Opinion

What We're Not Doing to Solve Manila's Traffic Problem

Take it from a commuter, and an urban planner: Julia Nebrija's comprehensive proposal to overhaul the plague that is Manila traffic.
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Every day, I wake up, look at my calendar, and my thought process goes like this: I could walk to EDSA, take the pedestrian overpass, and then get on a bus. But I’m so tired from biking yesterday. Uber? Shit, surge is 1.6x. I could cross the bridge, take the Pasig River Ferry, then a jeepney. Maybe I can just stay home and do the meeting by FaceTime instead?

Commuting in Metro Manila is like playing Tetris. This process of alternating options to find the perfect fit has completely changed the way I view transportation. I’d never given it much thought before. Riding a bike in New York City wasn’t a social statement, taking the bus in Washington, D.C. didn’t seem like a privilege. Walking was just a normal part of a day in Madrid. But in Manila we think about it every day; how am I going to get there, how long it will take, do I absolutely have to?

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Commuting in Metro Manila is like playing Tetris. This process of alternating options to find the perfect fit has completely changed the way I view transportation.

If there’s anything that can vastly improve life for the majority, it’s transportation, which is why the president-elect is on the verge of declaring a State of Emergency for Metro Manila. We are in crisis, that is true. Some of us spend the same time commuting as we do at work. The congestion costs us P2.4 billion a day (the annual loss amounts to 4.6 percent of our GDP) in inefficiencies. We breathe toxic air that is causing life-threatening respiratory disease among an increasing number of us. An alarming number of us are killed on the road. With a directive from the top, we have a chance to drastically overhaul decades of misguided approaches and negligence and harness the potential we have always had at our fingertips.

We love to talk about how the traffic is getting worse, how years ago it was never this bad—which is true. We add 25,000 vehicles each month to already maxed out roadways; private vehicles making up 70 percent of total vehicle volume on major thoroughfares (about an even split between taxis, cars, and motorcycles). When a car downpayment is less than the average rent, it’s no wonder we are seeing an influx. One approach is to tax car ownership and another is to tax road use. I’ll borrow from a conversation with James Deakin the other day; car users should pay premiums for coveted routes, coveted times, and coveted parking spots the same way we already pay for high-season plane tickets and room rates. Premium prices will make us think twice about taking out a private car.

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We have a chance to drastically overhaul decades of misguided approaches and negligence and harness the potential we have always had at our fingertips.

With services like Grab and Uber, it’s puzzling why people still choose to struggle with car insurance, maintenance, gas prices, and parking challenges. Ownership in general is a major burden, which is why globally the millennial generation is choosing the sharing economy. We value the flexibility, freedom, and ease of use offered by shared services. UberPOOL and Wunder are striving to take the option further with crowd-sourced car-pooling. Business Process Outsourcing companies (BPOs) with large employee bases in central business districts are providing free company shuttles as a perk, additionally reducing single passenger vehicles. Still, while deserted parking infrastructure is already being converted to apartments and retail in U.S. cities as cars become irrelevant, we continue to allocate more space for them here.

* * *

Getting there

I commute on public transport and I completely understand why those who can afford to would rather buy a car or a motorcycle than line up for an hour to get on a packed train, sit thigh-to-thigh in a smog-filled jeepney, risk getting robbed on the public bus, or fight for road space while walking or biking. It’s the Wild West out there for the remaining 80 percent who commute in Metro Manila without a private vehicle—an 80 percent that includes persons with disabilities, children, elderly, women, and low-income groups, all of whose specific needs are rarely considered. Clearly we have to make mass transit a dignified option, to reduce private car use and make the experience more just for those who already use these alternative modes.

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People like to ask me “what’s your typical day?”. For urban dwellers, there’s typically no typical—that’s the beauty of living in a city. A good transportation system is one that offers a menu of options to meet a variety of needs. In Metro Manila, we have the menu, but it’s not always what we want to order.

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There’s something called “the last mile problem” in transportation—and we don’t have it. It’s a term that highlights the lack of connectivity from a transportation hub to your fi nal destination. For instance, if you have to walk 15 minutes from your house to the train station, or take a car to the bus stop; these extra steps discourage use and/or cut off entire areas from access. For many of us in Metro Manila, this last mile might not be ideal, but we are rarely completely stranded.

It’s the Wild West out there for the remaining 80 percent who commute in Metro Manila without a private vehicle.

If a walk to the LRT station is not desirable or possible, there’s a pedicab. Instead of waiting for a bus down McKinley, I can take a habal-habal. There are manual trolleys that run on some stretches of the national rail lines to service neighborhoods with no stops (interesting but terrifying when you hear that train coming!). During a heavy rain, I’ve even crossed the street riding on top of a buko cart.

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This is an asset and a testimony to our resourcefulness. I appreciate the informal options because, in other cities, if you miss the train, you miss it, and your only option is to walk on potentially unsafe streets or take an expensive taxi home. I’ve desperately wished for a jeepney some late nights living in Harlem.

We have to make mass transit a dignified option, to reduce private car use and make the experience more just for those who already use these alternative modes.

Instead of the knee-jerk reaction to simply make perceived nuisances (jeepneys, vendors, pedestrian crossings) “bawal,” we need to engage, modernize, and organize these players to be positive contributors. GIZ is working with the DOTC, LTFRB, and others to engage jeepney operators to come up with a fi nancial scheme to upgrade old engines, work out designated stops, and comply with quotas. Cities such as Mandaluyong, Pasig, Makati, and Intramuros are funding e-jeepney and e-tricycle services with designated routes and stops. The vice-mayor of Marikina made a prototype for a tricycle that can transport people in wheelchairs and is more ergonomic for the elderly. These types of interventions can significantly improve mobility and air quality on the secondary and tertiary streets that are the majority of Metro Manila and its 1,406 barangays.

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On the main thoroughfares—of which there are only a few (EDSA, C5, Commonwealth/Quezon Avenue/España)—we have to deal with rapid mass transit, and for this, buses are our best bet. As they are today, they are not ideal. They are independently franchised or “colorum,” spewing pollution, stopping wherever they please, waiting as long as they want, and bullying everyone in the process. The MMDA and the DOTC have had some success in instituting bus-only lanes on EDSA, and commuters are generally pleased with the Point-to-Point Bus routes. New services such as the Ateneo shuttle and a Pasig City bus circulating in Ortigas show the need. People will leave their cars at home and commute by bus if it’s a reasonable option, but we will start to see higher use if there is a solid network.

Instead of the knee-jerk reaction to simply make perceived nuisances (jeepneys, vendors, pedestrian crossings) “bawal,” we need to engage, modernize, and organize these players to be positive contributors.

Metro Manila would be wise to join 204 cities around the world in adopting the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system to offer just that. They are used globally as an alternative to systems like an elevated rail or subway, since they are cheaper and faster to build, can service a wider number of routes, and could potentially absorb the employees from franchised or illegal operators to the formal system.

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The main features include a network of designated bus-only lanes, not just on one route, but dozens. The BRT also has stations, not stops. These stations are elevated for easy loading/unloading for all people, even those who are differently-abled and have ticket booths for payment before entering the bus. They are also wide, well-lit, and weatherproof to make the waiting condition a non-factor. Of course, when it’s a centralized, organized system, there can be real-time updates and demand-led volume. The average rush hour bus speed today is 18 kph. BRT bus schemes run from 27 to 48 kph. Thankfully, the first BRT line for Metro Manila, QC Circle to Manila down Espana, was green-lit late last year. We should pray hard for others.

Trains are a higher investment in time and resources, but they do move more people. The MRT is operating at 130 percent of its carrying capacity, the LRT and PNR aren’t much better, so let’s buy more trains and continue expanding the lines. The BEEP card has made the journey smoother; cards are now finally the same for the LRT and the MRT. They can even be used at some convenience stores and if all goes as planned, taxis and buses will also take the card. While we’re at it, let’s also take trucking off the street and move cargo by rail.

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Then there’s Pasig River, our last urban frontier. It is commonly thought to be a putrid, dead place, and a figurative backwater, but the reality is that our city grew from the mouth of the Pasig, and so it’s only natural to turn our sights toward this asset once again. The Pasig River traverses four cities and is roughly the same length as EDSA, and the only commuting option on it, the Pasig River Ferry, has had as many lives as a cat. Previous incarnations had to be discontinued because of shortcomings like inappropriate boat size, insufficient motor design, and mismanagement. The service was relaunched last year, with smaller boats and better engines, but some problems remain: connectivity to stations and consistent departure times have always plagued it, for example.

A flush fleet and adjustments to demand would help, as would digitized passenger logs (currently, they submit handwritten lists, handdelivered to the Coast Guard for daily record) and relaxed regulations for passing Malacañang Palace (you can’t take photos, which is fine, but we also have to stop to pick up a National Guard and cruise by at reduced speeds). The MMDA also relaunched the Pasig River Ferry app in February, which is supposed to update passengers on arrival and departure times of the nearest ferry. Additionally, pedestrian- and bike-only bridges are quick, low-cost options for improving access for riders. These connectors are valuable even if you aren’t going to the ferry and would help to decongest the existing 16 bridges along the Pasig.

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* * *

Active transport for a healthier Manila

But before there were motors for ferries, cars, buses, and MRTs, we only had our own two feet to walk with and, later, to bike with. Active transport is encouraged to promote healthy people and healthy environments. Both are desperately needed here.


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The increasingly visible bicycle movement, brought on by decades of advocacy work by groups such as the Firefly Brigade, are helping to lobby for policy change and bike infrastructure. Unfortunately, cyclists in organized groups are commonly perceived to be environmentalists and recreational users, even though most are also everyday riders. Regardless, their numbers are only part of the whole picture. While we do not have exact figures, it is thought bicycles are a primary form of transportation for a signifi cant portion of our urban population living below, along, or barely above the poverty line. After the initial minimal investment, a bicycle has few operating costs.

Early morning on Commonwealth you can find people commuting to work. One of them is Roger, the subject of a documentary called Kadena. In it, he says, “Biking is my way of transportation and I don’t have any other choice. You can save a lot from riding a bicycle, especially now that the fare is expensive. From my house I would need to ride a tricycle to get to the main highway and then I ride a bus going to Taft Avenue. It is the same way going back home. I can save more than three thousand pesos a month by just riding a bicycle.” (Kadena, produced by the UP Third World Studies Center, is on YouTube and well worth a watch.)

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A citywide network of bike stations can be installed in 90 days, and a bike network can be built in two years.

Unfortunately, people who bike today do so at risk. Our streets are extremely unfriendly to bikers. Despite several laws that give bikes the same rights to the road as other vehicles, the sheer number of vehicles versus bicycles, lack of proper lanes (preferably protected and not on sidewalks), and uniform speeds along roadways understandably discourage most people from using bicycles. We need dedicated bike paths and more accessible services to encourage new users and tip the volume.

There are several bike-share pilot projects; some DIY, like UP Diliman’s approach. Others are more formal, like Asian Development Bank’s Tutubi, with stations in local government offi ces and commercial centers. Gabe Klein, former transportation director for the cities of Chicago and Washington, D.C., was recently in town to give a talk on the Future of Transportation, touted bike-share systems for their rapid impact. A citywide network of bike stations can be installed in 90 days, and a bike network can be built in two years. Bike-shares provide multi-modal connection, which in Metro Manila where modes were planned independent of one another, would be extremely valuable and they encourage new users.

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No matter your choice in this menu of options, at the end of the day, we are all pedestrians. Walking is our lowest-hanging fruit. It costs nothing to walk and it costs little to improve conditions for those who do.

No matter your choice in this menu of options, at the end of the day, we are all pedestrians. Walking is our lowest-hanging fruit. It costs nothing to walk and it costs little to improve conditions for those who do. The central business districts of Ortigas, Makati, and BGC are all investing in pedestrian infrastructure, including wide, clean sidewalks free of unnecessary obstructions; arcaded walkways and trees to protect from rain or shine; and art along the way to make it interesting. If I’m being picky—these areas could learn from the scale of older neighborhoods like those of Manila, which have narrower streets for better shade, more storefronts for more vibrant activity, and shorter blocks for more crossings.

The EDSAya proposal for elevated an pedestrian and bike pathway on EDSA offers a better alternative to the standard overpass and would help reduce vehicle trips on EDSA. The most innovative aspect of the project is the initiative taken by the fi rm Archion Architects to develop the concept and lobby investors. If implemented, it will be a model for designers on how to be more proactive.

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The point is, we can do a lot, and we can do it quickly and we can do it within our means. This is my favorite factoid, which I lifted from a presentation by ADB senior transport specialist Lloyd Wright: For the same cost of a flyover, we can instead provide 400,000 bicycles through bike-share stations, 100,000 modern pedicabs, 800km of quality footpaths/cycle ways, or 80 years of weekly car-free day events, but we have to decide to make people, not vehicles, our priority.

For the same cost of a flyover, we can instead provide 400,000 bicycles through bike-share stations, 100,000 modern pedicabs, 800km of quality footpaths/cycle ways, or 80 years of weekly car-free day events, but we have to decide to make people, not vehicles, our priority.

* * *

Taking back the streets

Our attention is fixed on traffic, but the larger battle is a fight for good streets. “Streets have been the same way for so long that people don’t really understand what’s possible,” says Janette Sadik-Khan, the former transportation director of the New York City Transportation Commission. In Manila, our streets, built after World War II, were designed for sprawling, low-density urban areas dependent on the car. Today, we are a thriving megacity. Our needs and way of life have significantly altered, yet we continue to view streets as spaces where vehicular traffic needs to move as quickly as possible.

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And so we widen roads or build more carriageways. We remove crosswalks at grade in favor of pedestrian overpasses or underpasses. We fence in pedestrians to prevent them from walking on roadways. We reduce crossing times to mere seconds for pedestrians and we only paint narrow bike lanes on roadways that we feel will not disrupt traffic flow. We have allowed sidewalks to crumble, if not disappear. The irony is that these decisions only sink us deeper into traffic, pollution, and the ruin of our urban landscape.

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“When you change a street, you fundamentally change an entire city,” says Sadik-Khan. During her term, she oversaw the implementation of 400 new bike lanes, including 30 completely protected ones, 60 new pedestrian plazas, and the country’s largest bike-share program. Contrary to popular belief at that time, these interventions improved traffi c, actually increased car speeds, and brought accessible transportation to more users.

Our attention is fixed on traffic, but the larger battle is a fight for good streets.

When we talk about Bus Rapid Transit, bike lanes, better sidewalks, calmer traffi c, we are taking about street design and in Metro Manila we need to completely rethink how we are going to design our streets if we choose to see them in the same way as the U.S. National Association of Commissioners on Transportation Organization do: “The street must meet the needs of people walking, driving, cycling, and taking transit.” In other words, we have to share the road.

Our citizens are bringing people together to show different uses for the street. The Bayanihan Sa Daan Movement holds road sharing exercises, organizing the bus and jeepney operators along with local government and bike groups to show that it’s possible to allocate a whole lane to cyclists during metro-wide rides. The majority of cities in Metro Manila have a car-free day if not monthly, then at least annually. We can build on these efforts and regularize city-wide car-free days, such as the ciclovias in Bogota and Mexico City. The Paris city center is already completely car-free.

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Recently, BGC experimented with protected bike lanes—all they needed was 100 traffic cones and a few signs. Marikina and other cities are ahead of the game already championing better sidewalks and bike infrastructure. Sadik-Khan claims none of her ideas were new, but “the speed of delivery was new.” She and her team installed new infrastructure overnight and researched use over time to make adjustments. They realized that they could make drastic changes, like completely blocking through traffic in iconic Times Square, and people would eventually not only adjust, but deeply appreciate it.

When the vision is set, it is possible to create radical change, and if we can do it for a day, or a week, we can use similar approaches toward more permanent solutions.

We are no strangers to this approach in Metro Manila. In October 2015, when we hosted the world’s leaders for APEC, we saw the city completely transform in a very short time, with new lanes and completely rerouted streets. We saw the same hustle when the Pope landed in our city last January 2015 and we see it every year when millions come to Manila to worship the Black Nazarene or when the Iglesia ni Cristo hosts an event that shuts down parts of the city. On a smaller scale, how many times have you gone to a street and found it to be made one-way or blocked off completely for a local fiesta? We experience changes every day in Metro Manila, and people adjust rather quickly.

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During the yearly Firefly Brigade rides or the National Bicycle Day rides when thousands of people on bikes take over the streets I feel an overwhelming sense of hope, not just for demonstrated masses, but for the multi-agency coordination required to pull of such an event. Local governments and police have to work with national agencies such as MMDA, DENR, and DOTC to block off certain roads and allow the safe passage of bicycles throughout the metro including large stretches of EDSA. When the vision is set, it is possible to create radical change, and if we can do it for a day, or a week, we can use similar approaches toward more permanent solutions.

* * *

The truth is, we are all traffic. Every day, every one of us makes a decision that benefits or harms the greater good. Are you the jeepney passenger that called “para!” half a block from the last drop off? Are you the driver that parks your car on the sidewalk? Are you the person who calls an Uber for one? I’m trying hard not to be. Change starts with us.

The lesson for me here is that we just need a common vision. I do not buy the argument that having 17 LGUs and an alphabet soup of national agencies is our central crippling factor. There are plenty of metropolitan regions that have more administrative districts and a multitude of national agencies, the only difference is that they have a game plan. The closest thing we have to that is the JICA Dream Plan, which is basically a list of projects, not a unifying strategy.

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The truth is, we are all traffic. Every day, every one of us makes a decision that benefits or harms the greater good. Are you the jeepney passenger that called “para!” half a block from the last drop off? Are you the driver that parks your car on the sidewalk? Are you the person who calls an Uber for one? I’m trying hard not to be. Change starts with us. On a city level, we need the same commitment and focus.

The lesson for me here is that we just need a common vision.

We are capable of mobilizing when we put our minds to something, and I think our transportation has never been so top-of-mind as it is today. A State of Emergency will give government the power to make quick decisions. This authority could help unlock decades of stagnation and neglect. But at the end of the day, we are a city chock-full of people, and when it comes to people, we need more than heavy handed regulation, we need to be inspired to do things differently.

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This piece originally appeared in our July 2016 issue, and has been archived in EsquireMag.ph with minor edits.

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About The Author
Julia Nebrija
Julia Nebrija is a Manila-based urban planner with a Masters Degree in Urban Design from the City College of New York. She works towards a lovable and livable Metro Manila as a consultant to the government and the World Bank, and with Viva Manila and the Inclusive Mobility Network as an advocate.
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