Monday, July 05, 2010

Muffling sirens is not enough

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III covered a lot of ground in his inaugural speech. He promised to return power to the people, curb corruption, prioritize poverty alleviation, upgrade the quality of education, cut red tape, reform the military, honor the memory of his parents, silence his garrulous sister, etc. Just kidding about the last one. In general, he promised a “better Philippines.”

I didn’t expect P-Noy to present a strategic plan for an inspiring future, or even just for the next six years that he will be President. Strategic thinking is something one cannot associate with this administration or with this particular President who has risen to power courtesy of a confluence of spur-of-the-moment events rather than through careful planning and strategizing. Besides, doing so would have been superfluous anyway given that the man himself is supposed to represent hope and deliverance. His assumption into the Presidency was the message itself and the less distraction from this message, the better.

I expected P-Noy to make populist pronouncements that would send his yellow army into paroxysms of delight. I was hoping that he would say something concrete we could all chew on, for example, an announcement to the effect that he will finally implement agrarian reform at Hacienda Luisita, the way it is generally understood by everyone in this country, not agrarian reform as defined by slick corporate lawyers, but no cigar.

An inaugural speech however needed something quotable, something memorable. And so there was “Walang wangwang, walang counterflow!” This was the pronouncement that jumped out of the inaugural speech. This country is in the midst of major problems and the President decides to start with… sirens! Is this a work of genius or are they nuts?

The impact this pronouncement made on the people reminded us very strongly of how the infamous “Walang kaibigan, walang kumpare, walang kamag-anak o anak na magsasamantala sa ngayon” became some kind of a benchmark for the Joseph Estrada presidency. One hopes, of course, that P-Noy does a better job of living up to the one promise he made during his inaugural speech that everyone could relate to and remember.

It is safe to assume that making the traffic situation some kind of a centerpiece program for the first 100 days of the P-Noy presidency was deliberate. I reckon that P-Noy’s handlers knew what they were getting into and gave the matter a lot of thought; hopefully more thinking process than what was given to P-Noy’s first memorandum circular which could have brought the whole government bureaucracy to its knees.

That was an embarrassing gaffe that hopefully was the last of its kind. There are quite a number of people who thinks that gaffe is indicative of the level of competence in the P-Noy administration. I personally think it’s an unfair generalization. They’ve only been on the job for a week that we should cut them some slack. If it’s any consolation, they did have the grace to recall the memorandum and admit that it needed revising.

Is the challenge of putting order into the streets of Metro Manila simplistic and uncomplicated? Heavens, no. I maintain that the traffic situation in Metro Manila is the perfect metaphor for what is wrong with and in this country.

Our roads in Metro Manila showcase the informal caste system in our culture. Motorists driving luxury or expensive cars generally think they have right of way. Many among those in power think and act like they own the roads. I work on Macapagal Avenue where the Senate is and believe me, many of our senators and their guests and staff drive like the roads around are their private driveways. Our senators use sirens and create counterflows, even when there is no traffic!

If the President is serious about restoring order on our roads, he shouldn’t stop at sirens and counterflows. He should also order everyone who works in MalacaƱang and all those connected to them by affinity or consanquinity to immediately take off those stickers brandishing the seal of the Office of the President. In fact, he should issue an order stopping the printing of those stickers and mandate that henceforth, possession of those stickers will no longer entitle motorists to extra courtesies on the road. In fact, the same should apply to similar stickers and plate numbers that give motorists an excuse to violate traffic rules.

He should also enforce stiff penalties to cops caught mulcting motorists. Traffic cops should be reoriented on their functions—they should be reminded that their main job is to manage the traffic, not to apprehend motorists. In fact, the procedures involved in apprehending traffic violators and issuing violation tickets should be re-engineered—traffic cops should not do it on the road. Perhaps, pictures can be taken and violators are slapped penalties when they renew their licenses or car registrations.

Many of our roads are just too narrow and should have either been widened a long time ago or de-commissioned as major thoroughfares. The problem is that widening roads would require major resources, which we don’t have, or would pose problems with property owners who will most likely be able to stop such initiatives through the support of some relatives and friends in power. Some roads really should be declared off limits to public transportation—particularly buses and jeepneys. The problem is that most Filipinos don’t want to walk —they’d rather get stuck in a jeepney for hours rather than walk ten minutes to get to their destinations.

Motorcycles and bicycles should be encouraged in order to declog our roads. Unfortunately, motorcycles are considered major health hazards primarily because we don’t have special lanes for them and motorists in general see them as a nuisance. And then, in case people haven’t noticed, motorcycle riders are regularly flagged down by mulcting cops.

I’ve only scratched the surface—there’s more. There’s the discipline problem, the floods, the absence of directional or street signs, problems with traffic enforcement; but as usual I am running out of space. Suffice it to say that the traffic problem it’s not as simple and straightforward as some people think it is. We need solutions, not slogans. We need the President to fix the problem, not simply sit in the middle of it.

The problem is: Did the President intend to solve this problem or did he simply mean that he was willing to suffer along with all other motorists? Did he simply mean he will outlaw sirens or did he make a commitment to fix the traffic problem?

I find it a little disconcerting that the President has been late for official appointments because he chooses not to use sirens and promptly gets stuck in traffic. We’re supposed to applaud the fact that our President also experiences our woes? How does that move us forward? To avoid recurrence, they said the President would wake up a little earlier—which, in case they haven’t realized it yet, most everyone in this country does and that has not solved the traffic problem. Clearly, making the President suffer with everyone else is not a solution, nor is it indicative of governance. So perhaps some strategic thinking—such as thinking beyond sirens in this particular case—would really help.

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