Friday, February 21, 2014

Trapped in unbreakable gridlock

Denis Murphy

One day the long lines of cars taking people home from work at the end of the day will slow to a crawl and finally stop. The roar of traffic will cease and a silence, alarming in its completeness, will take over. Soon one or two drivers will blow their horns in annoyance and then all the drivers will unite in a piteous plea to the gods of traffic to come to their aid. There will be no answer; the gods have left Edsa, C-5 and all of Metro Manila. They leave behind hundreds of thousands of cars trapped in unbreakable gridlock. The cars we were so proud of are now junk for the ages.

We should have known this moment was coming when we found that young bankers in Marikina must leave their houses at 6 a.m. to get to their offices in Makati by 9 a.m. Lawyers in Novaliches must leave their homes at 5:30 a.m. to get to a hearing in Makati at 8:30. There are no longer special rush hours; there are traffic jams at high noon and late at night.

We should have come to our senses when we found we were spending more money on parking spaces in Metro Manila than on the housing of poor families. The first six floors of the new Napolcom building at Edsa and Quezon Boulevard, for example, are given to parking cars. Whole buildings are given over to parking. The costs involved far outweigh the funds given to housing the poor.

We should have realized traffic was moving toward a tragic crisis when we saw increasing examples of road rage. Recently on Edsa, two businessmen crashed into each other. The two leapt out of their cars, drew their guns, and started firing. Unfortunately, an innocent passerby was injured. The two gunmen must have had their guns on the seat beside them, ready for action.

We should have realized that in a poor country where there isn’t enough food or medicine for every child, we should not keep spending money to build the flyovers, tunnels and elevated highways the cars demand. We barely managed in the past to keep up with the increase in cars, but we are falling behind (traffic is slowing): The patient is dying. The Department of Public Works and Highways estimates that it will have spent P1 trillion (12 zeros) on highways from 2011 to 2016 (Urban Roads Project Office). President Aquino has given the urban poor of Metro Manila affected by flooding P50 billion for the same five years, which is 5 percent of the total given the cars. The money given the poor is appreciated, but it is clear that the housing fund pales in comparison with that given to highways and cars. We can’t compare the two amounts in every regard, and there are other funding to be figured in, but the comparison gives some idea of the imbalances involved.

Finally, we should have stopped and taken a good hard look at our traffic problem when the Japan International Cooperation Agency told us that P2 billion was being wasted each day in Metro Manila because of the terrible traffic-fuel losses and unused work hours.

What must be done? The starting datum for a fruitful discussion must be that there are simply too many cars, and their number must be radically reduced, by up to half perhaps. There will be no hope of smooth-flowing traffic ever again if the cars are not seriously culled. Cars are the heart of the problem. Trucks, buses, bad driving habits, poorly-maintained vehicles and bad policing are much less crucial. In Metro Manila, 1.6 million cars were registered last year (DOTC/LTO, September 2013). If the number is limited significantly, we will not need new, expensive infrastructure; the present highways and flyovers will be enough. The money saved can be used for a first-class bus system. The reduced number of cars will allow for speed. Our young businessmen and lawyers will be able to board an air-conditioned bus near Cubao and arrive in Makati in 20 minutes, just enough time to read the papers.

How do we limit the cars? We must limit them, so there must be a way:

• We can do it through fees. If you wish to take your car on Edsa or other main arteries on work days, you pay a steep fee. To make this scheme acceptable, there must be a good public transport system as an alternative. Fees and new transport must appear at the same time. Singapore and other cities have used this method.

• The government buys back cars beginning with the oldest models. In addition, it gives the owners a lifetime free pass on the new bus system it will put in place. It offers other inducements as necessary.

• Up to 6 a.m. cars can travel freely. After 6 a.m. they must have special licenses. After 10 p.m. they can drive freely.
The prospect of a complete breakdown of traffic may seem farfetched, but remember, we once thought typhoons with 300-kph winds and seven-meter-high storm surges were far-fetched until Supertyphoon “Yolanda” leveled the Visayas. We need our creative people, young and old, to put their minds to this problem: How do we limit cars so that our traffic transport system can get us where we want to go swiftly and comfortably? In New York they now charge $14 to cross a bridge in a car, and $28 back and forth. It has lowered the number of cars coming into the city.

This is not a wacky search. We must limit cars, or you will look out the window someday and see an unbreakable Gordian Knot of stalled traffic.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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