No Free Lunch

Planning for Mega Manila

Once upon a time (around 1920-1930, to be more specific), Manila could be described as a well-designed, mass-transit-based urban area. It had an extensive tranvia or streetcar network, similar to that in San Francisco in California, running on an estimated 85 kilometers of tracks. The tranvia met 40 percent of the total estimated demand for mobility in the city, even as there was a diversity of urban transport modes ranging from bicycles to horse-drawn calesas and the newly mass-produced model T Fords from America. There was strategic integrated development, where the establishment of a suburban transport line was well-coordinated with housing development and the provision of electric power supply. Traffic management was good, and Manila had all the features of a well-planned urban area.

That was the historical backdrop to the “Roadmap for Transport Infrastructure Development for Metro Manila and Surrounding Areas” done jointly in 2014 by the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica). That was a time when the city had a population of 300,000. Now, nearly a century later, Metro Manila is home to more than 50 times as many people, and using “good traffic management” and “well-planned urban area” to describe the metropolis would be a bad joke. There’s so much that needs to be changed, and so much to be undone if it is to move toward earning those descriptions again.


As tracked by the Neda-Jica study, a big part of the problem arose within the 30-year period from 1980 to 2010. In that period, the Metro Manila population doubled from 5.9 to 11.8 million. But the number of motor vehicles rose 4.3 times, from less than half a million to nearly 2 million. The number of buses nearly quadrupled, from 3,600 to 14,200 units. And yet, road length only increased 1.5 times, from 675 to 1,032 km. We all know the glaring result, and city dwellers suffer it daily. Meanwhile, public rail transit spanned 50 km in 2010, against 20 in 1980—an increase of 2.5 times, but still much less than the 85 km (of tranvia) we had in the 1920s.

While the study was focused on transport infrastructure, it noted other challenges attendant to the growth of the metropolis. Housing, for one, is too often forgotten in all the talk about infrastructure and the “Build, build, build” program of the government. There was an estimated backlog of 500,000 housing units, and need to resettle 560,000 households living in hazard areas beside waterways (probably underestimates by now). And yet our public expenditure on housing as percent of gross domestic product or GDP pales in comparison to that of our neighbors, and even less than in poorer countries like Bangladesh.


The capital region grew from just the city of Manila in the early 20th century to Metro Manila by the 1970s, and now we see the rise of “Mega Manila” that includes much of Region III (Central Luzon) on the north and Region IV-A (Calabarzon) on the south. The

Neda-Jica study notes that “Metro Manila’s problems can no longer be solved within Metro Manila,” and that Regions III and IV-A must “maximize positive impacts of Metro Manila while contributing to mitigate Metro Manila’s problems.” This entails a departure from monocentric planning with the national capital at the core of development, to a “polycentric” one that sees the cities of Angeles (Clark), Olongapo (Subic), Malolos, San Fernando, Calamba, Lipa, Batangas, San Pablo and Lucena as growth poles as well.

What all this requires is closer integration of the three regions, and this starts with integrative physical planning. Key transport links are the NLEx-SLEx connector road, the North-South Commuter Railway from Malolos to Calamba, and the subway that will ultimately span San Jose del Monte in Bulacan to Dasmariñas in Cavite. Urban expressways, smart traffic management systems and more also form part of the “Dream Plan” for Mega Manila that would lead to a truly integrated, multimodal urban mass transit network. Will we see all this happen within our lifetimes? Perhaps we could, if the government can make good on its promise of a “Golden Age of Infrastructure.”

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TAGS: MANILA, mass transit, Transportation, Urban Planning
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