2/15/2014
The chairman wants us to sacrifice

The plan was to not allow all trucks in major thoroughfares in Metro Manila as long as the sun is up.

Currently trucks are not allowed out between six to ten in the morning, and between five to ten in the evening. (And trucks are not allowed in EDSA at all.) That means me driving through SLEX in the morning, on those few mornings when I drive myself to work, is comfortable; relatively less so my drive home. I just drive a sedan. Being sandwiched in between cargo trucks is no fun thing.

But the traffic situation isn't getting any better, so the MMDA planned to implement a daytime truck ban. Yes, no trucks out while the sun is up, in all major thoroughfares in Metro Manila. The only exception would be the roads leading to the container ports in Manila, and both the NLEX and the SLEX; they can go through between ten in the morning and five in the afternoon. And, of course, EDSA, where trucks are not allowed at all.

Of course, industry groups were up in arms. Truckers, mostly. Logistics people. If you limit cargo trucks to making their deliveries to just seven hours a day - from ten in the evening to five in the morning - there will be catastrophic effects to the economy, they say. Deliveries will not make their destinations on time. Stores will run out of items they're selling. Prices will go up, with all the overdue port charges, and the night differential the drivers get, and all those other expenses get factored in.

They express their concerns to the MMDA, and every time, they're told one thing. "We must all make sacrifices."

MMDA chairman Francis Tolentino has said that line many times. He is, after all, just doing his job, and that job, it seems, mostly revolves around making sure nobody is stuck in traffic long enough to complain about it. Anybody who lives in Metro Manila knows this very well. Yesterday - likely because it's Friday and payday and Valentine's Day - I sat inside a bus that did not go past ten kilometers per hour. (At least I knew there's little chance of me dying.) EDSA crawled. Not quite a standstill. Yet, I left Ortigas at around eight in the evening and arrived in Las Piñas two and a half hours later; even if I took public transportation it would not take that long. So, yes, his job, mostly, is to make sure traffic in the biggest urban region in the Philippines flows properly, and if some have to make sacrifices, then might as well.

The daytime truck ban should have been implemented early last month, after at least two years of delays, mostly because those industry groups have repeated, again and again, of the catastrophic effects to the economy such a plan would bring. But the MMDA implemented that exact truck ban under a different name: their Christmas truck ban, for one week in December. Again, the rules: no trucks can travel as long as the sun shines.

The impact, well, wasn't as catastrophic, but then again, the scheme only lasted for a week. In that week, cargo trucks were stuck at the ports, unable to go out because the law forbids them to - like vampires when exposed to daylight, really, only without the sparkling. The few trucks that did get to travel find themselves stuck at their destinations, because the moment they finish unloading their trucks, the sun is up. The end result was a massive backlog in deliveries, not just in ports, but in every distribution center in the region. Factories have products they can't deploy. Warehouses have items they can't distribute. And I found myself in the Jollibee branch below us, buying lunch for a few colleagues, and learning that they have run out of at least five items, something that never happens to them.

And the traffic? On the first day of the Christmas truck ban, EDSA was at a standstill. And that was EDSA, where no trucks are allowed all day. I had to pee in the Ayala underpass. Really.

The implementation of the permanent daytime truck ban was moved, again, to July. Now truckers have to deal with Manila mayor Erap Estrada enacting a similar plan on his city - no trucks when the sun shines, a counterintuitive idea considering these trucks go to ports located in Manila, ports that they have to go to while Batangas and Subic remain less-than-ideal options for shippers. A "parochial" plan, Quezon City vice mayor Herbert Bautista says, saying the plan does not factor in the effects it will have on surrounding cities, like Erap's earlier bus ban, which just made Welcome Rotonda less welcoming to vehicles.

Actually, I must add, that bus ban didn't make traffic in Manila any better. When I went to the PGH two months ago, we found ourselves stuck at the intersection of Taft and Padre Faura for a good twenty minutes. And all we wanted was to turn right.

As for the MMDA, well, they're still doing their job. As is everybody else, really. It seems even the national government is prioritizing traffic in its capital, as opposed to, say, improving social services for the rest of the country. As 2016 draws near and whoever's in power has the need to show Metro Manila that some things have changed for the better, up to fifteen major infrastructure projects are slated to break ground across Metro Manila, notably the Skyway extension connecting SLEX to NLEX, providing an elevated alternative to EDSA, and shortening travel from Buendia to Balintawak to 15 minutes. (Really? At what speeds?) That one in particular starts work on Monday, and I can only imagine how the SLEX-Buendia intersection - with its buses virtually blocking access to the overpass just so they can turn left - will be like.

So, again, we have to sacrifice, the MMDA says. After all, in two years' time, everything will be better. Until then, we'll have to get stuck in traffic a little longer, surrounded by concrete posts. We'll have to live with less products in supermarket shelves. Now Tolentino's even proposing that schools should consider shortening their school weeks to four days instead of five, or maybe do more online courses. Sacrifices.

"Bakit hindi na lang rin nila ipasara ang mga mall?" my dad said while listening to the MMDA head being interviewed on the radio. "Tutal, gusto naman nilang mabawasan ang traffic."

"Pati mga opisina," I said, forgetting for a split-second that I am also talking to my boss.

I can't fault Francis Tolentino for his dogged pursuit of solving Metro Manila's traffic problem. It is a problem. It has always been a problem. At this point it looks like it will always be a problem, as people get impatient and desperate and decide to take their fate in their own hands - meaning "buy your own vehicle". But as things get worse and we get desperate, the solutions get one-dimensional: all the other factors get tossed aside and we end up with unsavory consequences, like rising prices, lower happiness, or, well, worse traffic.

I don't claim to be an expert to these things. I mean, all I am is a commuter. I just live fifteen minutes away from Alabang. I just travel an hour or two to my office in Ortigas. I have no access to all the numbers, of how many vehicles travel this road at this time, more so how many traffic enforcers are needed to make sure those vehicles keep flowing. I am just an ordinary citizen who cannot do anything grand to solve the traffic problem. But I do know a few things.

One, everything is exponential. Let's say I'm driving. If I leave my home in Cavite at six in the morning, I will get to Ortigas at seven. If I leave ten minutes later, I will arrive at half past seven.

Two, bad things will happen if I arrive late. I might get a salary deduction. I might get fired. At the very least I will run to my office to get there as early as humanly possible, and I will be cranky as a result, and I will not get things done. Maybe you'll say that's entirely my fault, that I should've taken advantage of all the time I spent stuck in the road going zen. Fine. Let's say I am a basket of cabbages, and I am stuck in traffic. I cannot go zen. I will rot, and nobody will eat me, and I will feel terribly unfulfilled.

Three, it's obvious Metro Manila does not have a plan. No plan. At all. At no point in this city's history has anybody sat down and drawn up a plan. This goes here. This goes there. Every family should be in walking distance to a grocery, or to a park, or to a cinema. If you have to go far, you can take a bus, a reliable one. Or maybe a train. A reliable one. Nobody made such a plan. I don't know if it's because Metro Manila is composed of sixteen cities and towns, each with a different idea than the next. I don't know if it's because we tend to rip everything up whenever we take over from someone else. I don't know if it's because nobody bothered to think ahead.

But I do know that Metro Manila has grown haphazardly, and now we live in a messy, chaotic, difficult capital. Public transportation is not an option, but a last resort. Driving your own vehicle isn't a guarantee that you can get there faster, too. We can't just rip it up and start again - unless the West Valley Fault's had enough of my whining, snaps, and swallows me alive - so we might as well build on top of this chaos. And we have to suck it all in, as we face the gargantuan task of moving from point A to point B.

Granted, Metro Manila's traffic woes is not solely because the system, or whatever passes for it. As experienced drivers always tell their children, if you can drive in the chaos that is Manila, you can drive anywhere (or at least anywhere that uses left-hand drive). Jeepneys pick up passengers on the sidewalk, the center island, and the lane in between. Buses leave a centimeter-wide gap between it and other buses, just to get passengers - never mind it crossing the blue line that separates the buses and the cars. Cars speed up and slow down and change lanes more often than playboys change girlfriends. And pedestrians, well, cross anywhere they can cross. I've done it myself. So, yes, as crappy and clichéd it all sounds, change begins in all of us, blah blah.

But are we the only ones who are supposed to sacrifice? Are we the only ones who should swallow our pride and sing a happy song as we are stuck in traffic? Why do we have to adapt to the system? The system obviously doesn't work anymore. Let's see. Overpasses for pedestrians are filled with vendors slash pickpockets. They're often dimly lit, or not lit at all. There's this pedestrian lane near my office which is blocked, on both sides, by a metal barrier. And if they aren't blocked, vehicles stop on top of it anyway, and those traffic enforcers do nothing about it.

The scrutiny on buses have gotten tighter again after a series of accidents involving buses and gravity, so again the focus is on whether drivers should have monthly pay rather than a commission-based thing, or whether these vehicles should have speed limiters or whatever. (It is doable.) It's gotten chaotic if you're on a bus - just look at how commuters waiting along EDSA and Ayala spill out of the terminal, out of the sidewalk, and into the intersection itself. The bus I was on last night only got full when it hit Ayala, and by full, I mean full to the point of inducing claustrophobia, with everybody standing up and packed like sardines. And the timers don't work, and buses linger when they shouldn't. And we always want them to stay in their lines, but nobody tells the jeepneys that. There are no strict laws concerning jeepneys. And why should there be? These are voters, and nobody with a political ambition wants a pissed voter.

Yes, we have to sacrifice, and we understand why. But should it be just us? Can't bus operators sacrifice a chunk of their income to provide a safer experience for everyone? Can't those in power sacrifice a little political sway and be strict when it comes to jeepneys? Can't the government sacrifice the need to give major government projects to their relatives and give us more thought-out systems and policies? It's just like that hare-brained truck ban. It might ease traffic in the short term, but the long-term effects could spell disaster for us. (Or at least for call center agents, who might find themselves competing against all these trucks in their nightly commutes. Okay. All of us. The Jollibee downstairs will run out of items if this pushes through.)

Let's all take a break and think about it. And I mean really think about it. Metro Manila needs a plan. A strictly-implemented, sensible, humane plan. And it's not just traffic: it's flood control, it's zoning, it's parks, it's utilities - there's so many, I don't know where to start. It will take forever, but it will make things much better than they are right now. So, yes, sacrifice. Hopefully not just us. But then again, we have trust issues, and we are now hard-wired to be impatient, and we secretly hate change, don't we?

And your responses...

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