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“To ensure an improved quality of life for the Filipino people, the State envisions a people-oriented national transport system that is safe, secure, reliable, efficient, integrated, intermodal, affordable, cost effective, and environmentally sustainable.” 

This is the new Vision of the State as promulgated in the recently published National Transport Policy Implementing Rules and Regulations. The document, which can be downloaded at the National Economic Development Authority’s website, now serves as the guide to national and local government efforts towards the future of transportation in the country. 

We mention this amidst the ongoing rush to catch up with infrastructure development that this administration’s Build Build Build program has implemented. Admittedly, we have fallen behind our ASEAN neighbors in this regard. As the population of the country increased in the last three decades, it would seem that proper infrastructure spending was not put into place to anticipate the future transportation and mobility needs of the people. 

I for one thought that we missed a big opportunity post-EDSA to lead the country towards progress and modernity. The lack of a national plan, or the non-implementation of existing ones only exacerbated our condition. Traffic congestion, while a recurring problem, seems to have been treated with mere band-aid solutions, devoid of long-term foresight. The previous president even called it a sign of progress. Granted. But not lifting a finger to fix it, is a sign of callousness as well. 

In the past 5 years of the Duterte administration, projects previously stalled in the last 30 years were continued and some finished. New roads are now being constructed. And even new train lines are now also being put up. All in the hope that the people’s commute will be made in comfort, safety and in the least possible time. 

However, for anyone who has visited other progressive cities around the world, commuting via public transport isn’t so bad at all. In fact, it is even more convenient as you do not have to worry about parking, traffic, and fuel costs. 

Getting around Hong Kong, Bangkok, Sydney, Melbourne, Tokyo and many other well-thought out cities via train or light rail is easy, once you get the hang of it. The extensive network of train lines criss-crossing these megacities makes commuting an effortless process. One that any person, regardless of social status, can use.

And this brings us to the real issue of the day. Do we really need to put up more highways like the Pasig River Expressway, or PAREX, to help ease traffic in Metro Manila? 

The recent groundbreaking ceremony held last week by San Miguel Corporation, the project’s proponent, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Public Works and Highways, signified the start of a war for the hearts and minds of the populace. 

As SMC’s Ramon Ang, and DOTr Secretary Arthur Tugade touted PAREX as the solution to traffic congestion, mobility advocates and environmentalists all slammed these personalities for their seeming disregard for the social, environmental, heritage, and health impacts this project will have on the people not just along the river’s banks, but also the whole of Metro Manila as well. 

“My mother started living in Pineda, Pasig, when she was just 18. She’s now 84 years old. She would tell us stories of her going to the riverbanks to collect shellfish for lunch.” This is how architect and environmentalist Manny Illana was introduced to the value of the Pasig River. 

Today, after an accomplished stint as lead architect for a number of high-profile projects that struck a healthy balance of nature and development, Illana sees the folly of building an expressway along the banks of the Pasig river. 

“I don’t see it as the ultimate solution to our city’s transport problem and constructing over it poses other things, urban blight from underneath it as one. This is what we see in most of the overhead roadways that have already been constructed,” claims Illana.

“It does provide for connectivity and transport but at what cost. We need to find the proper balance and the right infrastructure to solve the problem.”

Manny Illana, architect and environmentalist

Illana is just one of the many architects and urban and environmental planners who are opposed to PAREX. In fact, in the course of my research for this story, it was close to impossible to find any one in those professions who are for PAREX. Even the famous Palafox and Associates architectural firm, which SMC said it was consulting for the project, is still distancing itself from it. Obviously, it goes against the company’s mantra of “protecting and conserving natural environments.” 

One expert who we often quote in this column is accomplished Environmental Planner Paulo Alcazaren. On his Facebook page he claims that for only a fraction of PAREX’s budget, the river banks of Pasig can be turned into modern people-friendly esplanades. “It would only cost 1.5 billion pesos to develop both sides of the 25 kilometer long Pasig River into an esplanade like Iloilo’s (9 kilometers so far). The resulting green area would be larger than Rizal Park in area,” he professes. And who would not want to see more green and open spaces in the already crowded and dreary metropolis? 

Add the P2-billion Ramon Ang says SMC will spend on dredging and rehabilitating the river itself, and there’s still more than P88.5-billion to spend on improving mass transportation options, or establishing pedestrian bridges and bike lanes, or simply beautifying Metro Manila. If that is what Ramon Ang wants to be remembered for.

Over the years, we have been ignoring these experts in the name of personal gain, profit, and so-called development. Perhaps it is time to listen to them.

The example often given to demonstrate the potential failure of building an urban expressway over a river is that of Cheonggyecheon in Seoul, South Korea. By 1976, the freeway constructed on top of this river had become the symbol of the capital’s industrialization. However, it also became a cause of downtown traffic and pollution. Anyone who works or lives under the LRT 1’s, and the various Skyway stages’ beams knows how claustrophobic and gloomy it can be. 

So when the city of Seoul decided to tear down the highway and restore the flow of the stream  and create a recreational living space along its length, Cheonggyecheon turned into a symbol of  revitalization that the city was looking for. As an added twist to the whole saga, the mayor of Seoul who campaigned on the premise of tearing down that expressway, Lee Myung-bak, had been the president of the company that helped put it up. 

As of now, more than 80 entities have signified their opposition to PAREX. With reasons ranging from it won’t solve traffic congestion, to the adverse effects it will have on the ecology of the river and the environment. Even it becoming an eyesore that will block people’s views on heritage sights along the river’s banks or the whole concrete structure raising the temperature of the metropolis. PARES, or Pasig River Esplanades, instead of PAREX. This is what many are calling for. Truth be told, and based on experience locally and abroad, they are most likely right. 

“I think the longer, bigger solution lies in defining a full transport masterplan for the entire metropolis and the surrounding areas, devoid of political and business machinations,” says Illana. The business-motivated PAREX, while increasing road capacity at first, will only make more people drive their cars and pour more vehicles into the tight spaces of the metro. Just look at the approaches to Skyway Stage 3, or the exits into Makati CBD and the long queues into them during rush hour. And we are still living in pandemic times, when not everyone is on the road just yet.

“If anyone, not just RSA, is outrightly looking for the best interest of ‘every Juan’, having an efficient mass transport network (which is just part of the entire system) may be the businessman’s direction instead,” Illana adds. “People from all social classes should be able to afford it. Said system should be able to move a large volume of people over a wide, long distance in a relatively short period of time.” Illana asserts that in the long run, this will bode well for the economy and the well-being of the people.

At this point, it would seem that the only way to reduce traffic congestion is to take out a significant percentage of cars on the streets when congestion happens. And the only way for people to stop using cars is if they have a viable, safe, reliable, and comfortable set of interconnected mass transport solutions. So to reduce traffic, we will need more mass transportation. This is simple logic. And this is where we need to put our money.

Let us not repeat the mistakes of the past. In fact, let us learn from them so we can spend whatever funds we have,  public or private, wisely and more conscientiously.

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