Our unutilized natural highways
We consider the waters separating our islands as obstacles to travel. But a hundred years ago, our ancestors had a different perspective: The seas connected our islands.
Our ancestors viewed the waters surrounding our islands as natural highways. The vast Pacific Ocean between the Philippines and Mexico was not a barrier but a highway that allowed these two distant lands to be linked to each other through the Galleon Trade.
What brought the change in outlook was the shift in our primary mode of transportation. Our ancestors used boats to travel from one coastal community to another, and our seas and rivers served as highways. With the advent of motor vehicles, cars became the principal means of transportation between communities.
We have largely forgotten our bodies of water as natural highways in our efforts to find a comprehensive solution to the worsening mobility problem in the major cities and their suburbs. We are fixated on finding the solution by manipulating the flow of vehicles through schemes like number-coding.
But no amount of road traffic tinkering will provide a catch-up solution to the daily increase in the number of vehicles, the continuing migration of rural folk to the cities, and the yearly growth in the population.
There is virtually no space to expand the city roads. The solution lies in reducing commuter reliance on private vehicles in order to ease road congestion. This can only happen through an efficient mass transport system.
If there is anything to learn from the success of foreign cities, a network of trains that comprehensively serves the cities and their suburbs is the principal answer to our traffic woes. But this solution is long in the making because the construction of elevated or underground railways will take considerable time and funding.
Meanwhile, there is urgent need to expand or create modes of mass transport that can be put in place in a shorter period of time. First, the government’s bus rapid transport system plan is a step in the right direction. Second, President Duterte must intervene to fast-track the long-needed increase in the number of MRT and LRT coaches.
Third, the government should revisit our ancestors’ reliance on bodies of water as natural highways that connect communities. The spillover of residents of Metro Manila occurs in the burgeoning suburbs of Cavite and Bulacan, which have coastal towns.
The fast-craft Supercats that efficiently serve the Cebu-Bohol-Dumaguete and Batangas-Mindoro routes should be studied as options for commuters between Metro Manila and its Cavite and Bulacan suburbs. (Traffic-free travel and inhaling the sea breeze instead of diesel fumes are advantages of watercraft commute.) The ferry that runs from Manila to Pasig should be refurbished and expanded for the whole navigable stretch of the Pasig River.
For these modes of water transport to be viable alternatives for the masses, the government should provide connecting land transport to and from docking stations in order to make it easier for commuters to smoothly transition to the existing modes of land transport that bring them to interior localities. In the long run, the Manila docking station should have an easy link to train/bus stations in order to bring about an integrated mass transport system.
A joint ticketing system for the watercraft and the connecting land transport at competitive fares should be provided. This will not be a profitable venture for the government. But the transport problem is of crisis proportions, and the government should subsidize this scheme as a public service to the masses. The wealthy have long enjoyed public subsidy because the roads are expensively maintained for their private vehicles.
The traffic gridlock that congests the roads is comparable to a cholesterol buildup that clogs the body’s arteries. Let us change our transport diet to stop the deterioration of our cities and the decline in the wellbeing of millions of Filipinos.
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