Transport in two cities | Inquirer Opinion

Transport in two cities

Years ago, after speaking on the cultural impact of globalization in an Asean conference, I sat down next to a Singaporean economist. He remarked that we Filipinos are a puzzle: “How come you people are brilliant individually, yet you cannot seem to make a go of your economy and get your country going?”

Embarrassed and slightly annoyed, I mumbled something about bad governance and a lazy and greedy oligarchy, a response that was more a reflex and not out of considered social science. I did a bit more thinking after that time on why we are failing as a state.


The current transport crisis, heedlessly dismissed as merely a “traffic problem,” has surfaced at least one reason why we are failing: the gross inattention to the nuts and bolts of governance.

We see this starkly when contrasted with the way the Singaporean government projected its population growth and foresaw congestion in its tiny city, and proactively put in place a mass transport system. Way back in 1972, a team was assembled to study the feasibility of a mass rail transport system. The study was completed in 1980, a S$5-billion budget was allocated and by 1982 they started to build. The system was tested in 1987 and formally launched a year after by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. By 1996, there were north-south and east-west lines traversing the city, stopping at 48 stations.


Not wishing to go the way of horrendous traffic in Bangkok and Manila, the Singaporean government made it very expensive to own a car, slapping fees just to get a certificate entitling one to buy a car, and a tax for road usage. To encourage walking and cycling, it increased connectivity such that all MRT/LRT stations are connected by sheltered walkways to nearby schools, hospitals and public facilities. No area is outside the 400-meter radius from transport nodes, enabling people to make short trips to shops and leisure hubs without taking a car. The result is that 68 percent of commuters use public transport.

In contrast, a 2017 study of traffic in this country has found that private cars occupy 67 percent of road space along Edsa. Buses comprise only 3 percent of its total traffic. Public commuters comprise 70 percent of total trips, but only account for 20 percent of road usage.

The economic cost of traffic congestion, mostly due to too many cars and inadequate infrastructure, is estimated at P5.4 billion daily, according to a 2014 study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency. We have yet to count the social cost of car ownership, allotting precious land to parking and road use while we sweep away the poor who barely make a living on the sidewalks.

Besides the utter lack of vision, government in this country does not know the meaning of due diligence in maintaining the transport systems we already have.

The Philippine National Railways was once an efficient system that connected the city to Bicol and the northern provinces. It was built in 1891 and has yet to be modernized; some of its decrepit rail cars are still being deployed and have not been replaced. It is reported to have canceled 713 trips in two months along the busy Tutuban-Alabang-Tutuban rail line. Yet the mechanical failures were not resolved. In 2017, the MRT suffered 516 breakdowns, almost 10 a week, but these were not properly fixed, so we are now staring at a crisis that has become calvary to our hapless commuters.

The inattention to system deficiencies is not for lack of technical talent. Our engineers are globally welcomed; a Zambian ambassador I met in Sweden told me that it was the Filipino engineers on the shop floor that taught their technicians working in the copper mines, not the European consultants who exacted hefty fees.

My sense is that whatever technical expertise there is in government is thwarted by politics, of the kind that is interested only in holding on to power and not in tinkering with the machinery so that things work.  The venerable Lee Kuan Yew once remarked that this country’s problem is “too much politics.”


A cultural factor in all this is perhaps our present-orientedness. Linguistic scholars tell us that Filipinos really have only two tenses: the past and the present. The past is done, tapos na, so we forget it. The future is wala pa, so we need not worry about it. We do not anticipate; we attend to problems only when andyan na, and we find ourselves facing a clear and present danger — be it a power, water or transport crisis.

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Melba Padilla Maggay, Ph.D., is president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.

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TAGS: Inquirer Commentary, Melba Padilla Maggay, Philippine economy, traffic crisis
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