Monday, June 13, 2011

Out with the car

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer
June 13, 2011

Older people in Manila can remember the acacia trees that lined Taft Avenue before the cars and elevated train took over. They can remember, if they are somewhat older, the trolleys that ran through Sta. Ana, with bells tinkling gently like those of ice cream vendors. Jesuits, including Bishop Federico Escaler, remember the Pasig River when you could see clear to the sandy bottom and could swim with schools of colored fish. Behn Cervantes, writing in BusinessWorld, recalls the beauty of Quiapo. He remembers “the stately homes beside the streams that connected to the Pasig.” Now these streams are called esteros and no one wants to live near them. “Quiapo was a verdant area described in vintage poems,” Cervantes tells us. Most Asian cities had similar areas.

Such were Asian cities before they committed themselves uncritically to the automobile and to the flyovers, underpasses, tunnels, superhighways and parking lots the automobile demands. There were problems back then, but there were also quiet, gracious places people would remember all their lives. Who will remember Taft Avenue as it is now or Quiapo? Our passion for the car may in the end prove to have been a huge and costly mistake.

Asian cities, after having spent billions of baht, won, pesos and rupees on transportation infrastructure, are still clogged with traffic. In addition to traffic jams, the automobile has proven to be the No. 1 cause of pollution in Manila and other Asian cities.

Bangkok has done everything possible to accommodate the car. It has denied resources to its impoverished Northeast region in order to care for the needs of the car. In Bangkok drivers can go from one end of the city non-stop to the other in great comfort on elevated roads, but when they come down to ground level, as they must, they run into the same old traffic jams.

People in the Philippines should ask themselves: Would we be better off today if the government had improved irrigation and developed first-class health and education systems over the past years instead of building all those flyovers, etc.? Food would be cheaper surely, with enough for everyone. Our children would be among Asia’s wisest and healthiest.

Is there an alternative to cars? People who can go to the moon and Mars should be able to find one. The following suggestion may not be exactly what we are looking for, but it is only a start. Thomas Edison experimented with hundreds of materials before he found the proper filament for his electric light. It is important to start discussing solutions. If we discuss and search diligently, a realistic alternative will be found. Remember the movie “Field of Dreams” with Kevin Costner, and the heavenly voice that said, “Build the field and they [the old players] will come.” If we search for a good alternative, we have a very good chance of finding it.

This alternative begins by limiting the number of car owners to 25,000, instead of the hundreds of thousands who now have cars. This relatively small number will include our business, political and cultural elite. It is unfair, perhaps, but if we insist on the elite giving up their cars, there will be no progress. These 25,000 persons are able to block any effort to limit car use, if they are adversely affected, like they have limited wages, land reform legislation, urban poor housing and other social justice matters. On the other hand, if the 25,000 are not affected, but are able to keep their cars and have near-traffic-free streets to zip back and forth to work and recreation, they will support the alternative.

There will be special cars set aside for the emergency needs of ordinary people.

For car owners who are not part of the 25,000, we can offer a package of benefits. They can keep their cars for use out of town or in their own neighborhoods. They will not be allowed on Edsa or on major roads. Instead they will be given free rides for five years in a new fleet of air-conditioned buses that will take the workers home from Makati to Cubao, Marikina and Alabang in less than 20 minutes. They can nap or read the papers on the way.

Car owners on average can save up to P150,000 a year on gas and maintenance. In 10 years or less without the use of cars they will be millionaires.

The country can save the money designated for flyovers and highways and put it to much better use. Do we need C-6 or C-10 if there are only 25,000 cars? The money can be used for investments that benefit all of the people. We need irrigation, inexpensive energy, better and affordable medical services and better salaried teachers. We must give our poor a better chance in life. Just think of the money that will be saved on gasoline alone and the improved services such money can provide.

With fewer cars on the streets, it will be attractive to use bicycles. For those who want to mix their travel and exercise this alternative will be attractive. They can have their own lane. We’ll be the healthiest people in Asia.

We must keep looking for alternatives. Someone among us has the answer.

Finally, every person in the Metro Manila area will breathe clean and healthy air once again if we can limit the number of cars.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is

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