Willing to walk, or to leave your car at home?
ONE RECENT afternoon, I was able to attend Usad Edsa, a multistakeholder consultation held by the technical working group of Cabinet Secretary Jose Almendras. The group presented its efforts, facts on traffic problems, and proposed solutions on making Edsa free-flowing, thus reducing the probability of having a daily “carmaggedon” in Metro Manila.
Many of the solutions presented—involving both infrastructure and policy—are very commendable. The studies were mathematically and legally comprehensive. New roads and proper traffic schemes would definitely address the problem posed by the increasing number of cars.
But let’s hold it right there. We think that the problem of Edsa is the volume of cars. If we take a macro perspective of what is really happening in Metro Manila traffic, we will know that car volume is just a symptom of the problem, which is, in reality, the mindset of Filipinos. That is the root problem. We all want cars. We think of a car as a status symbol. We see it as the most convenient mode of transport. We do not think about the exponential gravity of vehicle emissions. We do not see the impact these can give our roads in the next 30-50 years.
We think lack of enforcement of traffic rules is the problem. Again, it is just another symptom. The problem is the people’s discipline. Public vehicle drivers load passengers just about anywhere. Commuters cross just about anywhere, too. Street vendors make homes out of sidewalks and waiting sheds.
The Department of Public Works and Highways is working on more roads. We will be having skyways, reinforced bridges, and underpasses to ease the current volume of cars. Well and good, perhaps for the next five or 10 years. But we’ve also got to think about the far future.
In September 2014, a 41-percent increase in vehicle sales was reported. We’ve had a very high growth rate (12.5 percent) of annual average daily traffic in Metro Manila in a span of four years. Daily there are 360,417 vehicles traversing Edsa alone. We’ve exceeded Edsa’s carrying capacity. If this continues, we will run out of space on which to build roads.
Addressing the physical problem has been done time and again, and yet our traffic problem persists. Opening up more roads actually welcomes more cars. It is a short-term solution, not a sustainable one, as many of us believe.
The government promotes public transport and high-occupancy vehicles to maximize the people throughput on Edsa. Again, this is well and good. This will get private cars off the roads, and will encourage people to walk or bike. That can be a sustainable solution.
But let’s hold it there again. The government promotes—not really educates.
There’s a difference between promotion and education. I raised this during the forum’s Q&A portion, and asked Secretary Almendras how the committee planned to educate the people on the traffic system. He said that an information and education campaign (IEC) would be undertaken, and that he and his team were talking to different groups to support the initiative.
I was glad to hear that various groups are interested. They will be there to support the initiative, but that is not enough to address Filipinos’ transport education. This is not as simple as handing out leaflets or making another post trend on social media. Almendras also said the IEC campaign would start upon funding, after approval of President Aquino. With our process of releasing funds, I understand that, being formerly part of the government myself. But then, shouldn’t we prioritize this?
Transport education is what will really get at the roots of our traffic problem.
The traffic problem is a social problem. We are looking into the behaviors and habits of Filipinos. We are too used to being lenient when driving and carefree when crossing the streets. Enforcing fines on violators will work, but it will also stir the wrath of the poor, who, in the first place, do not know the rights and wrongs of selling their goods along Edsa or dashing in front of buses. Opening new roads will give some space, but if our mindset is to own more and more cars, what good will the roads be? We will be congesting them all over again.
The way to address the problem is by studying the people. How do we ingrain in their mindset an appreciation of public transport? How do we educate them that buses and mass transit will ease the flow of traffic on the roads? It seems pretty impossible and ridiculous to the common commuter to prefer long train lines or smoke-belching buses over the comfort of an air-conditioned car. How would you make a rich person owning the best cars prefer to walk along Edsa? How would we explain to a sidewalk vendor that the pavement should be cleared, when he or she would only think about having enough money for another day’s meal?
This education looks at educating adults—teaching those who are in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and so on that they should be walking, not driving; that they should take the bus and train; that they should teach their children to walk more instead of sitting and playing games in the back seat.
This looks very complex. Even I am at a loss on how to undertake this changing of a mindset, because it is extremely difficult to change a person’s behavior. Teaching schoolchildren will be the easy part. Teach them sustainable transport modes at a young age, include it in their curricula. But what about the adults? Commercials, public announcements and the like can last for about weeks or months. Can that suffice to change our behavior for so many decades now?
In fact, I didn’t have to go far to conduct an experiment on how difficult changing our transport behavior would be. I talked to another participant of the Usad Edsa consultation, and upon explaining in detail that buses are more effective, and how riding them would be sustainable, she asked me what would happen if she just didn’t want to take a bus. “E papano kung ayoko ng bus?”
Education, as a solution, will also take quite a while. But this is what your sustainable solution to traffic is. If you have educated and disciplined drivers, pedestrians and car owners, you wouldn’t see enforcement or car volume as a problem anymore. Our funds would be allotted for mass transport maintenance and enhancement.
I also keep saying that everybody complains about the traffic but can’t suggest any solutions. Stop pointing fingers at the government, or at anyone else. Point that finger at yourself and ask what you’ve done to improve the traffic situation. Are you willing to walk? To leave your car behind? To take that bus or train? To encourage other people to do the same? To start the change in your own behavior? It’s a challenge we’ve got to take.
Almendras was on point when he said: “The traffic problem is a community problem. We’ll need community solutions.” That starts with you and me.
Ragene Andrea L. Palma, 24, is an urban planner and a consultant at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat).
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