Real Solutions, please

My column, August 30, 2015 at The Standard.

It takes a lot before Filipinos snap.  Our capacity for patience and to forgive the inefficiency of public officials is legendary.  It took us more than two decades before we threw up our hands in the air in frustration over the sins of the conjugal dictatorship, and even allowed the family of the dictator to return to power eventually.  Gloria Macapagal Arroyo lasted 10 years in office despite the supposed illegitimacy of her assumption to power and the many allegations of corruption involving her husband and her minions.   Senator Juan Ponce Enrile is now out of jail and back at the Senate despite being charged of plunder.  Many officials of the Aquino administration remain in office despite the mounting proof of inefficiency and ineptitude.  We’ve been complaining about the traffic situation in Metro Manila for quite some time now.  The response from our officials have ranged from the ridiculous (“it’s a sign of progress”), to dismissive (“it’s not fatal”).  Last Thursday, the President himself asked for more patience from everyone else and hinted of the return to the punitive odd-even scheme.
The reaction is typical of the insensitivity that has characterized the default reaction of government.  As usual, government is missing the point.  What people want are real solutions to the traffic situation—not another stop-gap measure.  Vehicle reduction through half-thought out schemes is a knee-jerk reaction; aside from it being anti-progress, it penalizes those who do not have the means to buy more vehicles.  It also shifts the effort of traffic enforcers to apprehending violators rather than helping move traffic along. There are more vehicles on the road because our mass public transportation system is completely unreliable.  I asked officemates and my students and most of them said they are forced to bring a car to work or to school because conditions at the MRT and LRT are subhuman.  If government brings back the odd-even scheme, how will employees come to work or students go to school?
Government has been quick to trumpet any sign of progress or development but has not adequately prepared for the consequences of development.  Of course there will be more cars on the road!  What we need are solutions that are strategic and comprehensive.  Even more important now, what we need from our leaders are genuine efforts to show sincerity and commitment to deal with the problem.
The long-term solutions will involve putting in place infrastructures and systems way ahead of time.  This means more effective and efficient mass public transportation systems.  The construction of the new LRT lines are taking so long and the purchase of those darned trains even longer.  Meanwhile, we have a Philippine National Railways train system that is basically a rolling coffin—why government has not maximized the use of the PNR trains is a question that baffles the mind.  More efficient traffic systems will have to be put in place such as better and functioning traffic lights and more effective ways of documenting traffic violations so that fines for violators are strictly enforced. Constructing more roads, skyways, overpasses, underpasses, tunnels in critical areas need to be programmed ahead of time. But there are a number of solutions that can be pursued quickly.   
First, construction activities on public roads must be strictly managed to ensure that these do not impede traffic unnecessarily.  In other countries, construction areas are fenced or even walled off to contain the construction activities.  In this country, contractors act as if everyone owes them a favor for some future convenience or benefit to be derived from their work.  The truth is that more lanes can be freed up for traffic if only contractors manage their activities with public convenience in mind —in most instances, lanes are blocked off simply because they have not cleaned up the debris, or they serve as parking for heavy equipment or stockpile area which can be done elsewhere.  In my neighborhood where a major public work is being done, streets have been closed off for two months already for no other reason other than sheer laziness or lack of strategic thinking on the part of the engineers—they just don’t care about anything else other than their jobs.
Second, improve the general quality of traffic enforcers.  The Metro Manila Development Authority must hire people who can apply some degree of critical thinking on their feet.  When traffic enforcers override traffic lights, they must make sure that they know the consequences of their actions—just because traffic seems to be moving in one direction does not mean they have succeeded in easing traffic, very often they just redirected it somewhere else.  Traffic enforcers who cannot be bullied and who can communicate should be preferred, not just people who stand there as a sentry.
Third, government must scale up public educational campaigns about discipline and the need for a collaborative approach to easing conditions on the road.  A major cause of traffic congestion is undisciplined drivers and the “me first” syndrome which results in clogged intersections.  People should be reminded constantly about the importance of traffic discipline and courtesy.  Part of this effort should be ensuring that people who are given driver’s licenses really know the rules on the road. 
Fourth, enforce the rules strictly, particularly on buses, trucks, and other vehicles with capacity to block traffic with just a bit of carelessness or minor error on the part of their drivers.  Most of the traffic on EDSA is caused by buses loading and unloading passengers at critical junctions.  Take out tricycles and other illegal vehicles on the road.  Strictly disallow parking even on side roads that serve as alternative roadways.
Fifth, sit down with all stakeholders to map out a comprehensive scheduling scheme that is mutually acceptable to all.  A four-day workweek or school week that is wisely spread from Monday to Friday and from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. may be costly in terms of electricity and other costs, but may help alleviate traffic congestion and help employees and students breathe better.
What we need are signs of serious and sincere thinking and effort; we need to see government being concerned and doing all that it can instead of the usual attempts to spread the blame around.


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