From time to time, we hear assurances that a new road, expressway or bridge will reduce traffic in our metropolis. Yes, perhaps for a brief period. But, before long, the new or expanded roadway will be flooded with cars. This is because there is a lot of suppressed travel demand within our cities.
If travel around our cities were easier, less costly or less time-consuming, people would definitely take more trips. Most people today deliberately curtail the frequency and extent of their travel because moving around Metro Manila has become slow, tiring and unpredictable.
We can observe this pattern in our own decision-making. We limit the number of trips we have in a day or week because moving around our city is so difficult. If it were otherwise, we would probably be seeing our friends and relatives more regularly; we would use leisure time to explore more parts of our city; and we would have a wider range of activities and destinations.
A lot of the pent-up demand is also related to the number of new cars being bought all year round. In a year, there are over 400,000 new cars added to the country’s motor vehicle population; more than half end up in Greater Manila. This translates to over 500 cars added daily to the population of vehicles in this metropolis.
The pressure to use private motor vehicles is also linked to the quality and availability of public transport and options such as walking and cycling. Because Philippine public transport is of such poor quality and because pedestrian and cycling is poor or non-existent, the preferred option for our daily journeys is a private motor vehicle.
Given the large suppressed demand, once a new road or bridge enables faster or more convenient travel, it does not take much time for the suppressed demand to be activated — people take more trips whenever the difficulty of travel is temporarily eased. Before long, additional vehicles on the road consume all the additional road space that was created — and traffic is back to its former bad state or worse. Building more roads to ease traffic is like buying bigger pants to fight obesity.
What this also means is that the current travel patterns of urban Filipinos reflect only part of the potential or real travel demand. The number of trips that Filipinos take to move around our cities today is perhaps only half of what the actual demand would be if travel were faster, safer, more reliable, and less onerous.
In this context, investing in infrastructure for cars has little impact on solving traffic; in fact, it can make things worse. Public officials and private sector proponents who promise no more traffic after new bridges, expressways or alternate routes are built are very much into wishful thinking.
Instead, we should focus our investments on enhancing the availability and attractiveness of non-car mobility options — public transport, walking and cycling. The aim is to get people to abandon the use of private motor vehicles in favor of travel options that are low emission, health-promoting, and climate-friendly.
The other point about suppressed demand is that Greater Manila needs a lot more public transport capacity — much more than is currently planned. Already, the number of passenger trips in Greater Manila is about 25 million today — this includes trips by car and all forms of public transport. This demand will grow easily to over 30 million trips within the next five to ten years.
To deliver 30 million trips daily within Greater Manila, the priority investments in the coming decade should be in infrastructure for high quality public transport, walking and cycling — these travel modes (not private cars) are what can deliver the people throughput required. The challenge will be to make these efficient modes (walking, cycling and public transport) safe, convenient and attractive, so they will be preferred over private car use.
In broad strokes and to enable longer term planning, the target in ten years could be to have 10 million trips by walking or cycling; 10 million trips on modern buses and mini-buses, with most using dedicated lanes; and 10 million trips on high quality urban rail. To achieve these targets, the budget mix needs to change as well.
A large part of the Department of PublicWorks and Highway’s budget of P534 billion should shift from car-oriented infrastructure into investments in networks of safe footpaths and protected bicycle lanes that can take people to and from their destinations. Investments in “active transport” are highly desirable and economically attractive because they are low cost, short gestation, high visibility, climate-friendly, health-promoting and pro-poor. Existing roads and bridges can be “re-purposed” so that more road space is shared with pedestrians and cyclists.
Ninety-eight percent of the Department of Transportation’s (DOTr) proposed 2020 budget of P147 billion is devoted to the rail sector. Even though buses and jeepneys carry the majority of all land transport passenger volume nationwide, only P101 million of DOTr’s 2020 budget is devoted to road-based public transport. This is a serious oversight that should be rectified in future budgets.
DOTr’s investments in railway projects are urgently needed, but rail services cannot hope to cover most of urban travel needs. Even with all the ongoing and approved Metro Manila rail projects, only a small fraction of total travel demand will be served. And if rail projects are the only transit modes with reliable travel times, the train lines will have even longer queues than they have today.
Planning for the future means recognizing and addressing the huge travel demand that is currently suppressed. If the suppressed travel demand is released by building more roads and bridges for cars, we are only feeding the sources of our mobility crisis. Any suppressed demand should be channeled into efficient and environmentally-sustainable modes of transport — walking, cycling and public transport — rather than into private car use. We can only accomplish this goal if these desirable transport modes become high quality and abundant.
Robert Y. Siy is a development economist, city and regional planner, and public transport advocate. He can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @RobertRsiy.