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No Free Lunch

Wanted: Clean air

Motor vehicles, not factories, are the main source of air pollution in the Philippines, and the bulk of motor vehicles on our roads, especially in urban areas, are private cars.

Too many of our transport policymakers seem to be planning our cities mainly with cars in mind. In a recent presentation at the annual meeting of Clean Air Asia, clean air advocate Robert Siy pointed to various indications that our current policies focus on making the use of cars more attractive. Recently, we heard transport authorities profess their goal to cut travel time from Cubao to Makati down to five minutes (from the current 1-2 hour average on regular days). Indeed, both the Department of Public Works and Highways and the Metro Manila Development Authority have “travel speed by road in key corridors increased” defined as a key performance indicator. Furthermore, the bulk of the transport infrastructure budget in our cities is for more roads and bridges for motor vehicles, and private cars are prioritized in the use of urban roads.

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Siy observes that in order to make cars go faster, roads are widened, but sidewalks are reduced. He shows a slide with people walking single file on a 1-foot-wide sidewalk along a wall—a not unfamiliar sight along our city streets. Also to make cars go faster, street-level pedestrian crossings are elevated, or closed. But elevators or escalators for such pedestrian crossings are rare, shutting out elderly people and those with physical disabilities from their basic right of mobility. Still to allow cars to go faster, public transport vehicles are also subject to the “number-coding” vehicle reduction scheme in the metropolis—even as Siy notes the insufficiency of our public transport facilities to meet the needs of the riding public.

Not surprisingly, then, it is the average Filipino family’s dream to own a car, as revealed in the AmBisyon Natin 2040 visioning exercise now guiding government’s long-term development planning. I shudder to imagine what our country’s cities could be like if every family indeed owned at least one car. As it is, more than 500 cars are already being added every day to the vehicle population in the Greater Manila area. This means that we must build 10 additional kilometers of road every day just to keep already bad traffic congestion from worsening.

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But building more roads to cure traffic congestion is like putting out a fire with gasoline, argues Bogota, Colombia, Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, an international crusader for livable cities. He notes that more roads only encourage buying of more cars—just as the number-coding vehicle reduction scheme only led the rich to buy more cars to dodge the system. We simply cannot proceed on the same path we’ve been treading.

It’s no secret that air pollution in Metro Manila is well beyond what the World Health Organization considers safe for daily human living. There used to be a large billboard attached to an air quality monitor at the Edsa-Ortigas crossing that only served as a daily reminder to people around that the air they were breathing was hazardous to their health. A recent Inquirer special report noted that of 27 air quality monitoring stations in Metro Manila, only 21 were functional, and only eight could monitor particulate matter of both 2.5 and 10 microns in size (PM2.5 and PM10). The latter are visible to the naked eye, but more insidious are PM2.5, which can enter the nose and throat and find their way into our lungs and bloodstream.

The solution ought to be clear: We must move toward making public transport, walking and biking as top choices for a person’s daily travel, rather than using a car or motorcycle. The issue, Siy asserts, is not about private vehicle ownership, but daily use of those private vehicles (hence the average Filipino family need not be deprived of their dream). The right strategic approach includes, foremost, making mass rail and bus transport affordable, comfortable and plentiful. We also need to provide safe networks for walking and biking, and introduce “carrot-and-stick” incentives to discourage daily car or motorcycle use.

Cities, after all, are for people, not for cars—and not the other way around.

[email protected]

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TAGS: Air pollution, Cielito F. Habito, Clean Air, Clean Air Asia, No Free Lunch
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