‘Gates of hell’
That was how one of the main characters in Dan Brown’s “Inferno” described metropolitan Manila at one point, with its squalor, chaotic traffic, and general sense of despair. Which Francis Tolentino of all people took umbrage at, probably because of its inclusion of hellish traffic, the one thing he is supposed to banish from this spot of earth.
But look at what happened Friday last week and see if that wasn’t a perfect description of many parts of Metro Manila, particularly the NLEx going into Balintawak. The images in the network news that night and the pictures in newspapers the next day drove home the extent of the catastrophe, as awe-inspiring as the aftermath of a violent storm. Except that this one wasn’t natural, it was wholly manmade.
The traffic at Balintawak stretched all the way to parts of Bulacan. The area was turned into one huge parking lot, the drivers of trucks and vans and buses had alighted and sat on the streets smoking and conversing glumly for lack of anything better to do. Passengers were fuming and cursing for having spent much of the day fidgeting on their seats with no end to their suffering in sight. One woman complained that her daughter never got to school, and they were at their wits’ end to find a way to just go home. An old man complained that an apo of his was waiting in vain for the tuition money he was supposed to give him that day.
In the news, many passengers had gotten off the buses and were walking to wherever they were going, desperately onward or resignedly back home, crossing islands and breaking down wire barriers there. Some were hitchhiking home on the other side, the one going north, which was astonishingly free-flowing. By nightfall, you could still see a crowd milling on the streets or seeking cover from the drizzle. In the darkness, you could hear weeping and the gnashing of teeth, sounds normally thought of as issuing from the mouths of the damned in the fiery place.
Throughout the day, government officials, Tolentino at the head of them, were asking the public to exercise more patience, pahabain ang pasensya, for at least two more weeks as authorities embarked on an experiment to decongest the Manila port of trucks to ease traffic in the long run. But tell that to the people who were caught in the nightmare at NLEx last Friday, one of the worst ever without aid of a natural cataclysm.
That, not quite incidentally, is my own personal concept of hell: being caught in traffic like that and being powerless to do anything about it. I hate traffic with a passion and will do anything to avoid it. Business groups would warn later that last Friday’s traffic, if it continues, would deal a big blow on the economy and send prices skyrocketing. But that’s the least of our worries when threatened with that plight for the next two weeks—and that’s just their word for it, two weeks. The traffic last Friday took place even before the “last mile” experiment began. That ordeal isn’t just guaranteed to lose you your day, it is guaranteed to lose you your mind.
I agree with Chiz Escudero, Malacañang should step in before the crisis gets out of hand. Specifically, before the “blame game” gets out of hand, with various public officials pointing to one another as the source of the problem. Though while at this, I’m amazed that Erap hasn’t had mud thrown all over him, too, for being one of the sources of this mess with his truck ban in Manila, which, along with other problems like the usual kotong levied on trucks, allowed them to accumulate in the port area like uncollected garbage. The initial impression of traffic easing up in Manila merely hid, like the patching up of potholes, a crisis waiting to happen.
You don’t really need emergency powers to solve emergencies, however this qualifies as one in the here and now. You just need wit and will, both in plentiful quantities.
The traffic last Friday owed to a variety of reasons, but the overriding one, which was manifest to the public, was that nobody was in charge. In theory, Tolentino is supposed to assume that role. That is what the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority is there for: to coordinate with the other agencies to execute plans, which really means that in Metro Manila and the various turf wars, to impose its will on them. I don’t know whether Tolentino’s inability to do so comes from lack of power or lack of character, but he doesn’t strike as an authoritative figure—or, from the perspective of the long-suffering commuters, a reassuring one—in the midst of bedlam in the streets.
He has been open to challenges, but the last one coming from the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board, which allowed provincial buses to take Edsa and prevented traffic cops from apprehending “colorum” trucks or those applying for new franchises. This has been going on for some time now. If you cannot solve a problem like this, or put your foot down on it, you won’t inspire confidence that you will be able to solve bigger ones.
But whether it’s Tolentino or other officials making the plea, the government should really give the one about the public showing a little more patience a rest. It doesn’t invite understanding, it invites fury. It’s rubbing salt on a wound. It reinforces my conviction about the wisdom of the proposal to compel public officials to take public transport regularly. Nothing like first-hand experience, or in this case first-hand torture, to develop a sense of urgency, to appreciate levels of intolerability, to see the need to give respite to the oppressed at once. How much more tolerance can you give after you’ve lost to traffic a whole working day, or a whole school day, or a day for meeting pressing obligations?
How much more patience can be left in your heart after you’ve gazed at the gates of hell?
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