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Dream on

/ 01:45 AM September 18, 2015

The last few days battling traffic have been harrowing, ironically at a time when the government is supposed to be moving to solve the problems.

Skip the next paragraph if you’re already familiar with these paradoxes involving travel time in Metro Manila. Sunday I flew into Manila from Legazpi City in one hour, took another hour to get from the airport to the Mall of Asia to catch a game between the University of the Philippines and the University of Santo Tomas. (Yes, UP lost after an encouraging season start with two victories, but hope springs eternal with many more games to come.) After the game, the trip from the MOA to UP Diliman took two hours.

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Rush hour no longer exists in Metro Manila. You can get caught in a gridlock any time of the day, including midnight on a Sunday, as I did once. I wondered if these were students being rushed to school for Monday classes.

In comes the government, fielding Highway Patrol Group (HPG) officers to at least deal with the traffic on Edsa. The idea was for the officers to keep buses and other vehicles moving.

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Move people …

But that strategy of keeping buses and other vehicles moving is part of the problem. We keep courting more “carmageddons” because we insist on moving vehicles rather than people. We build more flyovers, field more traffic enforcers—and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry when I read about the HPG officers supposedly being more effective because they are armed.

The fact is that the public transportation system has been allowed to deteriorate. The jeeps are a 70-year-old technology, handled by drivers who have become more and more undisciplined and individualistic across those years. The buses and tricycles have proliferated through bribery: There are probably more “colorum” vehicles than legitimate ones, so we end up with many more of these vehicles than we need.

Then there are the elevated trains. We were the first in Southeast Asia to launch a light rail transit; now we’ve been overtaken by all our neighbors with more efficient systems.

Now the government is launching public-private partnerships to get these light rails going again. A new consortium involving Ayala Corp. and the Metro Pacific Group (of Manuel V. Pangilinan) took over the LRT-1 last Saturday. They won in a bidding round in September, committing to have 100 light rail vehicles delivered. That number indicates the degree of deterioration and neglect over the years—i.e., the government not noticing how the vehicles were running down, and the long queues of passengers waiting to get into an available train.

The consortium will rehabilitate the 21-kilometer LRT-1 line, and extend this by another 11.7 km from Baclaran to Bacoor in Cavite. This will go into the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Parañaque, Las Piñas and end in Niog. I had to check Niog and found out that it’s a street in Bacoor.

That extension was proposed many years ago but kept running into problems getting approved—another indicator of the neglect of this public transit system.

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The government will be conducting another bidding round involving LRT-2, which will involve extending the line from Recto to Tutuban, Divisoria, and into Zaragoza street in Pier 4. On the east side of Metro Manila, LRT-2 should extend into Cainta, Rizal, and into Masinag in Antipolo.

If we’re going to dream big, then let’s push on with the Pasig ferry line, the Metro Commuter (Tutuban to Alabang and Manila to Calamba) of the Pambansang Daambakal ng Pilipinas (that’s Philippine National Railways), and a Premiere Train that goes from Tutuban to Sta. Rosa with stops at Blumentritt, España, Sta. Mesa, Buendia, Edsa, Sucat, Alabang, San Pedro, and Biñan.

We keep thinking that having more cars is a sign of modernization. But the wealthiest, most developed countries in the world, including Singapore in our region, look for ways to get people to keep their cars at home by offering efficient and clean mass transit.

Mass transit is good for business. How often have you thought of going shopping then decided to stay home because you didn’t want to fight the traffic? I am certain, too, that the Bicol region would have more tourists if we restored the Bicol Express, Isarog Express and Mayon Limited, all suspended lines since 2013.

Even the ongoing UAAP (University Athletic Association of the Philippines) competition would have more people watching the games live, rather than on TV, if we had efficient public transport. There were many UP students who just didn’t want to make the trip from Diliman to the Smart Araneta Coliseum in Cubao, much less to the Mall of Asia in Pasay City.

And two Sundays ago, I went with my whole brood of kids to the Centris Sunday market on Quezon Boulevard; later I parked the car there, and we went on the MRT to Cubao for a leisurely lunch. With a private car, there was no way I would have done two places in one day.

… Not elephants

There are much more than rail transit kilometers that need to be built to move people. LRT lines need to have parking lots so more people can be encouraged to leave their cars behind.

Then, too, the rest of the metropolis needs more bikeways and pedestrian lanes, again around the principle of moving people first.

Watching the HPG men and the traffic aides reminds me of scenes in India and Pakistan, where the traffic enforcers actually have batons which they use to hit buses to get these moving. Sometimes they also use the sticks on jaywalking pedestrians, and not always gently. The scenes remind me of more rustic situations, of shepherds herding sheep, goats, or cattle and getting them going.

For Metro Manila, however, I’m reminded more of mahouts, the Thai term for men trying to get elephants to move. There’s one big difference: Elephants are more compliant than our bus drivers.

I should also mention that people have lost faith in traffic enforcement agents whom they regard—unfairly, I feel—as all corruptible, so the general attitude is: Why obey them?

Let’s ask our presidential, senatorial and congressional candidates about their vision for public transport, for Metro Manila and the rest of the country. I’ve mentioned the PNR’s suspended lines to Bicol, but we forget, too, that the first railway in the Philippines, dating back to the American period (but first authorized by the Spanish colonial authorities), was a Manila-Dagupan line.

Let’s move people, not elephants and dinosaurs.

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TAGS: carmageddon, EDSA, Highway Patrol Group, LRT, mass transit, Metro Manila, MRT, traffic, trains
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