Of course you can call or text on your phone while driving. You can even read your e-mail and reply quickly on your iPad. You might want to catch some quick news on Yahoo, or get your daily fix of cute dog antics on YouTube.
Better to do something fun rather than cry at Waze app street maps veined in bloody red, showing heavy traffic. On the highway that is called EDSA, the pulse of traffic is a faltering 10 kilometers per hour when it moves and engines are idling in near comatose standstill more often than laboriously heaving forward. The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) publicly declared in 2017 that there were around 7,500 vehicles using EDSA per hour per direction, well beyond its carrying capacity of 6,000 vehicles per hour per direction.
A BusinessWorld graphic last May showed that a total average of 367,728 vehicles pass through EDSA daily, composed of 247,527 cars, 69,438 motorcycles, 20,022 taxis, 12,283 buses, 8,830 trucks, 7,229 utility vehicles, and 2,399 various “others.” Intrapolating the graphic’s total average divided by two directions into the MMDA’s per hour per direction would roughly show that EDSA is tight 24 hours a day, perhaps only easing in the wee morning hours. EDSA = traffic = EDSA, any day including weekends and holidays. The MMDA is now strictly enforcing the rule that buses and other mass transit must keep within the two-lane “yellow lane” that segregates them from private cars, and that busses must not linger to pick-up or unload passengers at designated stops. Clearly the more numerous private transport suffer more as their space in the 10-lane (five each way) EDSA has been constricted to the three unrestricted lanes that funnel into two in places where the monster columns footprint of the overhead Metro Rail Transit (MRT) stomp on precious EDSA space.
Many plans and programs to improve traffic in Metro Manila have been designed by the Transportation Departments of this and previous political administrations. A Manila Bulletin editorial on July 6 showed a chronology of these efforts, including the attempt at the beginning of the Duterte administration to ask Congress for emergency powers which, the government said, are needed to solve the problem that is EDSA. Nothing came of it. Yet by the “President’s own optimistic projection… by December (2019), a trip from Cubao to Makati along EDSA should take just five minutes,” it noted. Secretary Mark Villar of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) hastened to correct this to “EDSA traffic will return to ‘acceptable’ levels by the end of the President’s term in 2022,” the editorial quoted.
The absurdity of the promises call forth absurd solutions aired by the government itself, such as cable cars over EDSA and point-to-point helicopters to pluck commuters from chosen starting points to plop them on contracted destinations. And then of course the textbook solution to traffic congestion is a developed public transport network. But the Boston Consulting Group, in a study called “Unlocking Cities,” said even government plans to increase the capacity of rail-based public transport services “will not be sufficient to meet growth in transport demand” over the next five years, an article in the Inquirer pointed out.
We could have done better, if we had done proper urban planning well and early enough. Metro Manila’s population has boomed in recent years to about 12.2 million individuals (swelling to 15 million in the daytime), or about 12% of the country’s total population, according to government statistics. City streets are narrow, and have become more congested as there is thin and weak access to the huge subdivisions built within already over-populated traditional communities. Towering vertical developments (condominiums and office buildings) pour tens of thousands of their occupants into the dyspepsia of traffic on the tiny access and feeder roads and onto EDSA, which is the main and only workable artery to work and home for many commuters. Notice the huge and dense mixed-use condominiums being built along EDSA itself!
And so we must talk of too many cars that are the main reason for the traffic problem of EDSA. The over-population of communities along and near EDSA comes with an automatic increase in the number of private cars. The Chamber of Automotive Manufacturers of the Philippines Inc. and the Truck Manufacturers Association declared that vehicle sales had grown by 16%, from more than 292,000 units (additional to existing vehicles) in 2016 to close to 340,000 units in 2017, and this is still growing. They say this is mainly because many buy an extra car (or two or three for family members) for the dead days when the family car is “coded” for off-road.
But why are people buying cars instead of using public mass transport?
Manong Frankie, is it because cars are a big status symbol for Filipinos? F. Sionil Jose, National Artist for Literature, writer-sociologist-historian, was consulted for his deep insight into the Filipino soul and mind, and his perception of Filipino values and mores, as conveyed with such clarity and impact in the realism of his novels and writings. He said, “You are talking about the traffic in EDSA, and wondering whether we Filipinos have created this monster, as we have created many monsters for ourselves? Yes, we are a specially different people and culture. Look at the streamlined and efficient public transport system in Japan!”
But, Manong Frankie, the Japanese of all social classes are using their mass transport system. Would an executive in a stylish business suit or pristine barong Tagalog ride the MRT or LRT, much less a public bus or a tired jeepney, and press bodily with the “unwashed masses,” going to and from work? Would his/her family be seen riding public transport? For proffered reasons of safety and security, and doubtful “convenience,” a family that has “arrived” in the ascending elitism of society must arrive in day-to-day destinations in a car — a long-standing status symbol, not only in the Philippines, but in most of the world since early history when nobility rode in personal chariots or carriages.
In many businesses, an employee who has reached supervisory or managerial rank is offered a company car plan to buy a car commensurate to his/her self “packaging” as a person to be looked up to by the lower ranks and the public. As promotions come, the employee is exhorted, if he/she does not voluntarily opt to upgrade to a higher-model car, partially financed, or wholly paid for by the company. These efforts in the business organization to “package” the employee for internal and external “marketing” shows that cars are indeed a persistent status symbol in society.
The difference between the Japanese and us is their discipline and guiding harmony in the present, Zen Buddhism permeating their demeanor and social interactions. We have a different make-up, influenced by the hierarchical templates imposed by colonizers and the Catholic Church, Manong Frankie said. And thus driving an air-conditioned car that sits on EDSA for the two hours from Cubao to Makati would be reinforcing social status, in lieu of sitting in low-class public transport that would take the same two hours on the road as well.
And so, we will have more cars and more traffic on EDSA. The banks and car companies are gleefully enjoying double-digit profit growth from easy-installment sales of more cars. It has been suggested by many that the purchase of new cars should be limited on a quota basis like in Singapore, but officials said this is not feasible here because purchases in the provinces of cars to be used in Manila cannot be controlled.
So, playing on the status-symbol aspect of car-owning and the seeming aversion of the social classes to mix in mass public transport, perhaps a new genre of limited public transport can be installed on EDSA: Super-streamlined, state-of-the-art, point-to-point coaches with “snob pricing” (expensive, but cheaper than bringing a car) can be made available to the higher-status commuter. And those rickety buses beyond an age limit, and those scraggly jeepneys should be banned from EDSA. Motorcycles, too, should take the side roads, not EDSA.
Yes, perhaps the EDSA mess is all about status.
Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.