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Daily Driver: Back to the Future

Daily Driver: Back to the Future

Starting Monday, September 28th, 13 U-turn slots along the length of EDSA will be closed one by one by the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) to make way for the close to unhampered operation of the EDSA Busway service. 

With buses now occupying the median, or inner lane, of EDSA, the existing U-turn slots prevent the full implementation of the new public transport system being pushed by the Department of Transportation (DOTr) along the whole length of the capital region’s main artery from Monumento to SM Mall of Asia. Closing down the U-turn slots would extend the length of the concrete barriers that segregate the bus lanes from the car lanes to cover most of the 18.5-kilometer stretch of EDSA.

While many motorists and commuters have had their fair share of experiencing traffic slowdown along EDSA, it cannot be denied that U-turn slots have offered an escape route of sorts for those who not only wish to exit EDSA, but also those who intend to go to a location on the opposite side of the avenue in the shortest amount of distance and time.

Good for the buses, bad for the cars

Implemented first during the term of then MMDA Chair Bayani Fernando in 2003, U-turn slots were also a way to lessen the volume of vehicles converging at signalized intersections to either make a left or U-turn. By opening certain median sections of EDSA to traffic, motorists with private vehicles were given an alternative to get to their destinations sooner. However, these too came with their drawbacks. 

The first U-turn slot to be closed is the one along North Avenue, just in front of Trinoma and SM North EDSA. Over the years, this U-turn slot has caused the slowdown of southbound and northbound traffic. Vehicles coming from Trinoma would cut across 3 to 4 lanes just to make it to the U-turn slot that would take them to the south. Similarly, vehicles coming from Monumento slow down to a crawl as other cars from the sidestreets, and even West Avenue at one point in time, would cut all the way to the left to take the U-turn. Day in and day out, this area becomes a bottleneck because of the sheer volume of vehicles that pass through here. 

Six years ago, during the time of then MMDA Chair Francis Tolentino, U-turn slots were closed on the premise that there was a need to let traffic flow more freely. Naturally, without the long line of vehicles on the leftmost lane making a U-turn, traffic opened up and was able to move faster. The fastlane, actually became one again. However, the move came at a price as well. 

Soon after the closure of the North EDSA U-turn slots, the intersection of Quezon Avenue was lined with more cars, backed up by the traffic light signalling system that prevented those who wanted to make a U-turn underneath the Quezon Avenue flyover from getting there quickly. This proves that any one move to change the flow of traffic in one area, can have a severe impact on the rest of the flow of traffic in another.

“By international standards, the U-turns along EDSA were substandard and caused congestion and occasional accidents, says S.C. Tan, an Architect, AICP, Environmental Planner and Urban and Transport Planner. He believes that road-level U-turn slots are not effective traffic solutions as they create traffic constriction points along highways. Tan adds, “In other countries, U-turns along highways are made on elevated structures or at interchanges.”

A delicate balance

As we have seen for 17 years now, U-turn slots have both good and bad effects on the flow of traffic. While the basic principle of a U-turn slot is to promote a continuous flow of private vehicles by simulating the roundabout system, a free-flowing intersection without stop lights much like Quezon Memorial Circle or Welcome Rotonda, in reality, they cause traffic themselves once there is a significant volume of cars on the road that compete for space in to and out of the U-turn slots. Careless lane changing and undisciplined driving often add to the mix that makes a U-turn slot cease to deliver on its promise.

In a much quoted study by Jay Samuel L. Combinido and May T. lim entitled “Modelling U-turn Traffic Flow” published in 2010, the conclusion was strikingly real then as it is now. According to the paper,  “…the median U-turn scheme will eventually fail because the congestion that forms will soon extend backwards: at which point, they effectively clog up the turning lanes in the opposite traffic direction.” In summary, whatever benefits a U-turn slot has in easing traffic flow, these will be negated when more cars are on the road. Ironically, the congestion U-turn slots were trying to cure at the times they are most needed, like during rush hour,  were eventually being caused by the U-turn slots themselves. 

Another experiment

“All traffic measures are a matter of convention. For as long as all the users understand the behavior of other users in the usage of such measures, there usually should be no problem,” shares Dr. Crispin Diaz, a Professor at the School of Urban and Regional Planning, University of the Philippines, Diliman. 

He adds, “The choice of appropriate traffic measures is a balancing act.  We’d like to move vehicles more quickly, while maintaining a good level of safety.   At the same time, we need to be careful that our traffic management schemes do not focus on moving vehicles; instead there should be a focus on moving people.  This is where prioritizing public transport makes sense.  It uses less road space per passenger, compared to private vehicles.” And this is where the DOTr and the MMDA seems to be coming from.

The EDSA Busway system is but one of the government’s answers to the problem of  transporting more people at any given time along the National Capital Region’s main artery. Dr. Diaz adds, “Around 86% of commuters do not own a car.  Even if we give 1/3 of the road space to public transport, we are still giving car users more road space on a per-person basis.” 

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S.C. Tan expounds further, “The removal of the U-turns to prioritize the EDSA Carousel BRT is a good move because improving public transport operations should always have precedence over private car traffic.” 

However, with the closure of these U-turn slots, expect many drivers to complain about longer travel times, higher fuel consumption and costs, and increased traffic at the alternate U-turn areas. To which Dr. Diaz counters, “The U-turning vehicles will still need a place to turn (U-turn or suppressed left-turns at some major intersections); for as long as they are provided with alternative paths, then the U-turn closures can be made to work, and MIGHT provide a good balance among the concerns mentioned.”

Planning is key

And here we are again. Much like the U-turn slots that offer a convenient way to backtrack from an undertaken direction, the government is making yet another U-turn on the implementation of one of its own traffic mitigating solutions. With neither a hint of remorse or realization that the 17-year old scheme had failed to ease traffic congestion, we will now be taken for yet another ride towards uncharted territory. Not that the new direction is worse, it is just that the lessons from the current one needs to be studied more carefully so that the government can implement a workable, viable and sustainable alternative. 

“The solution to traffic congestion is better and more extensive public transport and  restrictions/pricing of private car usage,” shares S.C.Tan. And perhaps with all the maverick and previously untried road use measures being implemented by the DOTr in this administration, this is the direction we are headed to.

According to Dr. Diaz, there is a need to carefully look at the traffic data – the number and types of vehicles using the U-turns, their origin-destination patterns – to fairly evaluate the relative impact on the affected road users. And comprehensive studies form the backbone of every plan.

And that is just it. The lack of long-term planning is probably one of our national government’s biggest failings. Knee-jerk reactions, half-baked solutions, short-sighted initiatives, and piecemeal implementation of various programs and schemes have all cost us billions of pesos and immeasurable lost and wasted time for more than thirty years. 
Hopefully, this latest move towards putting the movement of people as the priority when it comes to road usage, will become the catalyst for a future city we can look forward to living in in the foreseeable future. Let us not look back to 2020 in another 30 years’ time with regret on what should and could have been had we heeded the call of the experts.