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03:54 AM July 8th, 2013

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July 8th, 2013 03:54 AM

If only the Philippine capital had worthier chroniclers of even its eyesores and miseries. Instead of a Charles Dickens immortalizing the brutalities of Victorian London, we have to make do with the bestselling author Dan Brown and his ephemeral novels. For better or for worse, the description of Manila as the figurative “gates of hell,” by a character in his latest potboiler, seems to have stuck, like a viral meme or, worse, an urban legend. But at least one part of that description—the “six-hour traffic jams”—seems to have been on many minds over the weekend, and also about three weeks earlier, when traffic in certain parts of the National Capital Region all but ground to a halt.

The primary cause of the June 17 traffic gridlock was natural: heavy rains. That of July 6 was quite definitely man-made: the government decision to proceed with “reblocking” of key portions of Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, Metro Manila’s main thoroughfare. The result in either case was extremely heavy traffic—as well as public anger, a lot of it.

In the earlier case, the capital region’s public transportation services and infrastructure seemed to have been overwhelmed at the exact time people needed them the most. Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson later admitted, in a rare act of official candor, that work on unclogging crucial esteros had not pushed through according to schedule (that is to say, before the start of the rainy season) because local politicians had requested a postponement until after May’s midterm elections.

In the latter case, the Department of Public Works and Highways pushed through with its plan to reblock five portions of Edsa in three cities plus another one in Commonwealth Avenue, in Quezon City, beginning on Friday night. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough notice given or enough alternative routes prepared. The result: Motorists and commuters woke up to heavy rainy-day traffic, on a dry Saturday.

It did not help that, just last Friday, Socio-Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan had quantified the cost of the heavy traffic plague, giving the public a handy number to remember. According to a study prepared by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the country loses about P2.4 billion a day from traffic-related delays. (The gates of hell now have a price tag.)

This seems like a preposterously large sum, over $20 billion a year or about a tenth of the value of the entire economy. We have not had a chance to read the Jica study for ourselves; but going by a much earlier paper, prepared by the same Japanese agency in 1999, which estimates that “direct losses” (wasted gasoline, wasted electricity and so on) account for about 28 percent of the total amount, we can assume that today some P245 billion in traffic-related losses may be classified as direct. That works out to less than P700 million a day—still a shocking, substantial sum.

Because of the still-skewed nature of the Philippine economy, the National Capital Region accounts for a little over a third of the gross domestic product; if we include the Calabarzon and Central Luzon provinces, parts of which adjoin Metro Manila, into the mix, over 60 percent of GDP is produced in a cluster that is vulnerable to the vicissitudes of Metro Manila’s traffic.

The long-term solution must lie in a massive effort to decongest Metro Manila—to move more of its offices and plants and factories to other areas. That is a solution that is beyond the capacities of even the most popular of governments; it will take a lot of political will, and even more patience on the part of the public, before the tipping point is reached.

One example: The argument against developing the Clark airport as the country’s main air hub depends on the assumption that many travelers want to reach Metro Manila; in this view, therefore, Clark’s distance becomes a problem. But if the framework for understanding the development of Clark is decongesting Metro Manila, and encouraging the relocation of Metro Manila-based industries, then Clark’s distance becomes an opportunity.

Short-term, the solutions are just as difficult: Encouraging greater use of public transportation systems, upgrading and expanding the capacity of those systems to accommodate more passengers, not least, enforcing traffic discipline (many studies point to free-for-all parking and loading-unloading practices as a major cause of traffic).

It’s a long slog.

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