Monday, January 15, 2007

Like dumb driven cattle

This is my column today, January 15, 2007 at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

This is a long shot, but if and when our legislators find the time and the will to actually craft much-needed laws, I have one suggestion. Perhaps they can pass a law that makes it compulsory for producers and organizers of major public events, particularly those that attract droves of people, to ensure public safety and to manage traffic in and out of the venue.

How many more tragedies similar to the Wowowee incident do we have to witness before something is finally done to address this perennial problem? Maybe I am just paranoid, but every time I find myself in a major public event such as television specials, concerts, rallies, midnight madness sales, etc., I get this sense of foreboding that the measures to avert grand-scale tragedy are tragically inadequate.

Take the case of the bedlam that happened last Saturday evening around the streets leading to the Mall of Asia, venue of the finale of the 2007 World Pyro Olympics. It was a situation that had disaster clearly written all over it as hundreds of thousands of people trooped to the area to witness the fireworks display of China and the Philippines.

Fortunately, nothing untoward happened aside from the monstrous traffic jam around the area. The jam took hours and hours.

As early as 6 p.m., the venue was already jammed; all roads leading to the mall was blocked with vehicles being forced to park right where the dead end reached them.

There simply was no more space ahead. As can be expected in a situation where people are left to their own devices, enterprising Filipinos transformed the exit roads into parking spaces as well.

By 7 p.m., there was no way in and out of the venue, giving a whole new dimension to the term “gridlocked.” Even Macapagal Avenue became inaccessible as vehicles were double parked on both sides.

Why cars were still allowed into the venue when there was no more space around the area illustrated the utter lack of foresight and preparation of the organizers.

Why they did not provide enough traffic enforcers to ensure that exits were not blocked and that traffic would continue to flow was an even more disturbing question as this smacked of the absence of contingency measures in the case of an emergency. Imagine the kind of tragedy if something untoward happened: Hundreds of thousands of people, all crammed into an area where all exit roads were blocked.

A friend and his family had the misfortune of being stuck right in the middle of the side street beside the Manila Doctors College, with absolutely no way out.

Unfortunately for them, one of their kids had an asthma attack and had to be rushed to a hospital.

They had to leave their car and run all the way to Buendia (quite a distance) to catch a cab.
I anticipated the traffic so I made it to the venue quite early.

But I already figured out that getting out would be a major nightmare. I had thought of parking as close as possible to Macapagal Avenue.

Like hundreds of other people, we had to contend with watching the fireworks extravaganza from a distance. Still, even with a clear exit plan mapped out, it still took us almost two hours to get to Roxas Boulevard. My friend, the one whose car was stuck right in the middle of a sidestreet, was able to get home at dawn.

We Filipinos must really be the most patient and forgiving people in the world because there is no other plausible reason for putting up with such aggravation. It really is time to put a stop to this madness.

It is time to make organizers of these public gatherings, particularly business entities who stand to make gigantic profits from such events, accountable.

We cannot continue being treated like dumb driven cattle herded into potentially catastrophic stampedes.

Every single time a similar event takes place, we simply take it as a matter of course that a monstrous traffic jam will occur around the area. For instance, when Megamall or Robinsons Galleria does a regular midnight madness sale, we simply accept that Edsa would be virtually impassable, heave a sigh, and go on with our lives as if being made to suffer by big business is a blessing.

Media, who by the way is also guilty of similar inconsiderateness when they put up shows that assert their superiority in the ratings game, simply give advice for people to stay away from the venues.

If organizers are not responsible enough to plan way ahead and put in place mechanisms to ensure public safety and convenience, then it is time to make them. It is time to compel them to grow a conscience.

I do not expect that potential harm would be totally eradicated or that people would not be inconvenienced, but some efforts have to be put in place to reduce these. Putting in place ambulances, first aid stations and other provisions for all kinds of emergencies, hiring more people to enforce traffic rules, rerouting, assigning speed lanes for those who are just passing through, even providing alternative parking areas are just some ideas that could be implemented.

To be fair, there are some public events, mostly those organized by local governments that try to address these concerns. For instance, the City of Manila seems more proactive in this area. When it had that New Year’s Eve countdown at Baywalk, it put up more first aid stations, rerouted traffic, and put in place more crowd control and traffic enforcers. Another example was the annual Feast of the Nazarene in Quiapo, which, despite being virtually impossible to manage, was relatively better managed this year in terms of crowd and traffic control.

Having said that, let me now talk about the World Pyro Olympics. As most everyone knows by now, the United Kingdom won the grand prize although I personally thought Australia’s output was better. It is my opinion that our own fireworks display was nothing to scoff at as well. I think that the reason many trooped to the area last Saturday was a sense of nationalism. Many were there to support the Philippines and waited up for our own fireworks display despite the interminably long lull (almost two hours!) in between the time the fireworks from China and the time our own fireworks lit up the skies.

Those among us who were not privy to what was happening in the venue came up with our own conclusions as to what was causing the delay (they awarded the winners and some people presumably made long speeches). Someone quipped that “Filipino time” was the culprit. Another one hypothesized that the local ferry carrying our own fireworks display must have run out of gas or encountered the usual mechanical trouble.

And what got all of us laughing was someone else’s guess that the Philippines’ fireworks display was “na-traffic (got caught up on the traffic jam).”

If those fireworks were really manufactured in Bocaue, Bulacan, then there’s an argument for sustaining and growing the local industry in that town. We just need to make sure that the manufacturing processes are made safer.

Were the fireworks well worth it? I don’t know. I got the sense that the exhilaration and the oohhs and ahhhs and all that applause that accompanied each burst of colors were all soon forgotten the moment people realized that getting out of the venue was pure hell.

3 comments:

vic said...

Bong,
I think what is needed is for the promoters or organizers of such events to acquire liability insurance for any injuries and damages that could result as consequence that may result. That way the insurance and the promoters will take all precautions and preparations and planning to avoid any tragedy the like of wowowee and others.

We do have lots of public shows and some of them are held right downtown. But usually the roads in the immediate vicinity are closed to traffic and there are always emergency personnel on standby in case. There are delays, but are manageable. And the public should also cooperate by abiding with all safety measures and plain common sense.

I believe we did participate in the pyrotechnique competitions (canada) but I'm not sure if we did score well.

Anonymous said...

Hay nako... it took us almost 2 hours just to get out of the 5 level of the parking lot and another 2 hours just to get in Roxas Blvd! What a waste of time, I should have stayed at home instead!

Jego said...

I took my daughters to see the USA and Spain show and it took us forever to get to the ticket booth because the crowd at the Mall of Asia was blocking all access to it. I was supposed to take them to the other shows but after that, wag na lang. It wasnt worth the aggravation.

Last year's Pyrolympics was better because the mall wasnt there. They had concerts, magic shows, different booths, and a free shuttle service. And the tickets cost the same.