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Daily Driver: If you build it, they will come

Daily Driver: If you build it, they will come

Mikko David

Two weeks ago Ramon Ang, president and Chief Operating Officer of San Miguel Corporation, announced the structural completion of the highly anticipated Metro Manila Skyway Stage 3 project. 

This 18.68-kilometer long elevated highway connects Skyway Stage 2 in Buendia all the way to the North Luzon Expressway in Balintawak. Built at a cost of P37.4-billion which was borne by SMC, the new road network is projected to cut travel time from Magallanes to Balintawak down to 15 minutes. A welcome respite for the traffic-weary who are currently left to take EDSA as their main route from north to south and back. 

Despite only being fast-tracked for completion in the last three years, the Skyway elevated highway concept has actually been envisioned as early as the ‘70s. After years of delay, and with the Duterte administration’s prodding, the new highway is finally complete. It is part of the 25 ongoing public works projects under the Build, Build, Build infrastructure plan that aims to decongest Metro Manila and alleviate the suffering of motorists in daily traffic. 

The Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) reported last year that everyday-traffic in Metro Manila cost the Philippine economy P3.5-billion each day back in 2018. The agency points at the increasing number of cars along with the lack of road infrastructure as the main causes of the worsening traffic situation. With more and more people buying cars, it would seem that the only obvious recourse is to build more roads. Or is it?

While big-ticket road projects, especially those funded by the private sector, offer a probable alternative to existing roads that are already certified to be over-capacity, is this really the solution to lessen the congestion that Metro Manila is experiencing? 

Various studies and real time experiences in other countries seem to show that building new roads actually causes more congestion. Many traffic experts, urban planners and even scientists opine the fact that for every percentage of new road that is built, the same percentage of vehicles will occupy it. Sometimes, almost immediately.

“Trying to solve traffic congestion with new roads is like trying to cure gluttony by loosening one’s belt,” says environmental planner, urban designer and landscape architect Paulo G. Alcazaren. “New roads will not decongest Manila. The principle of induced demand will ensure that the wider and more roads we build, the more traffic will appear to fill it.”  Induced demand basically means that with increased supply, in this case roads, there will be increased consumption, or in our discussion, cars. 

Take this obvious example. When Skyway Stage 2 was completed up to Buendia, more and more vehicles from the south began using it to get to and from Makati. The result: kilometers-long traffic jams during morning rush hour. The promise it intended to deliver, easier and more convenient access to the Makati Central Business District, was easily wiped out because of the sheer volume of cars that ended up using it.   

The Skyway Stage 3 extension aims to remove about 50,000 vehicles a day from EDSA. But if science and expert projections  are correct, that same volume will eventually find its way back as more people will decide to use their cars on EDSA, eventually bringing us back to square one. 

“Elevated skyways and freeways through cities are being torn down all over the world (Boston’s Big Dig, San Francisco’s Port Area, Seoul’s central area, etc), yet we are still building this type of infrastructure,” adds architect Alcazaren. And these elevated roads cost billions of pesos. Imagine if that money were poured into projects that actually have sustainable impact on how we commute. So what should really be done to decongest the capital region?

Architect Alcazaren recommends a rethink on how the government sees the problem. “The problem in Metro Manila is not traffic. Traffic is just the symptom of the problem of 1) Metro Manila not having a metropolitan-wide coordinated land use plan (that manages urban development); and 2) the lack of a comprehensive mass-transit based transport system to fit a rational land use plan for the Metro.” 

For almost four decades,  the lack of a centralized land use plan has seen the cities and municipalities in the NCR going their own separate directions in terms of land use. A mall suddenly rises up beside the main highway, open spaces are ripped apart in favor of high-rise condominiums, subdivisions sprouting up where natural drainages have existed for hundreds of years.   Only today are we realizing the completion of plans drawn up 40 years ago. And the complexion of the metropolis has already transformed beyond recognition from time these were all on the drawing boards.

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“We cannot continue to pursue urban growth based on initiatives of private land developers or lowest-hanging fruit conversions of government land to developments that forget the provision of affordable housing for all,” declares architect Alcazaren. 

Solving the congestion problem on EDSA is a gargantuan task. And it will take various tough measures to change the way people use the dilapidated highway. Already faced with equally challenging problems such as pollution, road safety and accessibility, mobility in the Metro now demands a multi-faceted solution that not only changes the means available for people to transport themselves, but also the way people think they should transport themselves.

“We have to remember that the start and end of all commutes is by walking yet we spend almost nothing to ensure that sidewalks are provided that are wide enough, weather protected and lit at night,” says Architect Alcazaren. By improving pedestrian infrastructure, people will be conditioned to leave their cars and walk more often. Imagine a wide, covered, air-conditioned, elevated walkway along EDSA. Perhaps one that even  has an integrated bicycle lane inside. This will not only contribute to people’s overall health, but it will also lessen pollution with the reduction of cars on the road. 

A proper bicycle infrastructure and the immediate adoption of the Bus Rapid Transit system (i.e EDSA Carousel) are two more recommendations by Architect Alcazaren. And while we are seeing these now, their haphazard implementation leaves much to be desired. 

More pedestrian bridges over rivers and highways and more transfer connectors and transit stops that link various modes of transport such as buses with the MRT, the MRT with jeepneys, and jeepney with tricycles are also on his agenda. And of course, increasing the number and frequency of trains in the LRT and MRT systems will also help decongest traffic according to the seasoned Urban Planner. 

Human psychology determines human behavior. And the theory is, people will change their behavior according to what is given to them. Build them more roads, and they will drive. But build them safer, more convenient and more accessible walkways and they will walk. Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest ones.