Sunday, December 21, 2014

A theory to explain our traffic woes


My column for today, December 21, 2014.
It’s a seasonal thing.  Apparently, there are people in this country who believe the current traffic nightmare that we are experiencing in Metro Manila is a glitch that is tied up with the annual season of gift-giving and merry-making.  This theory would hold more water if not for the fact that our traffic woes are no longer just triggered by seasonal factors such as school opening and midnight madness sales.  The sad truth is that virtually anything nowadays can turn our major thoroughfares into huge parking spaces – a little rain, a road accident, a construction or repair, a long weekend, a brownout, pay day, etc.
It’s a symptom of the utter lack of strategic or systemic thinking in our country.  There is gridlock on our roads supposedly because no one is directly responsible for managing the whole traffic system.  We have 100 local executives around Metro Manila all trying to manage traffic in their respective cities and municipalities, completely unmindful of the fact that our roads extend beyond the confines of their respective fiefdoms.  If only our leaders were imbued with strategic thinking competencies, they would be able to come together to map out a comprehensive traffic solution that benefits everyone.  Perhaps they would also be able to program development initiatives such as major construction or rehabilitation projects in such a way that reduces impact on traffic and the lives of commuters and motorists.
And there’s the economic theory.  Supposedly, the traffic gridlock is the by-product of a burgeoning economy.  There is supposedly more money going around the system that people are buying more cars and flocking to supermarkets and shopping malls to burn money.  This is a really great theory to munch on, one guaranteed to bring a smile to the face – if one happens to be sitting in the comforts of one’s home leisurely sipping coffee and relaxing with their feet up on a stool enjoying retirement.  But if one were an ordinary work drone that gets caught up in a monstrous traffic jam every day, in the process losing sleep or precious quality time with one’s family, this traffic-as-a-result-of-growth-and-prosperity theory is like rubbing salt to injury.
According to some experts, this traffic problem is really a cultural thing.  It’s supposedly a metaphor for how things run in this country.  Everybody rants and riles about it, we have monstrous blame-storming sessions, but no one is actually willing to do something to help fix it.   When people are on the road, they break the very rules they rile about.  Traffic is also supposedly caused by our manana habit – people shop for Christmas presents at the last minute jamming not only our roads but even parking spaces that soon overflow into the streets, creating markets on sidewalks which block pedestrians, etc, etc.  This also happens during school openings and other special holidays where people wait until the last minute to book flights, or buy supplies, or get out of the Metro, or do their laundry, etc. 
An extension of the cultural theory is the social theory.  We just happen to be a people who have no issues with invading someone else’s personal space or encroaching into someone’s time or comfort zone.  We have no compunctions about turning three-lane streets into five-lane streets, or making a counterflow, or swerving into someone else’s lane.  We load or  disgorge passengers in the middle of the road, sell or buy stuff on the street, even talk to other drivers or passengers in other vehicles – with no regard for the inconvenience or annoyance this causes to others.  Somehow, we expect everyone to give way, or not to take offense when we break traffic rules – maliit na bagay lang naman (it’s only a small matter).  In this country, traffic rules are mere suggestions and everyone is expected to look the other way if no one gets hurt when someone violates something.
Have you heard of the engineering theory?  Apparently, there are structural and planning defects in our roads.  Certain roads were obviously not meant to accommodate certain amount of traffic such as densely populated areas that suddenly sprouted 40-storey condominiums or, astonishingly enough, huge malls!  Someone pointed out that a number of our underpasses and overpasses defy engineering or architectural considerations.  We’re probably the only country that built underpasses in areas that are flooded regularly, or for that matter, closed intersections and decreed U-turns instead in traffic-prone areas.
The most common theory, of course, is the enforcement and discipline theory.  According to many, our traffic problem is caused mainly by the utter lack of discipline among motorists, commuters, pedestrians, and the general citizenry.  Others allege that lack of traffic enforcers aggravate the situation although it can be argued that there are more than enough enforcers just that they prefer mulcting from hapless motorists rather than helping them get to where they want to go quickly.  
Goodness, at the rate we are going, it’s just a matter of time before we run out of someone or something to blame for the traffic problem.

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