Metro Manila was the fourth most congested city in the world in 2020, even as traffic declined due to lockdown restrictions. — PHILIPPINE STAR/MICHAEL VARCAS

By Arjay L. Balinbin, Senior Reporter

ANNUAL TRAFFIC congestion in Metro Manila significantly dropped last year due to coronavirus lockdown, but the Philippine capital was still the fourth-most congested city in the world, according to data from a location technology company.

Latest data from Amsterdam-based TomTom International B.V. showed Metro Manila had a 53% congestion level last year, better than 71% congestion level in 2019. This means a 30-minute trip would take 53% longer than it would during baseline uncongested conditions in Metro Manila.

TomTom’s 2020 Traffic Index report showed Moscow was the most congested city last year.

The Philippine capital’s congestion level was the same as Mumbai, India and Bogota, Colombia, which ranked second and third on the Traffic Index. However, Metro Manila traffic dropped by 25% in 2020, while traffic in Mumbai and Bogota declined by 18% and 22%, respectively.

The TomTom traffic index covered 416 cities or regions across 57 countries on six continents.

Metro Manila saw consistent low traffic levels — or 50% less congested than their corresponding days in 2019 — starting March 15 until May 31, when strict lockdowns were in place.

February was the most congested month in Metro Manila with a 68% level in 2020, while April — the height of the lockdown — had the least congestion.

From 12% in May, Metro Manila’s average traffic congestion level rose to 42% in June, when the government eased travel restrictions. Traffic steadily increased, reading 60% congestion in December.

Motorists in Metro Manila lost 20 minutes per 30-minute trip during rush hour in the morning and 29 minutes per 30-minute trip during rush hour in the evening. This meant they lost 188 hours — equivalent to seven days and 20 hours — in 2020, or two days and 21 hours less than the previous year.

The decline in traffic congestion in Metro Manila last year was expected due to the lockdown, according Rene S. Santiago, a transport expert.

“School trips alone accounted for about six million trips disappearing in Metro Manila with no students going to schools. That is 25% of the total daily demand. The government also suppressed the supply, with the limited capacity and the limited number of public utility vehicles allowed on the roads,” he told BusinessWorld in a phone interview on Wednesday.

“So where is the easing of traffic in that sense?” he added.

He noted that there is a “short-term relief” from San Miguel Corp.’s (SMC) opening of Skyway 3, which may reduce traffic on EDSA and C5 by 20% to 30%.

SMC said on Wednesday it would fully open all the seven lanes of the 18-kilometer Skyway 3 after official ceremonies on Jan. 14. The elevated expressway is expected to reduce travel time from the South Luzon Expressway in Alabang to the North Luzon Expressway (NLEx) to about 30 minutes from about three hours.

Mr. Santiago noted Philippine officials have not come up with realistic solutions to address the traffic problem in Metro Manila.

“What they have are artificial solutions, which cannot be sustained. For example, the EDSA Busway system. It speeds up the travel of those on the buses, but they are actually in direct competition with the MRT-3. The moment you expand the capacity of the MRT-3 once we return to normal, the riders of the EDSA Busway will go back to the MRT-3,” he said.

Mr. Santiago said the government could reinstall or reopen the “signalized intersections,” instead of closing the U-turn slots along EDSA.

“Once the situation returns to normal, the good part is that not all workers will go back to their offices. A portion of them will still be working from home and some of the schools will adopt hybrid learning, and that is good. Telecommuting and tele-schooling are some of the solutions I have been recommending since 2014,” he added.

Infrawatch PH convenor Terry L. Ridon said Metro Manila’s traffic remains one of the worst in the world because the infrastructure and policies needed to ease the congestion “remain absent, despite record congestion reduction during the pandemic.”

“Further easing can be expected as soon as the NLEX Connector Road and Segment 8.2 projects proceed. These new toll roads can certainly unburden EDSA and other major roads currently experiencing moderate to severe congestion,” he said via e-mail.

“Congestion pricing has also been proposed by other groups, but support remains limited because public mass transport remains unreliable in the capital. Without effective public mass transport, this proposal may unfairly burden commuters not only in respect to money, but also to time,” Mr. Ridon added.

The pandemic is expected to weigh again on traffic congestion this year, said Nick Cohn, TomTom’s senior traffic expert.

“We’re going to see continued restrictions through the first half of the year, and I think we’re going to see a lot of ups and downs before we’re really getting back to any normal driving patterns and traffic activity levels,” he told Reuters in an interview.

The downturn in congestion in the United States was more prolonged compared with Europe last year because US coronavirus cases stayed relatively high during the summer and early fall, Mr. Cohn said.

In the United States, Los Angeles, New York and Miami were the most congested cities, though traffic in each city dropped from 2019 levels by 36%, 30% and 26%, respectively, TomTom data showed.

Overall, Moscow was the most congested city in 2020, but traffic fell by 8% from 2019. Bengaluru was the most congested city in the world in 2019, but it fell to sixth place in 2020 with nearly a 30% drop in traffic year on year.

Traffic in London and Paris was almost 20% lower than in 2019, and traffic in Madrid and Rome dropped by 35% and 29%, respectively. Berlin experienced only a 6% traffic fall compared with 2019.

Traffic patterns like the daily morning commute to work — a mainstay for decades — could shift because of increased flexibility around remote work for employees, Mr. Cohn said.

“In the US, Canada and Mexico, if you look at peak travel patterns, the morning peak seems to have melted away,” he said. “We have never seen that before.”

Traffic congestion during rush hours last year decreased by 25% globally, said Stephanie Leonard, TomTom’s head of traffic innovation and policy.

As more people return to office following vaccine distributions, congestion levels could rise if commuters choose to avoid public transit and drive to office instead, said John Kilduff, partner at Again Capital LLC in New York. — with Reuters

Metro Manila among cities with the worst traffic congestion