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Manila's traffic chaos

Publication Date : 02-10-2012


To describe Metro Manila’s traffic condition as chaotic is an understatement. The pitiful, everyday sight of jampacked LRT and MRT trains is glaring proof of the miserable state of public transport in the metropolis. Add to this the crawling traffic on Metro Manila’s main thoroughfares like Edsa, and the despicable picture is complete.

The cost of massive traffic congestion is enormous: 137.5 billion pesos (US$3.3 billion) in Metro Manila alone in 2011, a study done by the National centre for Transportation Studies (NCTS) of the University of the Philippines estimated.

The lame excuse that the Metro Manila Development Authority and the Department of Transportation and Communications readily offer is, there are too many vehicles in the national capital region, and the roads are no longer enough to accommodate them. Understandably, a solution often suggested is to expand Metro Manila’s road capacity.

This was what President Benigno Aquino had in mind when he issued last February Executive Order 67. The EO called for the establishment of the Integrated Transport System (ITS) that would interconnect mass transport systems in Metro Manila.

It must be noted that many infrastructure projects to address the traffic problem should have been put in place years ago. among these, the LRT Lines 1 and 2 extensions, the MRT 7 that will run from Edsa to San Jose del Monte in Bulacan, an elevated highway on Edsa, the NLEx-SLEx connector road, and the NorthRail project linking Metro Manila and Clark in Pampanga.

To be sure, these projects will take years to build, not to mention the long period required to get government approval and the necessary funding. Besides, expanding the capacity of the transport system will solve only part of the problem.

This brings to mind an insightful paper on the current state of Metro Manila’s transport system. The paper advances the view that traffic congestion in Metro Manila is not, first and foremost, a problem of capacity, but a problem of efficiency. Michael Brown, a retired American law enforcement officer and a longtime resident of Metro Manila, says Los Angeles, New York and London all experience congestion.

But there is one big difference between the way traffic moves in those places and the way it does in Manila. In those cities, he notes, discipline (both self-imposed and enforced) keeps the system orderly. Intersections function effectively and lines of traffic, although heavy, cross through them relatively smoothly. In other words, while there is congestion in those cities, it is a congestion that results entirely from volume; the behaviour of individual vehicles does not significantly compound that congestion.

But in Metro Manila, the “average driver…does not feel bound by the rules of the road,” Brown laments. And enforcement is extremely weak: Enforcers loosely manage the general flow of traffic and ignore most violations.

His call to address behaviour-based congestion is indeed sensible as this can have a quicker, more significant impact at a much lower cost. Enforcers are already employed—the MMDA alone has an enforcement staff of nearly 1,500—and equipped, but they are simply not being used effectively.

Brown says active enforcement, in which a traffic enforcer looks a driver directly in the eye and says, “You cannot do that,” and backed by a properly managed system of violation tickets and penalties, will lead to order that, in turn, will result in improved efficiency, safety and civility.

Improving the flow of traffic through the simple act of enforcing traffic laws and procedures will not address all aspects of the problem. But it’s clearly good sense to first focus on decongesting the streets through discipline before spending billions of pesos on construction projects that, without discipline, may have little permanent effect. It is a fact that the lack of discipline causes congestion, and will continue to do so regardless of how many elevated roadways are built.

Many different solutions have been tried, and a considerable amount of money spent, with little or no real effect on congestion. Brown says the one method that has never been tried, at least not with a wholehearted effort, is the one that is most sure to bring about the greatest improvement: enforcement of discipline on the road. Filipino drivers are capable of being disciplined, just as they do when they are inside the Subic freeport.

Brown says the choice is simple: Either we allow Third World traffic behaviour to continue and cause the kind of costly congestion we now have, or we choose to impose order and, in the process, improve the traffic system, the economy and the country’s reputation.


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