The Explainer: Traffic

You’d think the escalating cost of gas would mean traffic’s going to be reduced. But is that really solving the problem? Only if starvation’s a solution to being genetically inclined to be fat.

So one way or another, as we all get crankier with the start of classes and worsening traffic problems, we’ll tackle traffic tonight –I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.


I. Planning is a problem


I’ve been asking commuters and motorists their top ten hates and we’ve come up with this preliminary list:

1. People don’t give way. And if you try to direct traffic, the Revised Penal Code says you can be charged with usurpation of authority.

2. Rampaging buses and undisciplined jeepneys.

3. Policemen and traffic aides who hide when its hot or rainy, and who arrest people to get bribes.

4. Potholes. Everywhere. Even square ones, which one Italian visitor said was surely unique.

5. Officials and their hagad and wang-wangs. What, the citizen isn’t trying to get to an important appointment?

6. How work meant for the summer begins during the rainy season and how problems like flooding are never fixed.

7. Signs vanish or are hard to read, Metro Manila is the darkest and worst-lit major city this side of Kabul, and at night it’s chaos because traffic lights are put on caution.

8. How GPS is useless if your satellite navigation won’t tell you of one way streets –or how every map’s outmoded by the time it’s printed, because politicians keep renaming streets.

9. There hasn’t been a new bridge built over the Pasig River in over a generation.

10. How sidewalks are an afterthought and people who don’t own cars are treated like dirt.

Now I’m sure you have your own top ten, and we’d like to hear what it is. But before we go on, let me take you back to a time long before the internal combustion engine.

Here’s a book on tourism in the ancient world: Pagan Holidays: On The Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists. I’m bringing it up for a couple of reasons, but first, here’s a delightful passage from this book:

The Romans’ talent for urban planning was never expressed in their own city. Its maze of alleys, never more than ten feet wide, was less like a system of public thoroughfares than a diabolical obstacle course. By government decree, wheeled traffic had been banned during the daylight hours, so even patricians had to pick their way through the city by foot, their sandaled feet skidding along a nauseating bouillabaisse of Tiberine mud, rotting vegetables, broken bricks, pebbles, mule dung, and the occasional dead cat. In this claustrophobic labyrinth, every passageway was clogged by tradesmen…

Sounds like our metropolis, today, doesn’t it? Ancient Rome was like prewar Manila: a city of one million residents.

Like prewar and postwar Manila, Rome suffered from traffic problems; and like Ancient Rome, today’s traffic planners have often had to resort to sweeping solutions –the ancient Romans banned wheeled vehicles during the day, the way our officials have imposed a truck ban during the day.

You remember when we had Architect Paulo Alcazaren on this show, and he walked us through the hit-and-miss history of urban planning in our chaotic metropolis.

How even during Spanish times, Manila had become unhealthy and congested-

How this man, Daniel Burnham, was brought in to bring Manila into the modern era-

How, by the 1930s it was obvious that Manila was already too congested-

This editorial cartoon from 1941 the Philippines Free Press shows you the twin problems of traffic and noise pollution. Prewar residents of Manila will tell you how traffic was a mess until the Ayala Bridge was widened and Quezon Boulevard plowed through neighborhoods that were demolished.

And so how, in the 1940s-

-and  in the 1950s, officials drew up ambitious plans drawn up for Quezon City. But these plans never really got off the ground.

Nowall these the problems inherent in urban planning’s familiar to anyone who’s played SimCity.

There will come a point where you can put together a beautiful, flourishing city-

But it will all start to fall to pieces. Which probably led you, as it led me many a time, to simply solve all the problems by decreeing the eruption of a volcano in the middle of your metropolis.

Still, there’s something to be gained from thinking things through. Your solution can simply create new problems. SimCity, for a time, was actually used to train urban planners in the United States. They’d use the game to simulate the consequences of plans they had in mind.

And what matters, too, is whether you have the right orientation.

The other day, I was in Marikina and this man- the fellow here with a beard and a microphone, is the former mayor of Bogota, Columbia, Enrique Penalosa. He was here as a guest of Marikina mayoress Marides Fernando.

He’d dropped in on the event I was at, and pointed out how our cities, today, are designed for cars, not people. And yet people still live in the cities.

What is important, he said, is not facilitating cars, but facilitating the lives of people. His particular obsession, for example, is sidewalks. They should be wide enough to permit two wheelchairs to travel up and down the sidewalk unimpeded.

This is important, he said, because sidewalks are the only real public space the public gets to enjoy –and a country that doesn’t pay attention to sidewalks, is an undemocratic and unfeeling society.

Think of your children –they should be able to travel from your home, to a public space like a park, which should be safe for visitors. As there are more of us, we need healthful and free places to visit. That’s not the mall, it remains a park, with trees and open spaces.

As for cars, Penalosa believes a focus on affordable, efficient, public transportation, and attractive open spaces and adequate sidewalks, would lead more people to commute rather than drive.

When I return, what this point of view has to do with you, with traffic, and what we ought to do about it.


II. Asking the right things


We’re going to be talking to a veteran traffic planner. But as we always do, here are some places for you to visit, if you’d like to know or discuss more. To my mind, the ground-breaking thinking and discussions are taking place on line.

First, if you enjoy a bird’s eye view of things, add Vista Pinas to your bookmarks.

You’ll enjoy seeing Malacanan Palace from the air:

For example. The value of a site like Vista Pilipinas, is it encourages you to think big.

This is a project of a talented part-time mapmaker who blogs at:

Vaes9, and if you like maps, he’s plugged in, as a producer of maps for Wikipedia, on exciting developments in the map-making field.

And for the real nitty-gritty of urban planning,  over at this blog: another hundred years hence.

Now sadly, the Filipino behind this blog is overseas. Otherwise he should be made urban planning supremo.

So let me introduce you to some of his ideas, which are derived from the thinking and practical accomplishments of urban planning visionaries the world over.

Tired of traffic? Well, he suggests a four step plan to really reducing stress for all of us in an urban setting.

Step One is to change the frame. Improving public transit is not about decongesting traffic. It is about social justice.

Step Two is to show an alternative vision. Discussing what is wrong about the status quo will not bring change by itself. We have to show what is possible.

Step Three: We need to build a winning political coalition.

Step Four: Dividing and Conquering the Opposition.

Where’s he coming from? Here’s just one thought-provoking explanation of his:

Effecting policy changes are often long slogs with victory going to those who can cobble, stable and effective coalitions. Miracle moments (something I’m afraid we have become addicted to) are rare and when they do occur, it usually just results in changes in leadership rather than substantive changes in policy. The change will rarely be lead by policy wonks or elected officials -rather, organized groups must bring political pressure to bear to get the policy wonks to rethink policy and the elected officials to support the change.

Now if another hundred years hence thinks the solution is to stop relying on traffic supremos but instead, forcing the politicians to listen to the public, then obviously you need a coalitionh. Who should be in the coalition?

He puts forward four key groups:

1) URBAN POOR: Ideally there should be a commuters union organized and powered by users of public transport. Since there is none, then the urban poor groups should take their place. The urban poor is the sector most dependent on public transit to function in the city and because improving public transit is a social justice issue, then this should be on top of the agenda of advocates for the poor.

2) THE CHURCH/FAITH-BASED GROUPS: Because it is a social justice issue, then the religious groups should also be in the coalition and should be working actively to address that inequity

3) LABOR UNIONS: Workers should also have a dog in the race if inefficient public transit is a bane to families of laborers.

And finally,

4) EMPLOYERS CONFEDERATION and CHAMBERS OF COMMERCE: as inefficient public transit directly effects worker productivity. It also affects the marketability of the city as an investment destination. – More efficient public transit increases productivity and reduces the stress on workers. (These groups can also line up behind the social justice banner.)

How would this work?

Another hundred years hence asks, for example, if our focus on traffic is too oriented towards making it easier for people who own cars, to drive around. If you had these groups as part of the solution, they’d actually reveal themselves, he suggests.

Take a look at the questions he thinks we should be asking.

1. How much of the household budget does transportation consume? (Particularly for the C,D and E classes.) -and this should cover the costs of car ownership (purchase, maintenance and operation) as well as the costs of fares for all modes of public transit.

2. How much more time does it take to get from home to work or home to school when you take public transit (all modes) vs. a private car?

3. What is the social cost of the inefficiency and bias towards cars? How much less time do parents in families without cars have to spend with their children? Do students have to rent at boarding houses because it is just not feasible to travel from home to school daily?

Since perpetually expanding highways is so expensive, he thinks other solutions would present themselves. For example, the usual solution is, build an elevated railway. But that’s expensive, too: and what happens after an earthquake. He suggests, a kind of network involving linked-up buses. Would that work? Well, why not ask people?

So when we return, we’ll take a look at an actual veteran of traffic planning. What works? What doesn’t? What do we do?


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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