Untangling traffic woes
Gone are the quiet, pollution- and traffic-free days at the height of the pandemic lockdowns especially in Metro Manila. Traffic on the metropolis’ main roads is almost back to pre-pandemic level since the government lifted most of the COVID-19 restrictions and shifted to alert level 1 last month.
According to the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA), the daily volume of vehicles on Edsa was at 390,000 after restrictions were eased, just a few thousands less than the 405,000 that used to clog the major thoroughfare that traverses six cities before the COVID-19 lockdowns started in March 2020. The daily volume only went down to 370,000 in recent weeks following oil price increases.
Traffic is expected to become even worse once remaining restrictions are lifted, prompting the government to look for ways to help ease traffic congestion. The MMDA is endorsing several proposals including a new — and confusing — number coding system as well as the implementation of “daylight saving time” (DST) for government offices in Metro Manila by moving work hours to 7 a.m. from 8 a.m. “’Yan pong isang oras na adjustment na ’yan sa pasok po sa gobyerno ay malaking bagay dahil hindi lamang po ’yung pumapasok sa trabaho ang apektado n’yan, pero pati na rin po ang mga may transaction sa gobyerno,” said MMDA chair Romando Artes. MMDA is also proposing a four-day work week at 10 hours a day, and five-day work week at eight hours a day.
DST is observed in European countries and the United States, among others, at least twice a year when the season changes from winter to spring, and summer to fall, in order to maximize sunlight to the end of the work day. However, the system was unpopular that the European Union voted to end it in 2019. In an article published last March 9, the National Geographic said DST impacts people’s health including weaker immune system due to sleep loss, increased heart attacks, and even fatal car accidents after studies showed a spike in their occurrence during the time change.
DST is not so common in the Philippines and was enforced only for short periods during the administrations of Manuel L. Quezon (1936-1937), Ramon Magsaysay (1954), Ferdinand Marcos Sr. (1978), and Corazon Aquino (1990) to address the energy crisis by minimizing the number of hours when electricity was needed. The practice was later abandoned as power generation and transmission capacities improved, though it was most recently proposed, but never implemented, in 2014 under then President Benigno Aquino III as another power crisis loomed.
But the proposal that the MMDA has forwarded to Malacañang for discussion this week, based on Artes’ statement, apparently only entails a change in the office hours of government agencies to 7 a.m. from 8 a.m. particularly those in Metro Manila where traffic jams can be horrendous and affects workers’ productivity—not a clock shift for the entire country.
Criticism over the proposal has been quick: How will this method address the car volume problem on the roads when it will only shift traffic jams to another, earlier, time? Metro Manila’s traffic jams are notorious—it ranked second-worst globally in Netherlands-based technology specialist TomTom’s Traffic Index 2020. TomTom’s study stated that a 30-minute trip meant an additional 20 minutes in the morning and almost an hour in the evening due to the heavy traffic, with Fridays between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. being the worst. The traffic problem costs the country at least P3.5 billion in lost opportunities a day, a 2017 study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency stated, highlighting the urgent need to find solutions to ease the congestion.
When COVID-19 happened, there were high expectations that marked changes in urban life, including transport and work arrangements, would be carried over even as the world shifts to a new normal. “Just as our lives have been changed by the pandemic, so must change the way we use and plan our cities. This is an opportunity for disruptive transformation,” the Asian Development Bank said.
But what appears to be happening is a return to old ways instead of learning the lessons from the pandemic lockdowns that already paved the way for a biking culture to thrive and more flexible work setups with many companies now eyeing a hybrid arrangement. The country’s traffic problem requires a more inclusive solution, not a Philippine-style daylight saving time, and the goal should be to lessen the volume of cars on the road given that, in Metro Manila, for example, only an estimated 12 percent own cars. But instead of improving public transport and providing commuters better options, building more bike lanes, incentivizing work-from-home, and implementing the telecommuting law, the government seems to be thinking of everything but the real solutions.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.