Gridlock and misery
My partner and I live a mere 12 kilometers from each other. Back in the province such a distance would have meant a nice, 20-minute daily drive. In 2017 and in Metro Manila, and with the additional burden of demanding work hours, the 12 km distance spells disaster, and makes for a star-crossed romance just as dramatic as Romeo and Juliet’s; Edsa is an ocean and the 30-minute drive becomes 2.5 hours. The way is littered with roadblocks and construction, like minor villains in a play. Daily trips become truly daunting; after slogging through traffic you end up with some time together but no energy to enjoy it, with the prospect of the trip back to make everything even more dismaying. On the most frustrating days, double suicide becomes more and more appealing.
Despite the daily gridlock on Edsa, the Philippines isn’t even ranked as having the worst traffic in the world, though we’re pretty close. As of mid-2017, we were the ninth worst in traffic, plodding along behind Iran, Egypt and a handful of others, although we do hold the distinction of being the “least satisfied drivers” among 39 countries, according to Waze’s global Driver Satisfaction Index.
You can’t dismiss traffic as a minor concern. The effects of traffic congestion on the environment, the economy and on wellbeing are a large area of study, affecting everything from the loss of revenue for public transport vehicles that end up making fewer trips due to the traffic, through wasted productive time, to effects on psychosocial health of commuters. More body pains, more work absences, and more colds are known to occur in individuals who spend long hours commuting. Impedance is a real thing, the framework through which we understand commuting stress, describing aspects of traffic which interfere with our goals, evoke frustration and destroy efficient performance and personal satisfaction. Truly, it’s hard to think lofty thoughts about the Philippines and its more pressing societal concerns when you’re stuck for two hours in traffic, your behind barely finding purchase on a crowded jeepney bench.
More to the point, the recent brouhaha over Asean lanes, including the vigilantes who actually removed traffic cones and sped through to the dismay of the Metro Manila Development Authority, is symptomatic of a country that’s had just about enough. Those who tut-tut over the lack of discipline of Filipinos hold up countries like Japan as an example, where passengers quietly fall in line—a stark contrast to the mayhem that erupts as soon as MRT doors open and a mass of humanity elbows its way through. It’s not us, I want to argue, but the circumstances. In the Philippines, in traffic as in everything else, it’s the survival of the fittest, and what could be a calm, well-behaved population is forced to fight for its way both on the road and inside public transport, or risk the loss of jobs and many other things besides. Being stuck in traffic surely is an altered state. As for those who believe that the number of private cars is a big contributor to traffic, this might be the case, but it’s also easy to see why someone would choose to suffer in the silent privacy of their own cars rather than with other disgruntled passengers. We may be failing to reduce the number of our own private vehicles, but that’s because the public transportation system has failed us as well.
To be fair to the government, Asean lanes aside, there really is some effort in finding solutions to the struggle, if the ever-changing coding systems and MMDA announcements are any indication. But based on our satisfaction index, it’s doubtful whether this has had any tangible results for our drivers. Certainly not for me, with my traffic-crossed romance, but also not for tens of thousands of commuters. To say that we are miserable as commuters is not an exaggeration, and to minimize these concerns by saying “It’s just a few days” of extra traffic congestion is unhelpful and reductionist. Asean lane vigilante Maria Isabel Lopez and those who drove with her may deserve a little bit of the flak they’ve
gotten, but certainly no more than that.
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