In his column titled “It’s way past time for action” (Opinion, 6/20/13), Peter Wallace discussed some of the serious urban problems that Metro Manila just can’t seem to get a handle on. I’d like to add my thoughts on two of the issues he raised.
Wallace wrote: “[Metro Manila] remains one of the most chaotic, traffic-choked, dysfunctional, inefficient, and polluted megacities in Asia.” Those are pretty embarrassing, but sadly accurate, labels, which can all be attributed to a single cause: Laws, rules, regulations, guidelines or procedures are not enforced or followed. People are allowed to do things that are unsafe, inappropriate, and even banned by law, and enforcers seem to feel uncomfortable telling people they cannot do these things.
We can’t change the weather, and we can’t solve poverty or corruption overnight, but we can make major improvements in both traffic congestion and air pollution almost overnight by simply enforcing laws. There is no great mystery to this.
Traffic. We need to start managing traffic instead of letting it manage itself. It’s true we need to build more, wider and elevated roads, as well as flyovers and underpasses. But this is not the real solution because the real problem is, not the number of cars on the roads, but the way we drive on those roads. Like a crowd of people all trying to pass through a door at the same time, traffic moves more efficiently when order is maintained. Drivers can get to their destinations faster, and with fewer accidents, if they comply with lane markings, turning and intersection procedures, right-of-way, etc. But pleading with drivers to follow rules is never going to work. To change driver behavior, we need: zero-tolerance, strict enforcement of all traffic laws, applied to all drivers, everywhere.
In Metro Manila, both road users and traffic enforcers operate under the “let it work itself out” philosophy. Enforcers make a minimal effort to control traffic but generally choose not to notice or act on most violations. If a jeepney stops in the middle of the road to load passengers, an enforcer may give a halfhearted “move along” wave, but actually he expects other drivers to go around it. This happens at most intersections, where vehicles from all directions slowly weave their way through the cross-flow, and enforcers only step in when the intersection becomes jammed. There is no order or procedure. The solution to this chaos is to impose—not request—order.
And then there are the buses. In many major cities in the world, public bus service is either city-operated or contracted to a single company. In Metro Manila, city buses operate like glorified jeepneys, with dozens, if not hundreds, of bus firms holding franchises to various routes. These firms have no interest in providing public service. They operate solely as competitive businesses, using highly aggressive and often dangerous methods. Public buses, and the way they are allowed to operate, probably contribute more to congestion and dangerous road conditions than any other single factor.
I absolutely guarantee we can reduce congestion and improve safety almost instantly by enforcing traffic laws strictly and professionally. The current situation exists only because it is allowed to exist.
A final thought on traffic: A study conducted by the University of the Philippines National Center for Transportation Studies says the country has lost P1.5 TRILLION over the last 10 years as a result of traffic jams. What amazes me is that no one is outraged, or embarrassed, by this! Even those in authority just seem to accept it as fact.
Air pollution. As an experiment, I recently stood on the footbridge at Edsa/Ayala during the evening rush and counted the number of vehicles blowing clearly visible black smoke: 100 smoke-belchers in exactly one hour!
How is this problem being addressed? With “anti-smoke belching” operations, for one. At random locations in the metro, temporary side-of-the-road checkpoints are put up and suspected smoke-belchers are flagged down for emissions testing. As many as 15 personnel, with positions like “spotter,” “flagger,” “plate detacher,” “plate keeper,” “prober,” and “machine operator,” man these checkpoints. They catch a fair number of violators, but this is not a very effective tactic given the scope of the problem. I’d like to suggest a more effective strategy.
In my previous life as a policeman I was authorized, as part of my regular duties, to issue tickets for smoke-belching. These were regular traffic tickets, and the violation fell under the “defective vehicle” category. I based the ticket on visual observation, and didn’t need any sort of testing equipment. When I issued this ticket, I checked a box labeled “corrective violation.” It meant that the driver had three days in which to have his vehicle repaired. Before the end of the three days, the driver had to present the vehicle at an emissions testing center. If the vehicle passed the test—because it had been repaired or it was never in violation to begin with—the ticket was voided without penalty. If the driver didn’t bring his vehicle in for testing, or if he failed the test, the ticket remained and the proper fine was assessed.
The value of this system is obvious. Instead of setting up a few easily avoided anti-smoke belching checkpoints, every traffic enforcer on routine patrol is empowered to stop and ticket any violator he sees, without need of any type of special equipment. This puts a lot more eyes on the problem. Emissions testing still happens, but with a few days delay. This offers drivers an incentive to repair the vehicle after being caught. Some drivers will no doubt ignore the ticket, but I suspect this method will result in many more smoke-belchers being repaired than the current checkpoint system will. This, after all, should be the true goal of any anti-smoke belching program.
Traffic congestion and air pollution have been part of daily life in Metro Manila for decades. But these problems exist only because we let them; we can solve them overnight. Peter Wallace said, “It’s way past time for action.” Let me add: “If we don’t act now, when will we?”
Michael Brown is a retired law enforcement officer and longtime resident of Metro Manila. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/M_i_c_h_a_e_l.