An idea that has failed twice

This is my column today, March 11, 2014.
There is, once again, frenzied talk about converting the Pasig River into a passageway for commuters as a means of helping alleviate traffic in Metro Manila.  The idea is to offer to commuters an alternative ferry service that will traverse Guadalupe in Makati to Quiapo in Manila, passing through strategically designated ferry stations along the Pasig River.
It’s an idea that is brilliant on paper.  It’s theoretically feasible.  And the idea offers various promising and romantic possibilities; Pasig River, is after all immortalized in our history books as the gateway to Manila as well as source of life and sustenance during the time of our ancestors.  We are told that the river used to brim with life that people fished, swam, and washed clothes in it.  So why not, indeed?
The answer is painfully simple:  Because we have tried it before and it didn’t work.  In fact, we tried it at least twice already and failed both times.  We first tried it in the mid-eighties.  It clicked for about a few months.  But interest in the service gradually diminished and the number of trips got reduced until the ferry service operator finally gave up. I knew this because I lived near Fort Bonifacio and worked in Binondo around that time and I did try taking the ferry service to work for a number of times.  I still shudder at the thought of what commuters had to endure during the hour and half it took the ferry to navigate the murky waters of the Pasig River from Makati to Manila.  The idea was resurrected a couple of years ago. Once again, there was initial interest in the ferry service.  But the same thing happened; commuter patronage of the service eventually diminished.  The service was eventually discontinued.  Here’s why.
First, because the river is so filthy and the stench so powerful. It sticks to one’s clothes that  inhaling toxic fumes and getting stuck in traffic along Metro Manila roads is a more tolerable punishment.  Boarding up the windows and making the ferry boats air-conditioned seem like a good solution except that there is something incongruous about riding a boat and not feeling whiplashed by fresh air.  Besides, glass windows do not really alter the many advanced signs of decay that just seem more pronounced along the banks of the Pasig River.
Second, I am not sure if there are statistics that say traversing the Pasig River is safer than the negotiating the extreme obstacle course that characterizes our roads but it seems one’s chances of survival are higher on land than on murky waters.  It is a psychological factor—but who wants to experience flailing around in those waters? What parent will gladly allow his or her kids to use the ferry service?
Third, because traffic in Metro Manila is a seasonal thing.  There are days when traffic on our roads comes to a complete standstill but there are also days when it seems everyone decided to either stay home or be more disciplined on the road.  Also, traffic does lighten up during weekends and when schoolkids are on vacation so there goes the business aspect of the ferry service. 
The proposed revival of the Pasig ferry service is an idea that is doomed to fail—again—unless our government addresses certain environmental factors first. 
But the idea is not beyond salvaging.  I am sure that the ferry service would work if government offers it for free to commuters.  If people don’t have to cough up hard-earned money, people will ignore the stink of the river or the depressing sight all around.  If we subsidize cost of fares in mass transport systems such as in the MRT/LRT and in the PNR trains and increase the number of trips, there will be less people cramming into jeepneys and buses.  The lines at the train stations will be longer, but will find less reason to complain.
Seriously, folks.  Instead of wasting precious resources on traffic management programs that don’t work, we should just use the money by providing direct services that will take people off the roads.   The more people we take off our gridlocked roads and into alternative transport systems, the better for everyone.  Yes, it is going to cost government; but the cost can be recovered by additional tax revenues produced by efficiencies that result from less gridlock on our roads.


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