Wanted: more water transport
Signs that we have too many private cars have become all too clear. It’s bad enough that streets are choking from traffic, and not just on our city streets anymore. I also see it in how the “rest stops” along our expressways leading out of Metro Manila have become anything but restful, also choking with cars, that finding a parking space in them has become a real challenge.
Recently I cited statistics indicating that some 20,000 additional vehicles hit our roads every month, with more than 7,000 of them in Metro Manila alone. We clearly cannot keep going on at this rate, and yet, “motorization” in the Philippines—that stage of economic development when vehicle ownership becomes widely accessible and cars are sold in large numbers—has actually just begun. Our transport authorities should have seen all of this coming many years ago, and put in place an extensive, efficient and comfortable mass transport system, so that using cars becomes a mere option rather than a necessity.
In Metro Manila, I’ve constantly wondered why we can’t do in the Pasig River what the Thais have managed to do with the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. There, the river is a major transportation artery plied by river buses, cross-river ferries, and water taxis. More than 15 boat lines, including commuter lines, operate on the city’s rivers and canals. For us, the water transport channel can extend well beyond the Pasig River, through Laguna de Bay. It’s not for lack of trying. There have been many attempts in the past. We just can’t seem to sustain them.
For a brief period in the 1990s, my son, then a medical student at the University of the Philippines, depended on the short-lived commuter boat service that ran from Los Baños along the coast of Laguna de Bay and into the Pasig River, ending near the Guadalupe Bridge. It made great sense then: it took only 45 minutes from the Los Baños municipal pier to Guadalupe, and just another 30 minutes or so by FX taxi to Padre Faura in Manila, as against about two hours or more of land travel all the way from Los Baños. But it wasn’t to last for long. As weeks passed, the boats began to make more unannounced stops along the way to pick up passengers, and in the process frequently got stuck in water lily clusters near the shore. Soon, the predictability of travel time was lost, passengers started dropping out (including my exasperated son), and the service eventually folded. Nowadays, the road trip from Guadalupe to Padre Faura alone can take two hours. And yet, repeated attempts to revive even just the Pasig River commuter ferry seem to get nowhere.
Is it mismanagement? Is it lack of commercial viability? The second need not stop us, as our mass rail transport systems have never been commercially viable either, and have taken up significant taxpayer money to sustain. The reality is that everyone, including nonriders who would benefit from better traffic than otherwise, benefits from having an extensive mass transport system, making it a public good worthy of government, hence taxpayer, support. In the same token, river commuter ferries need not be expected to be profitable (even as I believe it possible with proper management), and would have to be either operated or subsidized by the government, at least initially till it gains momentum.
Elsewhere in the country, there is great potential in harnessing river transport more actively. Our three largest rivers alone (Cagayan River, Rio Grande de Mindanao and Agusan River) traverse a combined total distance of over 1,000 kilometers, and I’m told that Mindanao’s rivers in particular had once upon a time seen active use for transport. Apart from our many rivers, water transport along our coasts offers great potential as well, and as an archipelago, we have among the longest shorelines in the world. I see it making sense along the western Zamboanga coast, for example, given lack of a good continuous coastal road there, or across Manila Bay, between Bataan and Cavite and points in between. We have the capability to build the vessels for this. Perhaps we just need to get away from being too land-based in our transport planning, and look to the water instead.
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