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OPINION | Highway on hell

...the large-scale transport crisis isn’t coming, it is already happening—and it is much worse than being reported

By CJ ArgallonPublished 23 days ago 6 min read
"Traffic in Manila, Philippines" by Nikada

As Manila once again makes it to the top of the list in the world’s worst traffic according to the 2023 Tomtom Traffic Index and the full phaseout of traditional jeepneys begin in a few months, the government still doesn’t want to recognize that the country will experience a large-scale transport crisis. Perhaps they are right, but in the sense that the large-scale transport crisis isn’t coming, it is already happening—and it is much worse than being reported.

A jeepney accelerates in only small bursts and the driver curses in frustration. Behind him, cramped passengers sweat profusely. They have to be baked in this heat on their way to work. Outside, cramped vehicles blast their horns, evidently mirroring the frustration of their passengers inside.

Heat emanates in intense waves from the sun above and the revving engines in the highway. The air ripples in heat and the gridlock remains for hours until lunch. To say that the Philippine daily commute, especially in Metro Manila, is a problem would be understating what it actually is—a hellscape of punishment for Filipinos that the government keeps making worse as it scrambles to solve it.

The immediate and most prominent cause of this crisis seems to be the lack of proper focus on our mass transportation system. Specifically, the abysmal management and implementation of transport policies. Chief among this is the Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program (PUVMP) which allegedly aims to modernize the jeepneys and transport vans in order to lessen their impact on our carbon emissions. This requires traditional jeepney drivers to retire their old units, join cooperatives where they do not own their operational franchise, and buy new foreign-made minibus units that are in no way affordable to them.

On paper, a modernization of jeepneys sounds good. After all, no one wants to ride jeeps that are barely-assembled moving pieces of scrap metals. Unions of jeepney operators have even repeatedly said that they do not object to the concept of modernization, especially if it helps the environment.

What is objectionable is the highly expensive replacement unit that is being forced upon them with little to no subsidies from the government. With soaring fuel prices and its high tax, buying a new unit would merely starve their families, bury them in debt, and worsen the state of public transportation once jeepney drivers and operators begin exiting the sector to find new jobs to recoup their losses and get better opportunities.

Transport officials and politicians who are at the head of this insist that this program is beneficial for the transportation sector. But their belief in this program appears misplaced because hundreds of jeepney routes nationwide will become obsolete by the extended consolidation deadline. Traditional jeepney drivers who haven't joined cooperatives under the PUVMP will be phased out, with around 300 routes affected in Metro Manila alone based on data released by the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board.

They defended this by reasoning that these are short distance routes that exist between longer routes, which, according to these non-commuting transport officials who use their own cars, can apparently shoulder the additional passengers from the obsolete routes.

Exact causes of the transport crisis cannot be pinpointed into a single problem. It is a culmination of various failures including policy, urban planning, mass transport, and most especially, the proliferation of car-centric structures that prioritizes private vehicles over personal mobility and mass transportation.

Over the last few years, the measurement of good public service has somehow been conflated with infrastructure projects, specifically roads, road-widenings, and bridges. The politician who can say that they have sponsored more infrastructure projects seems to have a higher chance of being elected into power, not taking into account what the effects of the projects are.

With the number of new roads steadily being increased and widened both by public and private projects in order to get more political power, it is a wonder why traffic persists so much in Metro Manila. This is apparently answered by the concept of induced demand where multiple studies globally have proven that building more roads only invites more people to buy cars, therefore not actually lessening traffic.

The idea of car-centrism also pervades urban planning. A renowned urban planner and architect Felino “Jun'' Palafox said in an interview webinar that traffic persists in Metro Manila because of various reasons.

One of these is the existence of gated communities around central business districts that make the region less walkable. Another is EDSA, a highway that stretches from Caloocan City to Pasay City, which apparently serves multiple purposes as a road when it shouldn’t, and caters to virtually all vehicles going through the region. Add to this the existence of malls, city centers, and attractions near or on these multi-purpose highways, which attract more cars, thereby worsening traffic congestions especially on peak hours when these roads are used by more people.

People are also encouraged to get cars not only because of the social and class status it indicates, but because the mass transport alternatives have been so neglected that it disincentivizes them to use trains, buses, and jeepneys.

For this crisis to be alleviated, a multi-pronged approach must target all the causes of these problems at once. And for the purposes of quick and easy solutions, there must be a focus on improving the situation of the mass transport system in the country.

Specifically, it must be prioritized over private transportation not only to encourage more people to patronize the more effective mobility mode that is mass transportation but also to discourage the usage of private cars that take up too large a space in our roads, yet contain only and transport a minimal amount of people.

A jeepney that can transport 22 people in a single ride from one point to another brings more mobility into a city than, say, an average car that can only seat 5 people. Mindset must be adjusted in a way that takes into account what transports the most people in the quickest way possible, with the least carbon emissions, and with the least space taken up on roads.

Modernization of public transport must also come with socio-economic justness that would not bury drivers and operators under a mountain of debt which cannot help in improving the sorry state of transportation in our poorly-planned cities. Environmentalism must also not target public transportation solely, as the process of road-building, road-widening, and even private transportation modes have significant contributions in carbon emissions, too.

Genuine representation of public commuters must also be a big factor in consideration for policy making involving transport. While this country has audacious heads that have the luxury of attending concerts through official government helicopters just to avoid the traffic that they clearly haven’t yet experienced, the people on the ground have to toil hours in traffic just to afford food, leisures, and pay for the helicopters of the blind leaders that fly above them.

The transport crisis is a problem that will haunt us for years to come. With horrendous policy making and officials in the government only seeing the surface of the problem, the hellscape of traffic and gridlocks and sweaty passengers being slowly cooked inside cars will only be an everyday picture, an icon of Manila and a trademark of the Philippines.

This dilemma will only be solved when officials in the government in charge of the policies surrounding transportation know the plight of commuters and drivers who use the roads they continuously build to compensate for their lack of material and visible progress in their public service.

READ:

Metro Manila tops list of metro areas with worst traffic: Study

97% of Metro Manila puvs consolidated

What’s up with that: Building bigger roads actually makes traffic worse

Why Metro Manila is an urban planning ‘mess,’ according to an expert

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CJ Argallon

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    CAWritten by CJ Argallon

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