Monday, December 06, 2010

Man-made

This was my column on the date indicated above.

We know Christmas is around the corner because there are a lot of things associated with the season that begin to manifest themselves around this time of the year such as those ubiquitous twinkling lights and lanterns. Sadly, no thanks to global warming, we haven’t been waking up to nippy mornings yet despite the fact that we’re almost in the middle of December.

But there is one thing associated with this season that has only become more evident and correspondingly, more vexing this year: Traffic! Monstrous, gigantic, humongous traffic jams!

It’s the one reminder that jolts everyone to the reality that celebrating this season of love and sharing come with a price. I think it is safe to assume that most are willing to bear the monetary cost. Having the fortitude to endure certain inconveniences—particularly those that are really avoidable—is another thing altogether.

We know traffic in Metro Manila shifts from bad to worse around this time of the year. But the traffic situation in the last two weeks has been unreasonably and irrationally bad it has made people openly wonder whether the concerned government agencies responsible for managing traffic and enforcing law and order in our streets have what it takes to do the job.

The traffic problem in Metro Manila is the perfect metaphor for what is wrong in our country. We can all romanticize the state of the economy, we can churn out million of pages of facts and figures that say we are on the right track, we can all sing paeans to nationalism and love of country. But all these don’t mean anything when people do not follow rules, when those who violate rules get away by bribing enforcers, when the enforcers themselves are incompetent and corrupt and are often malingering, when those with influence are given special treatment, when everyone just wants to get ahead of the others without any consideration for courtesy, and when the basic structures are so limited and have not been built with the foresight to accommodate growth and expansion. And these, really, are the factors that are causing the monstrous traffic jams in Metro Manila.

We are being told—conditioned is actually the more apt term—that the traffic jams we have been experiencing lately is temporary. They’ve even coined a term for it—Holiday Traffic. Even more amusing, they have come up with a scheme supposedly designed to ease “holiday traffic” by opening up side streets, calling them “Christmas Lanes.”

Nice try, really. It appears that the people concerned with designing these schemes do so while in the comfort of their air-conditioned offices. To begin with, the so-called side streets that they have assigned as Christmas lanes are not exactly traffic-free. What they have done is simply spread out the traffic jam. People won’t get stuck in Edsa for hours, they will get stuck in some side street. How do I know this? Because I rarely use Edsa, I use those darned side streets that the Metro Manila Development Authority now want to use as alternative lanes. They are less congested than Edsa, but I guess not for long now that they have been assigned as Christmas lanes.

The authorities have also come up with this brilliant scheme to impose vehicle reduction on mass transport systems such as jeepneys and buses. I am not really sure the problem is that there are more jeepneys and buses on the road because God knows there doesn’t seem to be any when one desperately needs them. But I do know this for a fact: If drivers of buses and jeepneys follow traffic rules, display courtesy and some—just a little bit—of proactive thinking on the road, traffic wont be as bad, really.

Jeepneys cause traffic because they stop anywhere they want (most often in the middle of the road), and use the streets as terminals. On Vito Cruz, for example, traffic is always bad because the jeepneys use the street as parking area and terminal and leave only one lane for moving vehicles to pass through.

As far as buses are concerned, the problem is not that there are too many of them. I think that bus operators would not be stupid to continue fielding their buses if there are not enough passengers that would patronize them. I used to take buses in the eighties and the nineties and boy, we had to run after them, get squeezed inside like sardines, and in general endure the many aggravations that come with having just a few buses on the road. The problem really is that we don’t have an efficient system to manage passenger buses on the road. Bayani Fernando did try to put in place some innovative programs but I guess he really didn’t have the support of everyone.

The problem is that we have too many bus drivers who shouldn’t be driving. Bus drivers are particularly notorious for causing monstrous traffic jams. Just one bus stuck in the middle of Edsa near Guadalupe Makati for five minutes, trying to get back into a yellow lane, can cause a traffic jam that would extend all the way to Buendia!

In fact, this was what happened just last Saturday afternoon. We were on our way to Quezon City. We turned left to Edsa from the Buendia flyover to find ourselves in the middle of a traffic jam. Thirty minutes after, we discovered the cause of the jam: Buses took up the inner lane reserved for private vehicles while trying to get back into the yellow lane to pick or drop off passengers at the Guadalupe area. Traffic got bad again after Boni Avenue because of the same funnel effect caused by buses who used up inner lane while trying to squeeze back into the yellow lane approaching Crossing. It was then smooth sailing all the way to Cubao where the same problem manifested itself. Where were the MMDA traffic enforcers all this time? They were nowhere to be seen.

Clearly, the traffic problem is a people management problem. First, we don’t seem to have the right people in the right jobs and this applies to traffic managers, enforcers, and drivers.

We have monstrous traffic jams because people don’t follow traffic rules and we need to understand why. Could it be that they simply do not know traffic rules? Then we need to embark on a massive re-education program for everyone who wants to apply for or renew their licenses—no exceptions. Could it be that there are structural impediments that hinder people from obeying traffic rules such as faulty traffic lights, unclear traffic signs, or even systemic problems in the road such as bottlenecks caused by some stupid traffic enforcer who has over-rode the traffic lights and went into manual mode not being aware that doing so has made traffic even worst?

We have monstrous traffic jams because quite frankly we have a breakdown of values in our streets. People just don’t give way to each other and there’s this whole obsession with just getting ahead of everyone else even if doing so blocks everybody else’s way. We have monstrous traffic jams because we have traffic enforcers who are either incompetent or corrupt, and sometimes both. Most of our traffic enforcers are not equipped to manage traffic bottlenecks from a more macro perspective.

No amount of traffic systems, vehicle reduction schemes, or even road expansion will alleviate the traffic situation unless we get our perspectives right: Traffic is caused by people. The solution has to address that basic recognition.


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