SHARES:

10:13 PM July 18th, 2013

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By: Michael L. Tan, July 18th, 2013 10:13 PM

There was a flurry of front-page articles on traffic in Metro Manila, spurred by studies from the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and the University of the Philippines National Center for Transportation Study. There were headlines on economic losses from traffic jams and a full-page article (at the back of this op-ed page) on the risks of floods.  And then new headlines took over: the Supreme Court and the Reproductive Health Law, the alleged pork barrel scam. We will never run out of bad news, I’m afraid.

Traffic is off our radar now, except when we’re stuck on the road, and I worry that the next time traffic again makes it to the front page will be because of another gridlock induced by a typhoon or monsoon rains.

I’ve followed media coverage of traffic problems in the Philippines and in other countries. I’ve been especially intrigued by how the problems used to be traced to three Es (engineering, enforcement and education) and then to four Es with the addition of “evaluation.” Then it became five Es, the fifth one being “encouragement.” I thought I’d write about the five Es and add a sixth one, which I feel is the most formidable—yet most neglected—obstacle to solving our traffic problems.

Let’s start with engineering, which is probably the most obvious cause of traffic congestion. So much can be said here but the bottom line is that there is very little space left for new roads in Metro Manila. Other urban centers should learn from our mistakes. I see new subdivisions coming up in Mega Manila (Rizal, Laguna, Cavite), with developers still providing very narrow roads just so they can squeeze out more sales of residential lots.

One imperative for engineers, even with little space left for new roads, is to make sure major thoroughfares have emergency lanes and refuge areas. The emergency lanes are reserved for vehicles that stall because of a flat tire or engine trouble and need to be pulled over to the side. Even more importantly, these lanes are for vehicles involved in accidents. The emergency lane (or a hard shoulder in some countries) must be accessible to ambulances. There are such lanes on our expressways and a few thoroughfares, but we know how some vehicles hijack the lanes even without emergencies and how difficult it is for ambulances and tow trucks to get in, so we end up with a traffic gridlock.

Refuge areas are similar to emergency lanes, but the idea here is that in times of multivehicle accidents, or disasters such as floods, motorists need to be able to escape to safer areas. We don’t seem to have learned from Tropical Storm “Ondoy,” where motorists constituted a significant percentage of casualties.

Education, the second E, refers to increasing public awareness of traffic rules and regulations. Ideally, the education should come when people are learning to drive, and they should get tested before getting their license. The harsh reality is that hardly anyone goes to driving school, and those who do are often taught the dirty tricks of surviving on our roads (“lamangan” in Filipino) rather than following the rules. As for drivers’ licensing tests, how many people have ever really taken these?

Education will have to come through the mass media, and I have to say the newscasts, which love to cover the blood and gore of road accidents, don’t seem to scare reckless motorists and pedestrians. We will also need constant reminders, perhaps through billboards. Maybe we should ask our advertising agencies to exert some corporate social responsibility by designing catchy ones, in local languages. Otherwise, they’ll be drowned out by the sexier billboards.  And please, let’s not add more signs from the Metro Manila Development Authority warning pedestrians they’ll die if they cross at particular areas. These just don’t work.

Enforcement is a tough issue. There’s no lack of traffic enforcers apprehending motorists; the problem is that rather than enforcement, we have extortion. Attempts to catch erring motorists through cameras that capture their license plate numbers have failed because Filipinos, especially those from lower-income groups, are constantly changing their addresses.

What can be done is to be more consistent with enforcement of traffic rules. We have to stop the practice of enforcers making motorists go even if the red light is on, or the enforcers themselves creating counterflow. The message sent to motorists is that indeed, traffic lights are just suggestions.

The fourth E, evaluation, is what we sorely lack. This is constant monitoring of the traffic situation to check if the rules and policies work. The problem in the Philippines is that our road and traffic bureaucrats are constantly coming up with some new scheme: new lanes, bus stops A and B, and whatever. The proposal to change our plate-number coding scheme is an example, with one of the most complicated systems that will only feed into extortion by the enforcers. Evaluation means “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And if we do have new policies, implement these first in a limited pilot area. If it turns out to be a good practice, then spread it out.

The fifth E is encouragement. We are a punitive society, constantly threatening punishments. Preschool teachers know that rewards—even a simple “Good job!”—go a longer way than scolding. We have to reward practices that decongest traffic: offering more safe lanes for bikers, for example, or priority lanes for private vehicles with three or more passengers and, most importantly, low-cost, efficient and sufficient mass transit, a way of rewarding those who opt for public transportation.

Now we get to the sixth E, which you won’t find yet on the Internet. My anthropological bias is to deal with the cultural aspects of driving, and I don’t mean the music you play in the car. The sixth E refers to an ethic, a way of thinking. On the road, it means people understanding that roads are to be shared. Right now, roads are seen as arenas where the winner is whoever grabs the biggest space from others. These can be motorists cutting into other people’s space, or refusing to give space, as well as all those vendors who occupy sidewalks or even the road itself.

This cultural aspect is the most difficult to deal with, a product of centuries of conditioning. Centuries? Yes, many Filipinos still think we live in the agrarian countryside, where you can move around leisurely on a carabao, stopping to talk with someone you meet on the road. The paradox is that this rustic pace alternates with a very individualistic mentality that just doesn’t care about other people, and that emphasizes getting one’s way even at the cost of other people’s rights.

I’m afraid culture is always the last to change. Culture change comes about when you facilitate it, with a system that encourages the good, discourages the bad. A sharing ethos comes about when people feel there’s enough space to share and when you can trust the enforcers to keep traffic flowing rather than waiting for victims. This sixth E will come about only when you have the other five Es in place.

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E-mail: mtan@inquirer.com.ph

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