind this fact long known by urbanists worldwide. But turning sidewalks and roadsides into parking lots is only one of many freebies cars enjoy at the public’s expense. Think about this: I am driving from Ortigas to Powerplant at 6 PM on a weekday. My route takes me through EDSA, the narrow roads of Mandaluyong, over the Makati-Mandaluyong bridge, JP Rizal, and finally into Powerplant Mall’s underground parking garage.”
“So, who has paid for my car trip? The costs are not just my car’s sticker price, fuel, and maintenance. There’s the bus rider on EDSA giving up his time for me, because I take up nearly 1/2 the space of a bus while moving only 1/50th the number of people.”
“There are the flyovers and underpasses I use that cost taxpayers a couple of hundred million, even if they benefit only private cars and are closed to public transport.”
“What about those who live along the narrow Mandaluyong roads leading to the bridge? They put up with the congestion, pollution, noise, and endangerment I cause when passing through. And I’ve passed through several times but have never stopped to patronize local business. I contribute nothing to the neighborhood but fumes, danger, and congestion.”
“And there’s Rockwell itself, Rockwell who has spent billions on parking facilities for drivers who tend to think ‘expensive’ the $1 parking fee for three hours at the mall. So, what does Rockwell do? Recoup the costs from tenants, and tenants recoup their costs from customers. So, next time you walk or bike to Powerplant (or any Manila mall) for a milk tea, remember that a small fraction of your bill subsidizes the cheap parking of visitors like me. Some of those pearls are for the parkers.”
“If drivers begin paying the true cost of their driving, then all the money generated from that should be put into high-quality walking paths and sidewalks, protected bike lanes, parks, and mass transport. In short, drivers should pay the majority of the cost for building infrastructure that will entice them to leave their cars.”
The messages of Marvic Leonen and Philip Peckson highlight three key principles: 1) roads should be designed to address the needs of all users, especially the vast majority who are pedestrians, cyclists and users of public transport; 2) car users should pay for the real cost of car driving which include the added congestion, pollution, risk of collision, and the road wear-and-tear; and 3) the amounts collected from car users should be used to enhance the attractiveness of walking, cycling and public transport. The solutions to our traffic and mobility problems are found in these principles.
Robert Y. Siy is a development economist, city and regional planner, and public transport advocate. He can be reached at email@example.com or followed on Twitter @RobertRsiy