Avoiding carmaggedon

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By Zsarlene B. Chua, Reporter

“If we [were able] to solve the traffic problem in Metro Manila then that would [give us] a Nobel Peace Prize,” said Brian C. Gozun, dean of the Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business at De La Salle University Manila, during a recent forum on transportation demand management (TDM).

While this was said partly in jest, it was telling of how massive the problem has become – in fact, during the one-day forum held at a coffee shop in Poblacion, Makati, two of the main resource persons were over an hour late mostly due to the ever-present heavy traffic at the main thoroughfares in the metropolis.

And solving it might really warrant such a prestigious prize since Metro Manila has been cited as having some of the worst traffic conditions in the world: in a 2015 article posted on its web site, Waze (the community-based GPS, traffic and navigation app), said that the Metro Manila has the “worst traffic in the world” with a traffic index score of 0.4 in urban areas, followed by Bandung, Indonesia with 0.5, and Guatemala with 0.6. The study covered 38 countries.

The same app pegged the average commute of a Filipino at 45.5 minutes, followed by Jakarta at 42.1. In contrast, in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, which had the best traffic index score, the average commute is 37.5 minutes.

Waze is not alone in showing what the denizens of Metro Manila go through every single day – the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in 2014 noted the country is losing P2.4 billion a day because of heavy traffic and warned it could balloon up to P6 billion a day by 2030 if not solved.

“Preliminary analysis in the study showed that the average low income group households have to spend no less than 20% of their monthly household income for transport. Without intervention, traffic demand will likely increase by 13% by 2030, and transport cost will be 2.5 times higher,” the report posted on its web site said.

Local data also showed that the metropolis is fast running out of usable roads for motor vehicles. The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) noted in 2014 that there are only 1,032 km of national roads in the National Capital Region (NCR) serving 2.1 million registered cars at the time, which meant there is only a kilometer of road for every 2,000 cars.

That was back in 2014, and the number of cars has increased over time. As BusinessWorld motoring columnist Vernon Sarne mentioned in his Sept. 6 column, the Land Transportation Office (LTO) recorded 474,341 new vehicle registrations in 2016, 25% of which were in Metro Manila.

(In the same column, Mr. Sarne noted there are 3,723 km of local roads aside from the main roads but that most cars pass through the main arteries anyway so gridlock ensues.)

The government currently has in place several projects meant to alleviate traffic, most of which include building new road infrastructure including the Metro Manila Skyway Stage 3 project – meant to connect the South Luzon Expressway via Buendia, Makati to the North Luzon Expressway via Balintawak, Quezon City using a 14.8 km elevated expressway. The project is scheduled to be completed by 2019.

And then there’s the $7-billion Metro Manila Subway project which was approved by NEDA on Sept. 12. The subway system is meant to traverse Quezon City, Pasig, Makati, Taguig, and reach the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Pasay City. The project will be funded by a JICA loan with a targeted completion date of 2025.

But while the projects are all well and good, Marie Danielle V. Guillen of the German Corporation for International Cooperation (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH, or GIZ for short) remarked during the forum, “we can’t build our way out of congestion.”

So what do we do in the meantime while we wait for these projects come into fruition?

Well, according to Mr. Gozun and Ms. Guillen, people should start thinking about Transportation Demand Management because “there is really no one best solution to the traffic problem,” Mr. Gozun said.

Transportation Demand Management, TDM for short, is “the flipside to infrastructure,” according Mr. Gozun in his presentation.

“It focuses on understanding how people make their transportation decisions and helping people use the infrastructure in place for transit, ridesharing, biking, and tele-working,” he added.

His Powerpoint presentation noted that TDM is “cost-effective in guiding the design of our transportation and physical infrastructure so that alternatives to driving are naturally encouraged and our systems are better balanced.”

The goal of TDM is to “maximize the efficiency of an urban transport system by promoting more effective, healthy, and environment friendly modes. And discouraging unnecessary public vehicle use,” said Ms. Guillen.

TDM measures are meant to influence whether, why, when, where and how people travel, motivating them to shift their modes of travel (walk, cycle, take transit, rideshare), make fewer trips (shop online, telecommute), and drive more efficiently (do several things on each trip, avoid peak traffic hours and congested routes).

Cities such as Guelph in Canada and Seattle in the USA, among many others, have applied strategies in order to keep on “moving people and goods rather than motor vehicles,” according to the Seattle Mobility Plan published on the city’s web site in 2008.

Several TDM strategies include congestion pricing (as Singapore does), flextime/telecommuting, and car-free planning.

The strategies include the improvement of transport options (e.g. walking and cycling improvements, rideshare/commute trip reduction programs, carsharing services, and guaranteed ride home programs, among others), economic measures (e.g. the aforementioned congestion pricing, distance-based fees, parking pricing and regulations, fuel tax increases), smart growth and land use policies (transit-oriented development, parking management, car-free planning, transport planning reforms, among others), and other programs like school and campus transport management, freight transport, and tourist transport management.

In Metro Manila, while there are a lot of options for transportation aside from private cars like the MRT/LRT, buses, jeeps, tricycles, and UV Express (though their reliability and safety can be a concern), both Mr. Gozun and Ms. Guillen advocate the shift from motorized to non-motorized modes of transport like cycling.

“The funny thing here is, cycling is a good recreational sport. A lot of people do cycling for recreation… but [they] don’t use bicycles to go to work. Some people are okay with cycling as a sport but cycling [is not used] for utilitarian purposes,” said Mr. Gozun.

He acknowledged, citing a 2008 study he authored alongside Ms. Guillen, that despite the benefits of cycling and other non-motorized modes of transportation as a way to commute, there are barriers to their use that are still relevant now, including “unavailability of bicycles, inability to use bicycles, security issues, and a perceived hostile environment.” But he maintained that cycling is a good way to avoid traffic and stakeholders should look into this option to lessen the traffic build-up.

Ms. Guillen, meanwhile, noted that several cities are taking such initiatives, pointing to Marikina which has branded itself as a “cycling city” after adding bike lanes to existing roads in 2000.

(Of course, the Marikina initiative isn’t fool-proof as just last year, Lorelie Melevo died after being run over by a dump truck while cycling along a bike lane on Mayor Gil Fernando St. in Marikina.)

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in 2014 proposed that all roads to be constructed should come with bike lanes. The initial proposal included four meters of side walk and four-meter bike lanes, though consultations with the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) pared the numbers down to one meter each.

Among other initiatives in Metro Manila’s cities include Pasig City’s “Carless Sundays” which, as it name suggests, prohibits motorized vehicles from plying the usually busy streets such as F. Ortigas Jr. Ave. every Sunday from 6 a.m. to 12 p.m. The program started in 2012.

“There is a need to promote the use of non-motorized transportation, specially biking, as an alternative healthy and environmentally sound mode of transportation which could also reinforce the Pasig Green City initiatives, conserve foreign exchange, and promote small and medium scale enterprises,” said a city ordinance quoted by GMA Network on its web site in 2012.

Again, these might all be band-aids to the great yawning cut that is the traffic problem in Metro Manila, but these band-aids – while not perfect – might be able to influence a greater movement that would save everyone from Carmaggedon.