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Daring traffic solutions

/ 10:32 PM September 26, 2013

Mention geography as a school subject and people tend to think of maps right away, and of memorizing names of cities and capitals and provinces.

Geography is more than those maps. It is a social science that looks at the way people use spaces, including how those spaces are converted into places for all kinds of purposes.

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Today, among the most important studies geographers are conducting are those around streets and transportation systems.

Only the University of the Philippines Diliman offers degree programs in geography and it has developed many specialized subjects and research projects, one of which is looking at our traffic situation. Last Monday it sponsored a talk by Prof. Yves Boquet of the Université de Bourgogne in France about the traffic situation in Metro Manila. Boquet’s talk challenges—no, dares—us to use our imagination and break out of both the physical and mental gridlocks we have today regarding traffic.

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Boquet started out analyzing the problems we have, many of which we already recognize: a huge and still growing population crammed into limited land (this includes informal settlers living beside railroad tracks, preventing the development and use of those tracks); limited roads; too many private vehicles and too little of public mass transit; lack of discipline among motorists and pedestrians; poor government planning; and corruption among traffic enforcers.

He presented all kinds of information on our existing public transport systems, highlighting our traffic problems as one of inefficiency—for example, too many buses and too few LRT/MRT coaches. Not only that, he observed that our LRT/MRT trains are too short. Our longest trains are those of LRT1, at 105 meters, compared to 183 meters for Hong Kong’s mass transit and 140 meters in Quangzhou.

Boquet’s observations of deficiencies for the LRT/MRT system stretched on and on, but what I could not forget was his mentioning how in other countries the intervals between trains can be as short as two minutes while in Manila it is seven minutes. The added problem with Manila, he further observed, is that because each train is so overcrowded, commuters have to wait for another train, and still another train, and if it takes five more trains to be able to get a ride, you would have waited 35 minutes just to get on.

Underground circle

Matching his many observations of deficiencies and problems were recommendations to help solve the problems.

Two recommendations were quite grand, and exciting.  One was for an underground circle line that will start at the airport, go into the Makati Business District, through Bonifacio Global City, the Ortigas Business District into Quezon City (to include Katipunan and, most exciting for the audience, the UP Diliman area), moving into España, to Quiapo, past Intramuros, into Ermita, past the Manila Zoo into the Mall of Asia, and back to the airport.

I wrote as fast as I could but I’m sure I missed several stations. The point, though, is that you do go around Metro Manila and relieve pressure on the existing LRT/MRT. Boquet himself acknowledged there would be many obstacles to such a circle, including risks of earthquakes. Many in the audience whispered to each other, “and floods.”

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But that’s geography for you. I think a problem with our transport planners is that they think in linear terms, always presuming that the fastest way to get from point A to point B is a straight line and never mind if you get deadly bottlenecks on that straight line, as we see all the time in Manila.  (Factor in a cultural variable: Filipino motorists are stubborn and dogmatic about the straight line, so if you miss turning into a street, notice how the driver will go into reverse trying to get back into that street and never mind if he messes up the traffic.)

 

Bus Rail Transit

Boquet’s second big proposed solution is a BRT, a Bus Rail Transit system. He said Edsa could be a BRT corridor, meaning a system that runs down the entire Edsa, completely dedicated to buses operating like trains. He did say it might be difficult to put up one on Edsa, so two alternatives could be Quezon Avenue (which, if you haven’t yet noticed, is becoming a real nightmare for commuters) and Commonwealth Avenue.

Under the planned setup, passengers will pay before entering a designated area where the buses will load and unload. These buses will come one after another in a line, like the trains and the LRT/MRT, and at very short intervals so the waiting period will be brief.

I wrote about this years ago, having read that Cebu was going to adopt such a plan. It looks like nothing has happened with the Cebu BRT but in the meantime, it is a system that has been adopted in many parts of the world, including Brazil (where it started), France, China (several cities) and neighboring Thailand and Indonesia.

Boquet kept emphasizing the need for connections and linkages in the transport system. His circular underground line will connect to the LRT/MRT and other transportation hubs. Similarly, the BRT’s passengers can exit and get into regular buses, or taxis. A unified ticketing system will be vital, Boquet said, so commuters can have one card which they can use for all kinds of transport, maybe even down to the jeeps, he said.

No, he didn’t include the tricycles, but he did point out that some of the BRTs in other parts of the world have bike rentals outside the stations.

I was totally captivated by the way geographers’ minds work. The missing connections in our LRT/MRT system—that crazy gap between Roosevelt and SM North, and the way one has to walk through crowds to get from LRT 1 to MRT and from MRT into LRT 2—are fatal flaws. Boquet is even anticipating new problems with the proposed extended LRT/MRT lines, like the absence of a line from central Manila to Makati, or the exclusion of Valenzuela and Malabon. (I see political economy there, those two areas being lower-income cities, again reflecting our government planners’ class biases.)

Geographers also have a way of looking for spaces in places we don’t see. Buses or trains that can’t take enough passengers? Then why not double-deckers? (We had them running down Roxas Boulevard, when it was still Dewey Boulevard.) Or combine several buses together… I thought of a caterpillar.

Will we ever see a rational transport system in Metro Manila? I’m a senior citizen and so I don’t think I’ll see one in my lifetime. But maybe other cities in the Philippines can learn this early from the disasters of Manila and plan ahead with a BRT and other systems that have been tested and proven to work in other countries.

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E-mail: mtan@inquirer.com.ph

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