I sympathize with the Share the Road Movement. Complaining that virtually all of the country’s streets are given to the 2 percent that owns cars, the group marched to the Supreme Court last Monday to demand that half of them be given to nonmotorized transport (walking, bicycling) and the other half to a motorized one. Additionally, it demanded that public officials be made to take public transport on a regular basis.
The first is meant to improve Metro Manila’s air, and to contribute to fighting global warming. The second is meant not just to decongest traffic but also to decongest public servants’ brains, enough for them to see how the other half, or other 98 percent, lives.
I’m glad the group has drawn attention to the insanity in our streets, specifically the misallocation of space in favor of private cars. But I’m not so sure the proposals to correct it, specifically the allocation of half of that space to nonmotorized transport, is practicable, at least in the immediate future. While I appreciate the need to improve the environment, I’m also aware of the limitations there. Chief of them is that as of 2011 the urban area of Metro Manila was home to 21,295,000 souls, most of them bedraggled, and many of them needing to haul their carcasses to work in fairly good time to keep souls connected to bodies. They won’t be able to, walking and biking.
But in the spirit of Share the Road’s initiative, I share my own thoughts about what can be done almost immediately to remove the bedlam in the streets.
First off is to recognize that the streets have been invaded by motorcycles and they are here to stay. Which is not a bad thing: They save on gas and they occupy less space. They often ferry two people at a time, and on occasion three, including the child who is going to school
What is bad is that motorcycle drivers utterly lack discipline. They figure in the overwhelming majority of road accidents in the country, which is not a surprise given the way they leap out of every corner, or at least out of their lanes, and make out like Hell’s Angels. The delivery people of the fast-food chains are constantly racing with each other, weaving in and flowing through the lanes like a stream of liquid metal. On Commonwealth Avenue, you’d often see them in clusters after having been stopped by cops for zooming past the 60-kph limit. For some reason, they seem to think they are exempted from traffic rules.
Can something be done about this? But of course. Look at Vietnam and weep. Ho Chi Minh City isn’t the motorcycle capital of the world for nothing. It is home to 3.5 million motorcycles; virtually every family owns one. You see a veritable Woodstock of them waiting patiently before a red light on every corner. When the light turns green, the horde heaves onward at a uniform speed like vehicles in a parade. Contrast that with our motorcycles sprinting from the starting line, often even before the light changes, and adding noise pollution to air pollution roaring into the various lanes. The maximum speed for a motorcycle in Vietnam is 40 kph, and it is strictly enforced. The drivers violating it are stopped on the spot and get a tongue-lashing from traffic cops in front of an amused crowd, quite apart from a steep fine.
Why in God’s name can’t that be done here?
Second is to give most of the lanes to public transport. Right now, we have a bus and jeepney lane at the rightmost side of the road, a motorcycle lane beside it, and the rest given to private vehicles including delivery vans and trucks. Why not, instead, drastic as it may seem, have a car/private vehicle lane at the leftmost, a motorcycle lane beside it, and public transport lanes for the rest of the street? Of course that discriminates against cars, but it’s a lot more sane to discriminate against someone who is occupying a lot of space and using a lot of gas and air-conditioning to deliver his well-rested ass from points A to B than to discriminate against a hundred people who stood in queues for hours to be able to clamber into buses and stand in aisles for hours to be able to get to and from work.
It would of course help mightily to add more coaches to the trains. The MRT and LRT 1 and 2 look like renditions of Dante’s Inferno during rush hour. Trains are the way to go, inside and outside Metro Manila. Without the LRT, Taft Avenue would be dead now; without the MRT, Edsa would be dead now. Those are the only things that revived them from their moribund state. In New York, nobody in his right mind drives in Manhattan; everyone takes the subway. It’s cheaper, faster, and keeps drivers away from each other’s throats.
And third, yes, require public officials to take public transport once a week at the barest minimum. I wrote about it last year, agreeing wholeheartedly with a group that proposed it. I was particularly reminded at the time of GMA Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez’s defense of the wang-wang, which was that public officials had more important things to do than mere mortals and deserved to get to where they were going first. I said then that stealing was more important than writing only to the thief.
The convenience, if not luxury, of a private car does not allow public servants to serve the public better and faster. It only makes them do so badly and more slowly. Nothing like comfort to make them drag their feet, and nothing like the smell of sweat in an overcrowded bus stuck in traffic to give them an overpowering urgency to do something for the anak pawis. DOTC and MMDA officials should be first in line to experience it. Who knows? Maybe the lesson in humility might even teach Boy Pickup manners.
But, yes, we can put sanity in the streets. It just takes a bit of wit, and a whole lot of will.
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