Temporary solution becomes permanent problem

PHIULIPPIINE STAR / MIGUEL DE GUZMAN

I get where the MMDA (Metropolitan Manila Development Authority) is coming from: reducing vehicle volume on Metro Manila roads reduces traffic congestion. Just like what we see on weekends and holidays. But what I do not get is why it insists on a “solution” that does not work. In the last 20 years, we have added more roads and tollways, and continued with variations of the coding scheme, but traffic congestion persists.

Number coding, to my recollection, was started sometime in the Ramos administration, maybe in 1995 or 1996, as a temporary solution to traffic congestion while better road infrastructure was put into place. At the time, two major projects were underway: the Metro Manila Skyway from Makati to Bicutan, and then MRT-3 on EDSA, which started construction in 1997.

The original coding scheme covered only public utility vehicles, but was later expanded to include private vehicles as well. I am unaware of any comprehensive research or scientific study that actually backed the scheme with empirical data and analysis. Also, I am unaware of the specific measures that MMDA used to gauge the effectiveness of the scheme since 1997.

It was a temporary solution, to my understanding. But it has since become permanent for lack of other solutions or ideas to counter increasing population density in the metropolis. And from the look of things, the scheme is here to stay. Worse, it is mutating, with its latest proposed variation planning to take private vehicles off the road not just once but twice a week. So, after 25 years, MMDA has come to this conclusion?

Metro Manila mayors have yet to vote on the proposal. For local executives running for reelection this May 9, they may want to consider the plan carefully given its far-reaching implication on a lot of metropolitan residents. Perhaps it is for this reason that MMDA says the new coding scheme may take effect after, and not before, the elections.

The proposal to take private vehicles off the road twice a week, in my opinion, lacks a full understanding of the need for personal mobility. While at present this is only for 5-8 pm on weekdays, nothing precludes MMDA from returning to the 7 am-8 pm schedule later on, and still at twice weekly. But even with shortened hours, the scheme makes even less sense in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Worse, the plan seems to lack accountability on the part of those proposing it, since there are no definite scientific measures or parameters used to gauge or determine whether the coding policy is effective, and whether its proponents are correct or should be kicked out of office . In the last 25 years with coding, it does not seem like anything has changed for the better.

There is simply not enough public transportation out there to efficiently cater to all Metro Manila residents who will be forced to leave their cars at home because of the coding scheme. Long lines at the bus carousel on EDSA as well as at MRT stations already show this to be a fact. There is no point in clearing the streets further in the late afternoons if there will not be enough public transportation for everybody, anyway.

We have a limited-capacity train and a light rail system, and a proposed subway still to be built. Couple this with all the buses and jeepneys on the road, these are still not enough public transportation especially during rush hours. Taking away the option of driving a vehicle to go home puts even more pressure on public transportation. Worse, it belittles the need for physical distancing and health protocols on public transport in relation to COVID-19.

Obviously, there is not enough affordable housing near centers of business and employment. People live in suburbs and outside the metropolis, and thus need transportation to and from work or school. Those fortunate enough to afford a vehicle for this purpose will be hard pressed to find alternatives not just once but twice weekly for who knows until when. Again, a temporary solution possibly becoming a permanent problem for many.

More workers are now required to report on site. And at different hours, considering BPO work. Trains and light rail do not run for 24 hours. Neither do buses and jeepneys. Most report for work at regular hours, and thus commuting hours are still very common for most people. That said, eliminating more private vehicles at the same hours as most workers go home puts even more pressure on public transportation.

It is inconsiderate to insist that people go to work, or leave for home, beyond rush hours. Many Metro Manila workers live in places like Laguna, Cavite, and Bulacan – locations that can be two to three hours away by public transportation from Metro Manila, depending on the traffic. Those forced to leave the office at 8 pm, because of coding, will not get home until maybe 10 pm

In reality, people with cars nowadays will rather commute than drive considering the high cost of fuel. Worse, driving in traffic takes a toll on one’s health. But, people with cars – and most people can afford to own only one – will opt to drive especially if they go home to residences not easily accessible by public transportation. It’s hard enough to get a ride going home as things are, but imagine having to make two to three transfers – or walk long distances – just to get home.

Many of these same points have been argued over and over in the last 25 years of number coding. The ones who bear the brunt of number-coding are middle-income earners who can barely afford personal transportation, but still try to bear the heavy cost of vehicle ownership just to get to and from work.

Many of these are people who rent, who do not own homes, but instead spend to own cars because of the need for one. And with fuel prices high now, the burden is even heavier. Given the option, they will rather take public transportation. But the fact remains that public transportation in Metro Manila is insufficient and inefficient.

Number coding, in a way, is meant to benefit the poor masses, those who do not own private vehicles, by easing the flow of traffic for public transportation. Indirectly, it is meant to benefit the economy by easing congestion in the flow of people and goods. It impacts little the wealthy, but burdens the middle income.

So, in the last 25 years of number coding in all its versions, have the poor actually benefited? Has commuting with public transportation for them become easier? Do people and goods flow faster and more efficiently? Has traffic congestion been eased? If coding works, then why is the MMDA expanding it to cover not just one but two days weekly? If it is not working, then why are we still insisting on it?

Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council

matort@yahoo.com

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