IN the field of transportation and mobility, we need to ask ourselves if we are all working with the same goals and vision, and if we are pursuing a future where most Filipinos move around in private cars.
With the level of congestion on our streets now, any increase in the number of motor vehicles will only make things worse. To keep pace with the current average daily increase in vehicles would mean building at least 10 kilometers of roads every day, which is not feasible.
A future in which most Filipinos are traveling by private car would leave our cities dealing with miserable gridlock. And yet this seems to be where we are headed, unless we clarify our mobility objectives.
If car use continues to grow, then we know we are moving backward — worsening traffic congestion and pollution, increasing greenhouse gas emissions and deteriorating commuter welfare. We know we are moving forward when the numbers reveal a “modal shift,” where car users are willing to abandon their private vehicles and adopt more efficient transport modes.
Improved mobility is derived from investments that draw more people into cycling, walking and using public transportation. Because our road space is limited, we need to choose the most efficient modes of transportation. One road lane for private cars will move only about 1,000 to 2,000 people an hour; for bicycles, 7,500 people an hour. If the road space is used exclusively by pedestrians, up to 9,000 people an hour can pass; and by buses, over 20,000 people an hour.
When we assign roads and bridges mainly to private cars, we are delivering a huge subsidy to the wealthiest segment of our society, the 10 percent of Filipino households who own cars. Significant resources were expended in creating our road networks, so it makes sense for these public assets to be used for the benefit of all Filipinos, especially those who are less economically advantaged.
We therefore need to apply a critical lens to our efforts to improve mobility and solve traffic congestion. If our investments support greater private vehicle use, then we moving in the wrong direction and making matters worse.
A good example is the aggressive effort of some city mayors and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority to clear all roads of illegally parked vehicles. If the freed-up space is used to facilitate the movement of cars, this will encourage more car usage. Before long, the available road space will be taken up by more vehicles, and the level of congestion would remain the same, if not worse. But if this space is used for widening sidewalks, developing protected bicycle lanes or creating dedicated lanes for public transport, then we are making these non-car mobility options more attractive and promoting a shift from car use.
The same applies to the new transport infrastructure that the government is creating today under its “Build, Build, Build” program. Some investments will lead to increased car use and worsening congestion; others will promote increased mobility by making public transport, walking or cycling more desirable than using a private car.
In some cases, the impact on traffic would depend on how a particular piece of infrastructure would be utilized. Take, for example, the 13 new bridges being built across the Pasig River. If the bridges are used mainly for cars, they will be choked with these vehicles in no time, bringing no positive change to our mobility environment. Once heavily congested, these new bridges would have little chance to achieve their desired throughput of people and goods.
But if some of these new bridges are dedicated to public transport, pedestrians and bicycles, they would serve as catalysts for the transformation of our metropolis, creating new ways to travel efficiently around the city. There would be opportunities for establishing new pedestrian and bicycle lane networks and for new public transport routes.
Used differently, a bridge can deliver higher economic benefits. A bridge devoted to public transport, pedestrians and bicycles can move five to ten times more people in the same time period than that to cars, and with far less energy and pollution. More important, it would motivate people to shift from using cars to using a healthier and more climate-friendly travel option.
As we review our infrastructure plans, let us shun those investments that serve mainly car users and ultimately attract more congestion. Let us choose those investments that encourage walking, cycling and using public transportation. Let’s make sure public funds are used to enhance our mobility, rather than to create more traffic.
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