It’s the cars, stupid
THE REAL way out of the horrendous traffic mess in Metro Manila, and increasingly in other major cities of the country as well, is not to build more roads to accommodate more cars. It’s to have fewer cars on the city’s roads. That is, the solution lies more on the side of demand, not of supply. The lasting solution is not increasing the supply of roads, but reducing demand for it. In short, our goal, as far as metropolitan areas are concerned, is to get people out of their cars.
Enrique Peñalosa, mayor of Colombia’s capital city of Bogotá, has long argued that building more and bigger highways as a response to traffic jams is like putting out a fire with gasoline.
Peñalosa has just won a fresh 2016-2019 term from the citizens of Bogotá, in the position he last held 14 years ago. At that time, he changed the city dramatically with his out-of-the-box approach to its traffic problem. As described by British paper The Guardian, “Peñalosa is remembered fondly by Bogotá’s eight million residents for declaring war on the automobile when he previously served as mayor from 1998 to 2001, restricting traffic during rush hour, implementing a mass transit system and rolling out a network of bike paths that now stretch over 300 kilometers.”
I’ve had the pleasure of listening to Mayor Peñalosa twice, including on a visit he made to Manila years ago, with his first-hand account of how he literally fought to transform Bogota into a much more livable city for its people. Having led on the credo that “cities are for people, not for cars,” he declined a $15-billion highways program from foreign aid agencies. Instead, he opted to restrict car use and create quality public transport, against strong criticism and even ridicule from detractors. The city decided that money was better spent building a 35-kilometer “greenway” exclusively for bicyclists and pedestrians, in lieu of an eight-lane highway proposed by foreign donors that would have benefited primarily those who own cars. Those bicycle lanes had since multiplied nearly 10 times in length.
In an advocacy that he has pursued internationally, he argues that experience all over the world shows that building more road infrastructure in cities ultimately brings about more traffic jams. The reason is simple: Supply creates more demand. It seems logical enough: In the absence of restrictions, building more roads attracts more people to buy cars. To stress the point, he challenges his audiences to name one city in the world that solved its traffic problems with more road infrastructure. If there were more space for cars in New York or London, he declares, there would be more cars. But if there were less space available for cars, then there would be fewer cars—and he reminds his audience that access to parking space has never been a constitutional right anywhere. Among his controversial moves was to return sidewalks to pedestrians. He removed cars from sidewalks by raising their level and installing bollards (short posts) on them, while also clearing them of informal vendors (sounds familiar?).
Recognizing that transport lies at the center of city life, Peñalosa sees transport as a peculiar challenge: Unlike most other concerns, it gets worse as a society gets richer. He further laments how car owners who comprise a minority in developing country cities nonetheless dominate political power therein. In particular, public investments in cities tend to be inordinately directed toward them in the form of more road infrastructure. Infrastructure investments can indeed be regressive, that is, hurt the poor and help the rich, especially if these are focused prominently on roads.
He notes that the only means of transport accessible to low-income citizens in developing country cities, and to children in all cities, is the bicycle. Bicycling to work can save up to 30 percent of a minimum wage earner’s income. When he started as mayor of Bogotá there was not a single meter of bicycle lane, and few people rode bicycles. He takes pride in the fact that more than 350,000 people from all walks of life have since been biking to work daily. To Mayor Peñalosa, a great city is one that provides much free joy: parks, sidewalks, waterfronts, sports facilities, libraries, quality public education at all levels, pedestrian promenades, marvelous waterfronts, and, yes, protected bicycle lanes. The last, to him, is a fitting symbol of democracy, as it demonstrates how a citizen on a $40-bicycle matters as much as one in a $40,000-car.
Not everyone can ride bikes, of course, so the other critical element in a city’s transport system is an efficient mass transit network. In 2000, Peñalosa started construction on the TransMilenio bus rapid transit (BRT) system, which by 2012 had 12 lines traversing a total of 112 kilometers throughout the city, now the world’s largest BRT system. In Metro Manila, where bicycling may not be easy in certain areas with rolling terrain (Edsa between Makati and Mandaluyong comes to mind), we need an extensive and efficient mass transit system far wider and far better than what we have so far. I was excited by a recent briefing from the Japan International Cooperation Agency on a proposed (and long-overdue) Mega Manila Subway Project that would traverse 63 kilometers from Bulacan down to Cavite. Given Metro Manila’s population density, we will need hundreds of kilometers more.
Over time, we must get motorists out of their cars and get them to ride bicycles (Marikina City has led the way on this), or where not possible or practical, into an efficient mass transport system. After all, these, not more cars, are the future—and the mark of a truly livable city.
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