10-year plan to ease ‘the worst traffic on earth’

December 22, 2015 at 09:43

10-year plan to ease ‘the worst traffic on earth’

by Lorenz S. Marasigan | 

Traffic along Edsa builds up, especially after workhours, as mall hours have been extended to midnight for the Christmas rush. Experts, however, believe the Christmas traffic would become Metro Manila’s new normal. Stephanie Tumampos

First of two parts

The sky was devoid of stars that Friday night, when Roman Pancho felt droplets of rain kissing his nape.

He knew that such a shower of rain would cause a lockdown along Edsa, so he decided to go back inside his office in Makati and wait for a few hours until the traffic jam has subsided.
Pancho arranged chairs to form a makeshift bed, and he started to rest, his mobile phone in hand, he watched a few clips on the Internet.

Three hours later, at around 9 p.m., the technical-support agent started to pack his things and arranged the chairs back to their places. He booked a taxi to Marikina using a ride-hailing application, and it arrived after half an hour.

“I thought it was a good decision for me to stay in the office for a few more hours —I was hoping that the traffic had already subsided at around 9 in the evening—but I was wrong,” he recounted. “It was nearly the same, we were barely moving along Ayala Avenue;  and  Edsa is another story.”

When his taxi began to brave Edsa, Pancho could have sworn that the red lights from the tails of the cars were like a giant Christmas tree. The red sea of tail lights flooded Metro Manila’s main artery, with honking from buses to private vehicles filling the atmosphere.

“Home was two hours away. But no thanks to the heavy traffic, I arrived at around 12 midnight in my house, with about P500 off my wallet,”
Pancho lamented.

The 29-year-old tech support agent is just one of the millions of Filipinos braving the heavy traffic in Metro Manila daily. People seem to have accepted the fact that congestion has become the new normal in the capital.

“Metro Manila’s traffic probably is one of the worst in the world, considering the metrics presented in various articles, including those based on the crowd-sourced surveys, comments on social media and opinion pieces. There are just so many shared experiences of severe traffic congestion that it cannot be denied,” said Jose Regin F. Regidor, a research fellow at the University of the Philippines-Diliman National Center for Transportation Studies.

Global surveys showed that the Philippines has one of the worst traffic situations in the world.

According to a study conducted by online database Numbeo, the Philippines had a traffic index score of 231.09, making it the 13th
country in the globe with the worst traffic conditions.

Traffic Index is a composite index of time consumed in traffic due to job commute, estimation of time- consumption dissatisfaction, carbon dioxide-consumption estimation in traffic and overall inefficiencies in the traffic system.

Rene S. Santiago, a transport expert, echoed Regidor’s sentiments, saying that Metro Manila’s traffic situation is not just one of the worst in the globe, but is the worst in the world.

“This has been predicted a long time ago; but the government did nothing. So now, we are not only one of the worst in terms of traffic situation in world, but we have the worst traffic in the world—as far as surveys are concerned,” he said.

Global positioning system-based navigation application Waze named Metro Manila as the city with the “worst traffic on earth.”

Derived from six key factors— traffic level by frequency and severity of traffic jams; road quality and infrastructure; driver safety based on accidents; road hazards and weather; driver services, like access to gas stations and easy parking; socioeconomic, including access to cars and impact of gas prices; and the level of helpfulness and happiness within the Waze community —Manila scored 0.4 in the traffic index. Waze surveyed 50 million of its users in 32 countries and 167 major cities.

‘Christmas traffic new normal’

The traffic conditions in Metro Manila today are worse than ever, as mall hours were extended to accommodate the Christmas rush. A normal hourlong ride from Ayala Avenue to Cubao, Quezon City, now spans two hours—almost at any given time before midnight.

“Traffic in December is much worse than the normal; and I think the December traffic will become the new normal in the next few years— a thing that is inevitable,” Santiago said.

He noted that there is no escape in that fate, especially since the government has done very little to mitigate the congestion problem in the capital.

“The problem has been there for more than 20 years now. The current state of the traffic in Metro Manila is an offshoot of the government’s neglect,” Santiago said. “The government does not want to admit that there is traffic problem; and how can they address a problem if they don’t want to recognize it?”

Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio A. Abaya did not categorically deny or accept that Metro Manila holds the title the city with the worst traffic situation in the world,  but considered that there  is, indeed, a problem in the capital’s transportation systems.

“I’m not sure if this is true, because I have yet to see or read any scientific survey of traffic worldwide,” he said. “But, I think, traffic is always a complicated problem wherever it is.”

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) estimates that the Philippines loses P2.4 billion per day in traffic costs in Metro Manila alone. According to Regidor, the figure for transport losses in neighboring cities and provinces amounts to P1 billion daily.

In theory, then, the Philippines loses P1.24 trillion per year on traffic costs alone. By 2030, the country will post P2.19 trillion in loses annually on transport costs.

This is very alarming to the business community in the Philippines, with several chambers voicing out concern on the worsening state of the traffic in Metro Manila.

There are several culprits behind the congestion in Metro Manila, but one thing is for sure: neglect is the top item on the list.

“The worsening traffic congestion is an offshoot of poor planning and Band-Aid solutions. It is a result of lack of vision, coupled with the lack of political will, to enforce rules and discipline at the minimum, and advocate for better policies to improve mobility in the city based on a comprehensive transport and logistics plan,” Makati Business Club Executive Director Peter Angelo B. Perfecto said.

American Chamber of Commerce Senior Advisor John D. Forbes noted that the problem is institutional and political in nature.

“Government priorities for a long time have been baliktad. Since the Ramos administration started the Metro Rail Transit [MRT] Line 3 and several major toll roads, modern, efficient mass transportation has been a priority mostly in name only, for planning, but not for implementation, until the Aquino administration,” he said.

Forbes added that extensions of the Light Rail Transit Lines 1 and 2, and even the construction of MRT Line 7 were planned, but were not executed. The North Rail—which was supposed to connect Northern Luzon to Metro Manila—was started, but was not completed.

“The same can be said for limited-access highways in the National Capital Region. Too little has been done, and too late. The current administration has done more than any since Ramos, but, obviously, not enough, and failed to maintain the MRT 3,” he said.

Fobes added: “The three Skyway projects and three light-rail lines it has approved could have been finished by now. The Connector Project approved by the National Economic and Development Authority Board for Swiss challenges this week could have been operational by now. There has been no significant reform of the public transportation that most people in Manila use daily.”

European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines External Vice President Henry J. Schumacher noted that economic growth is another factor to the worsening traffic congestion in Metro Manila, although it is just a part of it.

“The other part is that public transportation is so bad that people have no choice but to use their own transport. Plenty of new cars are sold every month, but old cars that are no longer road-worthy are not taken off the road; annual car inspection needs to be introduced,” he said. Data from the Chamber of Automotive Manufacturers of the Philip-
pines Inc. showed that in the first 10 months of 2015, there were 234,951 units of vehicles sold, a 22-percent
jump from the 192,005 units purchased in the same period the year prior.

“There are many causes of congestion, including increasing private- vehicle ownership, inefficient public transport, and a lack of pedestrian and cycling facilities,” Regidor said. “As it is, we are already running out of stop-gap or Band-Aid measures to alleviate congestion. It is very difficult to discourage private-vehicle use if we do not have good public- transport options.”

Forbes added: “Traffic always comes with strong economic growth. At a modest annual increase of 10 percent, the number of new cars in the Philippines will reach 500,000 by 2020. With millions of new cars on the streets, do you think we can move? No. Manila will become uninhabitable.”

What needs to be done, according to Santiago, is for the government to step up its game in the building of infrastructure. But this, he said, is a game of catch-up.

`“We will need at least 10 years to at least lessen the traffic in Metro Manila. It is not an overnight solution,” he said. “We are, indeed, playing catch-up.”


The dearth in adequate transport infrastructure has been plaguing Metro Manila for the past two decades, and this will continue in the next two if the government will just treat the problem like the way it is being addressed now.

It will require the government and the private sector to invest trillions of pesos just to address this problem, which stemmed out of government neglect and political differences.

“In the next five years, very little will be completed. We have a lot of infrastructure projects going on now — some are up for bidding and some are now being constructed — but these should have been done long before it was too late. The government toyed with this need and now all of us are suffering,” Rene S. Santiago, a transport expert, said.

According to studies conducted by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica), the Philippines will need to invest P4.67 trillion to catch up with its infrastructure limitations.

Jica’s Roadmap for Transport Infrastructure Development for Metro Manila and its Surrounding Areas, otherwise known as the Dream Plan, calls for the establishment of a modern, well-integrated, coordinated and affordable transport system for Metro Manila and the adjacent areas of Bulacan, Pampanga, Cavite and Batangas.

The system will consist of expressways, new roads elevated and on ground, railways elevated and on ground, subways, airports and seaports. Near-term components are for completion by 2016, while medium- and
longer-term components are for completion by 2020 and 2030, respectively.

When completed, the plan will accomplish at least three objectives: The reduction of traffic congestion in the metropolitan area; the diminution of air pollution in the metropolitan area and its environs; and the reduction of transportation costs to the urban population, especially the poor and other low-income groups.

At the level of the individual, completion will result in the reduction of the average travel fare of commuters from the current P42 to P24, and also the lowering of the current average travel time of 80 minutes to 31 minutes.

This, however, was not the first transport master plan that the government has accepted for rollout. In 1973 a master plan, aptly called the Urban Transport Study in Manila Metropolitan Area, was approved.

It was implemented from March 1971 to September 1973 with the assistance of the Overseas Technical Cooperation Agency of Japan.

There was also the Metro Manila Transport, Land Use and Development Planning Project of 1977. Commissioned by the Philippine government and funded by the World Bank, it was implemented from January 1976 to February 1977.

Unfortunately, none of these ever fully materialized, as only a few of the projects listed on the said blueprints were built.

Proper planning was done, Santiago said, but the lack of enthusiasm to implement the plan blew it all away.

“What they are doing is just lip service — and it is not the way to solve the problem. Their efforts are not enough; they are not doing the hard things to be done. What the government is doing is just announcing things that they pretend on doing,” he said.

Running out of Band-Aid solutions

Today, more than ever, the Philippines should start addressing these needs, if it really wants to turn the projected trillions of pesos in losses to gains.

Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Alfredo M. Yao said: “Traffic is a complicated problem that requires both short-  and long-term solutions for it to be solved. We need to address it now, and we need to start working.”

Jose Regin F. Regidor, a research fellow at the University of the Philippines-Diliman National Center for Transportation Studies, agreed, saying that the government needs to swallow the bitter pill and start acting on the disease before it gets any worse.

“We need to restructure public transport services in the short term. That means assigning only buses along corridors with high demand for transport like Commonwealth Avenue, Espana or Quezon Avenue, Shaw Boulevard, Aurora Boulevard, Taft Avenue, among others,” he said.

He added that jeepneys will have to be phased out of these corridors, but should be assigned purely along feeder routes.

“For the long term, we need to invest in transport infrastructure now and start building rail lines as soon as possible in order to catch up with the ever-increasing demand for transport,” Regidor said. “We have a huge backlog on transport infrastructure for Metro Manila, especially for public transport.”

He pointed out that for the government to address the traffic situation in Metro Manila, it needs to invest heavily on railway systems.

“Rail transport is a long-term solution and a rapid bus-transit system, and the concept of which is now being tested with the transport department’s express bus can provide relief and, perhaps, a short- to medium-term solution to traffic congestion,” he said.

In Asia, the Philippines is one of the few countries with the least number of working train lines to date. Metro Manila has three overhead railway systems and a commuter line.

“As it is, we are already running out of stop-gap or Band-Aid measures to alleviate congestion. It is very difficult to discourage private-vehicle use if we do not have good public transport options,” Regidor lamented.

Makati Business Club (MBC) Executive Director Peter Angelo B. Perfecto said the Philippines must learn from its neighbors and peers in and out of the Asia-Pacific region as to how to create livable cities that have good mobility, while minimizing environmental and economic impacts.

“What is more constructive is to look at the more livable cities in the world and learn from them what they do that allow their citizens efficient mobility while minimizing emissions that choke fast-growing cities,” he said.

Perfecto added: “There are already many lessons to be learned from experiences and actions taken in more livable cities in other countries. Let us work with them. Clearly though what is needed is a long-term plan that will focus on moving people and not private cars.”

‘For the long term’

Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio A. Abaya said the government is doing its best to improve the traffic situation in Metro Manila, and is bullish that it can at least lessen the congestion in the next few years.

“I think traffic is always a complicated problem wherever it is. There should be short-term, medium-term and long-term solutions. What we are doing for our transport network companies, such as Uber and Grab, our point-to-point express buses, the yellow-lane enforcement, the rollout of automatic fare-collection system or the beep card, the bus reform, taxi reform, jeep reform programs, are all short term,” he said.

For the long term, the government is building transport projects through the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Program.

“We are starting some, some will definitely finish in five yrs, some are done. Transport planning is really long term. If we remain shortsighted then we will never get out of this situation and make efficient transportation available to all,” he said.

‘Slow like molasses’

But infrastructure development in the Philippines remains slow, and businessmen are not too convinced that the government is doing enough to push much-needed infrastructure deals out of its rich pipeline of projects.

“How slow is infrastructure development in the Philippines? As slow as molasses,” American Chamber of Commerce Senior Advisor John D. Forbes said. The problem with the delivery of right-of-way, he said, is what slows it down.

The government has a reputation of delayed delivery of needed easement for transport projects, hence the slow movement of transportation development in the Philippines.

“The government should not let right-of-way issues stop the implementation of projects. It needs to finish things like the construction and extension of more roads like the C-5, C-6, the Connector Road, among others. It needs to deliver the right-of-way for the rails, as well,” European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines External Vice-President Henry J. Schumacher said.

Perfecto added that to do this, the government must learn how to lead with coordination on both the national and the local levels.

“To be fair it is much easier to complain about the slow pace of infrastructure development than it is to actually just roll out even just one major project. To improve the pace will need better and more coordinated leadership on national and local levels of government. This, unfortunately, is far from easy as shared with us. Imagine, for example, Metro Manila and its 13 mayors,” he said.

Government officials also need to have a sense of urgency, as this is a pressing issue that has been staring them in the face for quite some time now, and yet, has only done little to address it.

“It is not only the political will that they lack, but a sense of urgency to solve the problem, because to them, the traffic situation today is not a problem,” Santiago said. “The long-term requirements and the short-term needs are with them, they just need to act upon them.”

The government’s effort to mitigate the congestion, then, is never enough.

“I think most people will state the obvious that efforts fall short of lessening heavy traffic. This is because we still do not have the infrastructure,” Regidor said.

Lack of good leadership and discipline

ANY major project development in the Philippines has a relatively long gestation period. From the moment a project is conceived it will go through a lot of phases from being studied for feasibility, to being procured, to construction, then to maintenance.

“Infrastructure development appears to be slow, in part because of a lack of continuity and follow through with the government and even private-led initiatives. A comprehensive rapid rail-transit network, including subways, has been proposed in 1973, but we have yet to realize such a network,” Regidor said.

He added: “Low-hanging fruits, for example, from a past administration may not be harvested due to political reasons, thereby contributing to the delay and even cancellation of much-needed transport infra projects.”

Forbes agreed, saying that what the Philippines needs today is a good leader that has the will and the capacity to effect change.

“The government is the one to blame for this mess. We are now catching up with the backlog that we accumulated from the past. We need a decade before we could even see our transport sector start being better,” Santiago said.

But for Yao, addressing the problem of traffic in Metro Manila is not just the government and the private sector’s business. It is a shared responsibility that everyone — even ordinary citizens —must embrace.

“We have something to look forward to, we could still see a light at the end of the tunnel. We can’t expect the government to work overnight, we also need the discipline in our people,” he said.

For instance, people should respect and abide by the traffic rules and regulations set by regulatory agencies. This cleanses the Philippines from “the mob rule,” wherein people do what they like to do while on the road.

“Everyone has to be trained. Our policemen should be trained. The people should learn how to cooperate. We keep on complaining but some of us are not helping, but rather contributing to the problem,” Yao said.  “Traffic is really complicated. We keep on adding cars, but we are not increasing our roads. We need mass-transit systems to lessen the cars plying our roads. What we need today, though, is discipline.”

Next administration to inherit the problem

The sad thing about this problem is that the next administration will have to inherit it. Businessmen and experts are hoping, though, that the next government will not resolve to finger-pointing, but will do its best to address the issue.

“The new president cannot continue the snail’s pace of construction of needed infrastructure as in the past. Drastic action will be required. New rail and light rail lines must be prioritized so their construction can begin by 2017,” Forbes said.

While their construction is ongoing, interim actions to manage traffic will be necessary, such as a high fee to register a new large car, high fees to enter congested areas such as Makati, Ortigas and central Cebu during rush hour, a large increase in gasoline taxes, enforcing disciplined driving on all vehicles, if necessary with the military.

“We also need to reduce air pollution by removing older smoke-belching vehicles and subsidizing electric motorbikes and hybrid cars. Five percent of all motorcycles in Taipei are electric, with the government subsidizing 40 percent of the cost of an electric motorbike,” he added.

The next administration must also not let low-hanging fruits, well, hanging.

“For example, the proposed bus rapid-transit systems in Metro Manila was actually proposed back in 2007 or 2008, but was only revived in the latter part of the current administration and have only been recently approved. This now becomes a low-hanging fruit for the next administration, whoever wins. And we hope that whoever it is who wins will follow through on such projects. If not, then the backlog on infrastructure will continue and contribute to worsening traffic congestion. This is the same for other major cities across the country,” Regidor said.

To mitigate this, the government must also enact two important laws: the PPP Act and the new Right of Way Law.

“The new Right of Way Law and continuing the PPP, with the proposed PPP Act, which Congress has yet to approve in plenary, are important. The next administration should not slow projects down to review them,” Forbes said.

When approved, the PPP Act would institutionalize the Project Development and Monitoring Facility, the PPP Governing Board and the contingent liability fund. The proposed amendments include the separation of regulatory and commercial functions of government-owned and -controlled corporations and creation of a list of projects called “Projects of National Significance.”

By virtue of being included in the list of projects of national significance, projects will be “insulated” from local laws, among others, by local government units.

The proposed amendments also include allowing time-bound temporary restraining order and the extension of the period for Swiss Challenge to six months from the current two-month period. The amendments are expected to be approved within the term of Mr. Aquino.

On the other hand, the Senate is moving to amend the Right of Way Law. Senate Bill 3004 seeks to provide clearer guidelines, notably in the appraisal of values, procedure for expropriation, acquisition of easements and the corresponding appropriation of relevant funds for the implementing agencies.

Learn from mistakes

Metro Rail Transit (MRT) Holdings Inc. Chairman Robert John L. Sobrepeña added that he only hopes that the next government will learn from the mistakes of this current one, especially when handling rail deals.

“I just hope that the next administration will not repeat the mistakes of the past. Just take the MRT for an example,” he said.

This is the same hope that commuter Ramon Pancho, a 29-year-old tech support agent, holds.

“We may all contribute to the betterment of our transport sector, but my hope is that whoever replaces the guys in government will do a better job. I’m tired of having to waste at least five hours on the road,” he said.

The likes of Pancho will have to wait 10 more years before they see a better transport industry—that is, if the administrations to come will have the guts and the capacity to navigate through the traffic of stumbling blocks and build a better Philippines.


Part 1: www.businessmirror.com.ph

Part 2: www.businessmirror.com.ph

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