Recent news has brought the traffic problem in Metro Manila to the forefront once again. Horrendous traffic jams cause enormous losses to the economy and make the life of those who want to get to and from work or shopping or visits very hard. The bad condition of the MRT along EDSA after just 16 years has made headlines.
But let us look at the situation more closely. Metro Manila has an official population of nearly 12 million living in an area of over 600 square kilometers. Unofficially, there are probably much more people due to large numbers of informal settlers. Mexico City has almost 9 million people living in an area of almost 1500 square kilometers. Even Tokyo which is known to be densely populated has only 9 million people living in an area roughly the same size as Metro Manila. Berlin with 900 square kilometers is home to just around three and a half million people.
In fact, several cities in Metro Manila or the National Capital Region (NCR) as it is also called are among the most densely populated cities in the world. The MRT which was originally designed for a capacity of 450 thousand passengers per day carried 600 thousand passengers daily as of 2012-2013. The population of Metro Manila officially doubled from almost 6 million in 1980 to almost 12 million in these days, meaning that inspite of measures taken to modernize infrastructure, the city is operating far beyond its capacity.
Metro Manila was created in 1975 by decree of President Marcos. The Metro Manila Commission was formed to administer the area. Studies commissioned in 1973 and 1977 saw the need to develop and extend the existing network of radial and circumferential roads, and to build a rail transit network in order to be more efficient. In the following years, EDSA or Highway 54 was widened, underpasses were built and construction was started on the first LRT line from Baclaran to Monumento. Projects continued, although the Metro Manila Commission was later replaced by weaker successors, the Metro Manila Authority and then the present Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA). Unfortunately individual cities got back more power again, which made things harder to coordinate.
EDSA or C-4 got flyovers or underpasses on all major crossings. C-5 was constructed further outside. The LRT 2 line from Manila to Marikina was built as well as the MRT from Baclaran to EDSA North. Philippine National Railway stations in Manila were revived and are used again today.
Inspite of progress, some things were underestimated or forgotten. The MRT and LRT systems lacked and still lack good interfaces to other means of transport. Especially the MRT has very high stairs or escalators, making it very impractical to get into some stations. Often the sidewalks near the stations are not sufficiently wide, or the bus stops if they are used do not have bays so busses stopping for passengers block traffic – not to mention busses that hold up several lanes at a time on EDSA. PNR stations are often not very attractive or inviting to commuters. During peak times, there can be lines that cause it to take very long until one is able to board the MRT or LRT.
Ideally, a commuter should be able to take his car or another form of transport and board rapid transit efficiently, then maybe take another mode of transport from his final stop to work. Since this is obviously not possible for many, a lot of people going to work take the car – most probably also for safety reasons in an Asian megacity with large differences in income and opportunities. Increased affluence has led to more cars on the streets, while maintenance issues on the MRT and its crowdedness have decreased its attractivity. Problems with discipline and traffic enforcement add to the already difficult business of managing traffic in Metro Manila.
In addition to this, people are already leaving Metro Manila, or settling in places outside like Cavite but commuting to work in Metro Manila which takes hours, given the fact that there is no really viable rapid transit to the outskirts. There is a master plan by JICA to create urban centers outside Manila, but it will take long to implement.
Fixing the MRT is one of the most urgent measures and as of this article being written is already being addressed. Tightening traffic enforcement is also already being done, so the urgent things are already work in progress. There are already apps like WAZE and by MMDA to assist motorists, but these do not solve the fundamental issues.
The next steps could be to remove obstacles on major roads that cause traffic to pile up. Maximum traffic flow is always determined by the worst chokepoint. Next thing is to improve interfaces between rapid transit lines among themselves and towards other public transport systems to make it easier for commuters, widen sidewalks or build elevated walkways for their convenience – something that has already been done in Makati for example. For potential commuters coming from outside, parking garages could be built close to major stations like North Avenue MRT so that they can just leave their cars there and continue without adding traffic to this major street.
For commuters outside Metro Manila, it is high time to build new rail lines, ideally with high capacity – double decker train wagons like some regional trains for example in Japan, possibly with stations along Manila Bay – Mall of Asia and Quirino Grandstand for example, since it is easier to build a high-capacity line along the front of Roxas Boulevard or nearby because there is (still) more space. To facilitate rapid boarding, ideas such as the Spanish solution of having platforms on both sides and one-way traffic for loading and unloading should be considered.
Instead of going for grand projects, quick results should be the goal, do what is necessary first, then what is possible.
There are projects like the Laguna Lakeshore Expressway Dike which will start soon and will make it easier to travel to areas south of Manila. Yet it may be necessary to move as much as possible out of the city. Moving government offices and their employees has already been suggested by Senator Alan Peter Cayetano. New industrial centers could provide work for resettled informal settlers as well and prevent them from coming back to Metro Manila. And not only decrease traffic there, but make the city more livable again.
To prevent the areas vacated from being filled up again, proper urban planning should be applied to turn them into parks for example. Additional taxes on businesses located in Manila would be a negative incentive to leave and could finance restructuring – and subsidize development of new regional centers, near Manila and on other islands.
The Department of Science and Technology has developed two interesting technologies: the automated guideway transit or AGT which a pilot route is planned for U.P. Diliman to replace jeepneys – especially the higher-capacity version for 120 passengers now running on a test route in Bicutan is of interest long-term – and the road train bus. DOST emphasized developing local capabilities in manufacturing, which also means that procurement and maintenance would not cause spending or even debts in dollars. Who knows maybe one day they will build trains, but public transport that feeds rapid transit is just as important – there you have the AGT and road trains, possible in conjunction with Bus Rapid Transit – to replace vans, tricycles and jeepneys.
I would like to thank Joe America and his contributor chempo for writing an article which inspired me, as well as this blog by a Filipino traffic and urban planning expert. Please feel free to let me know your observations, ideas and criticisms!
Irineo B. R. Salazar, München, 23. September 2015