To compare the traffic problem of Metro Manila to the Gordian Knot would be an understatement, but it does imply that there is a solution: all we would have to do is look for an Alexander with his sword.
Too many people. Not Enough Space.
Countless studies have broken down Metro Manila traffic into its component parts, all which are seemingly inextricably intertwined with one another. A favorite scapegoat and usual suspect of these studies is population: there are simply too many people in Metro Manila, the researchers argue. There is some merit in this. All you have to do is to line up for the MRT on a weekday at rush hour to see how true this is. If that is not your cup of tea, then you might try looking for a seat at your favorite coffee shop on a weekend, preferably after Sunday services have concluded. There are simply too many people.
On the other hand, you could argue the converse: it is not the case that there are too many people; the problem really is that there is not enough space, be it on the MRT or in the coffee shop. The infrastructure of the city was not designed to accommodate nearly 13 million souls. When Burnham drew up the plans for Manila in 1905, he was thinking of a population of just 500,000.
The other parts of this intractable puzzle include mass transit systems. I find it interesting why very few of us question why all means of mass transit are privately owned and, more often than not, run on the “boundary” system, where the driver agrees to turn over a fixed amount, the “boundary”, to the owner of the vehicle and keeps whatever is left over. That may have been a good arrangement 74 years ago, but times have changed. In today’s world, the boundary system forces the driver to get as many passengers as he can by hook or by crook. This reduces mass transit to an exercise of hauling bodies instead of transporting people. What’s more, since private companies exist to make a profit, the operators of the mass transit system of Manila will choose to service only the profitable lines. You’re out of luck if you live in an out-of-the-way place.
In response to the less than charitable attitude of the mass transit operators, many denizens of Manila have taken to owning their own vehicles, or at least aspire to. While only approximately 2% of the population actually own vehicles, the result is the horrendous experience called ‘rush hour’ which seems to last longer, and longer, and longer every year. Still, this doesn’t prevent car sales from increasing year after year. One could even argue that car culture in Manila causes one to be selfish and entitled, but that is a topic for another article.
The Immodest Proposal
So where is Alexander with his sword?
Here is an immodest –and, most likely, unpopular– proposal: make transportation and communication a public good. That is, have a single non-profit organization handle all transportation and communication in Metro Manila.
By making telecommunication a public good, more and more people would be encouraged to telecommute instead of having to brave a daily commute. The government is already aware of this trend and has already passed a law to protect telecommuters.
By making transportation a public good instead of a market commodity, we could make sure that everyone gets to where they need to go and still be human when they get there. There would be no private cars (I know. It’s radical. But stay with me on this. It gets better, I promise), no privately-owned mass transit lines, and no privately-owned hauling companies. Instead of being concerned about profit, the ones running Metro Manila’s transport and communications system would be tasked to put the well being and health of the denizens of Metro Manila first and foremost and we would all hold them accountable to it.
What’s more, the various mass transit and logistics systems would be integrated and coordinated by this organization, making it easy for passengers to alight from one form of transport and easily board another. With the level of mobile computing we now have available, it would be easy for the transport managers to ensure that passengers to find the rides they need.
This arrangement would even generate new jobs. The construction and maintenance of vehicles and telecom infrastructure would be handled by this non-profit organization, and it would train anyone who would be willing to help keep the system running.
While the world waits for self-driving cars, drivers could be employed and trained to follow the integrated traffic system. Instead of running after fares, these drivers would be concerned with making the ride of their passengers a pleasant and safe experience. The manpower needed to make this scheme work would be substantial and range from the traffic managers, to vehicle maintenance people and cleaners, to the programmers of the apps, and so on.
All that is required for this scheme to work is for the 2% to give up their cars, and for all of us to treat transportation and communications as a common good instead of an opportunity to make money. Ultimately, a common good is something we all pay for through our taxes, something we all benefit from, and something that we must take care of collectively.
As I mentioned, it is an unpopular and immodest proposal.
But desperate times call for desperate measures.
Getting from place to place in Metro Manila need not be hell. We could make it a pleasant experience, if not, a painless one. All we need to do is care enough to make this happen.