I spent P159,088 on Grab

I’m not sure it’s possible to justify spending that much money, but what I learned from making that choice warrants discussion. I’m emotionally healthier than I’ve ever felt—at least, as far as traffic is concerned.

In 2018, I sat in someone else’s car and paid the equivalent of the household income of many Filipino families. With a click of a button—and more importantly, without the hassle of haggling the fare, reminding the driver to turn on the meter, or telling him that he is conveniently P1 short of my change—I asked more than 740 strangers to drive me, bring me food, or deliver a package. All the equivalent of a round-trip ticket to London—four times. I could have ridden a jeepney with the same amount to and from my work more than 8,800 times. I constructed a world of privilege in which very little of what I don’t have to deal with gets through the car window.

And I would do it all over again.

The ill effects of traffic mismanagement, poor road conditions, bad drivers and equally inconsiderate pedestrians—all of us—are an old story. Metro Manila loses P3.5 billion a day due to traffic conditions, according to a 2017 report by the Japan International Cooperation Agency. This is about P1.2 trillion a year. If we consider the cash remittances of overseas Filipino workers  that same year at about P1.4 trillion, based on figures from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, this means 85 percent sent home by our hardworking loved ones is money down the sewage. Think of how much could also be available to manage our plastic pollution.

Traffic congestion does no better for our health. It is linked to stress, anxiety, anger and respiratory problems. Some of us get up early for work or stay longer to beat the rush-hour traffic. This means less sleep and less time spent with friends and loved ones—all linked to poor emotional health. Consider also that secure and safe attachment begins very early in life. Children with secure attachment become adults with higher self-esteem, greater self-reliance and lower rates of depression and anxiety. Every moment a baby or infant spends away from stuck-in-traffic parents or caregivers is lost investment in the future.

Imagine also what we could be doing with all that lost time. In Manila, we spend a little more than one hour each day—or about 16 days a year—stuck in traffic, a 2017 Boston Consulting Group study says. With the average person reading at a speed of 280 words per minute, we could repurpose those days and read “Noli Me Tangere” 44 times. We could also lower our blood pressure by an average of 4-9 millimeters of mercury by walking, dancing or running for 30 minutes a day.

Medicines for diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol might no longer have value-added tax starting this year, but traffic congestion means 800 lost opportunities to do a half-hour’s worth of aerobic activity—and for some, lost chances to reduce blood pressure better than some medication, according to the Mayo Clinic. With the time we spend in traffic, we could also learn basic Chinese—twice—and have sex 4,600 times, not including foreplay.

Grab was my way of reclaiming lost time and money. I answered emails, held conference calls, prepared lesson plans, drafted talks and presentations. What you are reading now—I wrote some of it in a Grab. I did work—and worked hard to allow me to afford the amount I paid. All in the comfort of someone else’s car that I myself did not have to park, did not have to put gas in, and did not have to drive in the cruel and downright apocalyptic roads of Metro Manila.

And I would do it all over again.

My choice is afforded by privilege. It reeks of our fast-growing consumption culture and can even be questionably elitist. It is a shortcut for those who take advantage of venture capitalism at the expense of mom-and-pop workers. Many Filipinos have limited choice. I wish I did not have to pay for this extravagant amount. I am acutely cognizant of where that money could have been spent—savings, vacation, emergency funds, retirement, donations to improve waste management. However, I feel healthier, less stressed and get more work done.

The local ride-sharing economy is not perfect. After Uber left the country in early 2018, Grab has a monopoly, effectively making it impossible for Hype, Owto, Hirna and other transport network companies to make big dents against Grab’s dominance. It is not clear if the efforts of the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board to break this virtual monopoly are working. Securing capital investments and getting riders continue to plague the competition.

And we suffer for it. Grab essentially controls the price—with ever deeper hands into our wallets. Surge pricing is also no joke. After more than 700 trips, I myself have noticed how increasingly difficult it is to book a ride. I do not expect these to change this new year.

I also do not have high hopes for significant improvements in our public transportation, one that would be efficient and comfortable for commuters as well as profitable and fair for owners and operators. The Build, build, build (BBB) program might ease traffic congestion and improve transportation in the longer term. But I am a clinical psychologist who knows that one of the best predictors of future behavior is past behavior—because change is very hard. Knowing what you know about government-related projects in the past, how do you think the BBB will fare in the future?

You already know the answer.

So, as long as I can afford a ride alternative like Grab, I will take that opportunity and milk it for all it is worth. You should, too, because you deserve something better. You should not have to choose between sitting in a jeepney for 16 days and spending time with loved ones. You should be able to read Rizal’s great works and still have sex as many times as you want. I suggest including foreplay.

The strength of exercising our choice is a threat to the passivity that is the essential feature of government inefficiencies and poor regulatory implementation. We need to exercise our choice for alternative rides.

I choose Grab.

Dr. Ronald del Castillo is professor of psychology, public health and health policy at the University of the Philippines Manila. The views here are his own.