After 3 long years of being stuck inside because of the plague, people are coming out again with a vengeance. Daily commutes are back to pre-pandemic levels, and it seems like the solutions that we tried to fix Metro Manila traffic during the pandemic haven’t really done anything to curb the hellscape we call our daily commute.
And just like clockwork, the powers that be (in this case the MMDA) are proposing a new coding scheme to try and stem the inevitable tide of cars barreling down EDSA and every major artery in Metro Manila. And just like the previous coding scheme, it won’t do anything of the sort – it’ll just create even more problems as people try to buy a third, probably crappier car to try and circumvent that, just like what most people did when they bought their second, probably less crappy car to try and circumvent the initial coding restrictions when it was first proposed.
In case I haven’t made it clear: vehicle reduction by coding hasn’t really been effective in our country. Just like in Mexico and in other countries where similar schemes have been put in, families and households typically just buy a second car to circumvent the ban. That’s led to more cars being on the road and since many families don’t have garages built into their homes in the metro, that means more cars obstructing side streets and other alternate paths, leading to more traffic.
Well, if there are more cars on the road, the solution is to build more roads! Well, no. It’s been proven time and time again that if you build more roads, people will just drive more to fill those roads, and voila, you’re back to square one: stuck in traffic again, but instead of sitting on a nice 2 lane highway, you’re now stuck in a 4-lane one. And this isn’t conjecture – the phenomenon is called induced demand, and numerous studies have already shown that simply adding more roads won’t actually fix the main problem.
The main problem is the fact that the middle class, the ones who can afford these cars to drive to work every day, do not have a comfortable and convenient way to get around the city. While transportation options like Grab and taxis exist if you add up the cost of taking them every day, you can pretty much buy a halfway decent car which has led us to our current problem.
So, how do we fix Metro Manila traffic? A few things – one is to put increased public transport capacity and invest more in public transportation systems. The bus lane in EDSA was actually a good idea, but the execution needs to be improved. One of the biggest problems that we have right now in terms of public transport is that there is a multitude of private bus companies that compete with each other for passengers and routes. This leads to uneven bus coverage for multiple routes and is one of the main reasons you sometimes see busses that have few passengers blocking streets waiting to pick up more passengers. If we had one unified transit authority for buses in Metro Manila, then it would be easier to coordinate bus routes for lines and routes that see more passenger traffic leading to faster rides.
Another solution is to invest in more rail and train transit. We’ve already made steps in the right direction, but it’s not enough. More inter-city rail systems are needed moving forward if we really want to decongest the metro. Let’s stop building roads that only serve cars and let’s build more transit systems to serve people.
There’s a simple way of reducing traffic volume now without investing in all of that infrastructure and upfront costs, and it’s something many companies are already familiar with during the last few years. The government should start giving tax breaks to companies and businesses that allow their workforce to work from home. It’s no coincidence that traffic started increasing when we started relaxing restrictions and letting people back in the office. Plenty of companies have already adjusted to the new realities of life during COVID, and there’s really no sense to go back to the way things were. A study conducted in the US by Owl Labs shows that 90% of the 2,050 full-time remote workers surveyed said that said they were as productive or more productive working remotely, compared to when they toiled in the office.
Allowing more remote workers to work at key positions in big companies will also spread money around the country, as these workers can now stay in their provinces and build their careers from there without having to pay for Manila’s increasingly crazy cost of living. The money that they generate will go directly to the provincial communities they live in, spreading the wealth around instead of just using it up in “imperial Manila”.
There isn’t a single, magical fix to Metro Manila traffic, but I can guarantee that what the MMDA is suggesting isn’t it. We can’t build our way out of it, and we sure as hell cannot code our way out of it either.