Does Metro Manila really need a traffic czar?

Does Metro Manila really need a traffic czar?  image

Text: Tito F. Hermoso / Photos:, MMDA | posted September 03, 2015 19:23

FAQs and hypothetical solutions

Do we really need a traffic Czar?

The short answer: NO!


Because we have one already. Having one or another one over and above the de facto current one is like adding another layer, making processes cumbersome and far less responsive than the way they are.

Francis Tolentino

Who is this traffic Czar?

The MMDA Chairman.

Why the MMDA?

The MMDA's predecessor, the MMC [Metro Manila Commission] in1975 which later became the MMA [Metro Manila Authority] in 1990, was inspired by the Greater London Council which was a pioneering institution for solving urban problems. As such and as in all urban situations, the most visible and pervasive problem is traffic. London, being the oldest Industrial Revolution city, has the longest experience in all kinds of urban congestion. Like London, Manila grew unplanned, largely by sprawling into neighboring towns and counties, spreading the benefits and miseries of urbanization in its wake. To solve compounded problems rivalries and territorial jealousies had to be set aside for “an all for one and one for all” approach. Mdme Imelda R. Marcos was the first Governor of the MMC and her Vice Governor was Mel Mathay, the COO, essentially the Metro Manager and perhaps, our first traffic czar.

Yves Gonzalez

Shouldn't the traffic czar just focus on traffic?

The MMDA Chairman has a deputy in the executive director of the traffic management office. This is the unit that focuses on implementing traffic directives, but the same still has to coordinate with other government and private entities concerning excavations, road closures, road repairs, etc. through the Chairman for guidance, because it is only the Chairman, who sees the bigger picture. Thus, the MMDA works like a symphony orchestra. The point of contact and guidance for coordination of, say the woodwinds section with the percussion, strings, keyboard and brass section is through the conductor. The Chairman in this example is the conductor. Just as in an orchestra, you can't have the woodwinds looking to the brass for coordination and then the percussion for guidance or else you will have mess.

MMDA Chairman

Does the MMDA Chairman have to be the traffic czar?

Since the bulk of the coordination and urban problems deal with traffic, the Chairman has to be the de facto traffic czar since he sees the bigger picture, he can see and analyze the interrelation cause and effect of urban problems. The Chairman monitors and supervises all the factors that happen and affect day-to-day urban life and practically all the factors that happen in urban life are always related in multiple ways to traffic. Ever since MMC Vice Governor Mel Mathay, the MMC Governor or later the MMA/MMDA Chairman coordinates all the activities of all the relevant government agencies, local and national, and all the towns and cities that pertain to : garbage collection, town fiestas, traffic closures, traffic light signal phasing, parking, bus stops, pedestrian traffic, U-turns, left turns, truck bans, drainage clearing, sewerage treatment, public transport routing, school parking, road repair, funeral cortege, wedding escorts, summit meetings, new road construction, telephone and power utility excavation, major national events, disaster reaction, crowd control, sidewalk vendors, illegal settlers, squatter clearance, homeless, stray animals and stray children and of course, traffic. Mind you, the greatest portion of the MMDA's time and resources is devoted to traffic. To isolate the function of a traffic czar to just focus on traffic will limit his scope for solving the traffic mess because a narrowly focused, defenestrated traffic czar will still have to coordinate with all those agencies and organized road users. Its better to have the function of the traffic czar integrated in the Metro Manager, which is the MMDA Chairman, so orders are carried out whereby other parties are also aware in one go rather the traffic EO [executive officer] going to the other department chiefs.

What if he is not effective?

By what criteria do we judge effectivity? To the simple minded, the basis for judging a traffic czar to be effective or not is if traffic has improved in the Metro over time. Obviously, traffic has not gotten any better.

Should we change this traffic czar?

We surely can, but we first have to assume if changing the Chairman will change the problems that affect traffic. Give the MMDA the benefit of the doubt, and it has indeed been trying to solve our traffic problems, what can a new Chairman do? Unless he has some smashing new idea or has studied a working concept copied from abroad, all the solutions proffered by experts, media, business group and ranting irate motorists have been tried out, been there done that or need time and money to get going. And in the traffic alleviation conflict, time seems to favor snowballing congestion. Changing traffic czars is the easy part, but delivering meaningful change or results is nearly impossible when the problems continue to ramp up to today's level of intractability.

But MMDA has been trying to solve the traffic problem since it was still the MMC?

True, but then traffic problems are not static. The traffic problems on Day 01, 1975, would have ballooned in number and severity by Day 01, 1976 and so on. The pre-emptive solutions to the foreseen traffic problems can only do so much for so long. MMC and later MMDA would have wanted to solve those problems before hand or if not, put in place preventive solutions, as recent as yesterday. But to construct these solutions take time and also cause traffic. Moreover, these solutions cannot all be started on all at the same time. Look at the Metro today: apart from the heavy repairs of the circumferential roads, like EDSA, the construction of Skyway Stage 3 has practically neutered the traffic flow on the path of Osmena Highway/G. Araneta/C-3 one of 3 ring roads that are vital for transiting through the Metro. The NAIA Skyway being rushed for the APEC meeting is also causing great traffic flow disruption. These two, are only a small part of a traffic czar's wish list of infrastructure that he would wish could be built overnight. Imagine if the other planned projects for this year were activated- Buendia-Makati Ave-Paseo de Roxas underpass, Malibay to Roxas Blvd. Skyway and the North Ave. to Congressional Ave. EDSA flyover interchange. A specific “damned if you do damned if you don't” example was cited by Pres. Aquino when he floated the idea of an odd even ban and added that it would meet public resistance : the Global City to Capitolyo Pasig River crossing. Building and finishing this bridge would introduce a much needed alternative to Guadalupe Bridge so it can undergo retrofitting. But private homeowners along the path of the access roads in Pasig are resisting expropriation simply because the compensation payment for their treasured family homes is never going to be enough to pay for replacement cost in a similarly located area. As for the time bound element of “legal niceties”, witness Metro Pacific tollways proposed NLEx north-south Metro link expressway, running mostly over the PNR tracks to save on right of way expropriation of private property. Proposed in 2009, it is taking 6 years to hurdle all the government requirements, most specially the so-called “Swiss Challenge”.


Why are we so late in traffic mitigation infrastructure?

To begin with, we are a poor country with a fast expanding population. Since the 70s, whatever infrastructure we put up, was bound to be saturated ahead of plan and forecast schedule simply because of the expanded economic activity that, ironically, is caused by a growing population. This economic growth raises the standard of living of many of our countrymen, leading to even more activity that use roads and transportation. It is plain to see that the authorities cannot stop planning and building as they are always playing catch up with projected transport needs. It is said that we have a 30 year gap in infrastructure i.e. , our infrastructure today is good enough for efficient traffic flow 30 years ago. This is what they call the infrastructure gap.

Why did we end up with this infrastructure gap?

Even if we don't want to sound like the current administration, which always blames all the past administrations, except Cory's, for our current compounded predicament, the seeds of today's problems were sown in the past. As a poor country, we could not fund all the infrastructure projects all at the same time even if we wanted to. We tried to fund it by borrowing from international sources, but we ended up failing to pay up. In fact, we ended in default and got cut off from foreign borrowings. Since the FVR era, we have been trying private sector funded BOT [Build Operate and Transfer] and through the years, the government has been trying to refine the terms of BOT so that the country does not end up with lopsided raw deals. Today, BOT, now called the PPP, is hoping to provide enough win-win opportunities so as to attract more private investors.

The “Arsenic” and “Yeba” era traffic measures

Before Metro Manila was created, most traffic was concentrated in the pre-war/post war Manila CBD of Escolta-Bonondo and the adjacent districts of Quiapo and Divisoria/Port Area. Although devastated by WW2, Manila's David Burnham planned infrastructure gave it numerous river crossings and broad boulevards that just needed rebuilding. As population and traffic densities rose, Mayors “Arsenic” Lacson and “Yeba” Villegas, resorted to infrastructure like the Quiapo underpass, Liwasang Bonifacio interchange and the Lagusnilad underpass.

Magallanes cloverleaf exits

The outskirts and Highway 54

Alternative CBD's started sprouting up in the suburban towns around Manila : namely Grace Park-Monumento in Caloocan, Cubao in Quezon City and the Ayala triangle, the former Nielsen air field in Makati. Businesses that wanted to escape the congestion of Manila were slowly but surely attracted to relocate here. The existence of Highway 54 provided access to these new CBD's in the outskirts.

The Mathay years

If there was a time when the Metro's traffic infrastructure was “just in time” - sufficient for the projected increase in traffic for the next 10 years - it was during Mel Mathay's era in the mid-seventies. Building the Cubao and Shaw underpass while allowing relatively free flowing diversion routes showed motorists that for a little sacrifice in diverted traffic, greater convenience could be enjoyed later on. The Magallanes Interchange and Balintawak Cloverleaf followed.

High growth, growing congestion, MMTC, LRT

By 1979, a growing middle class and a burgeoning local car manufacturing program was expanding car ownership and hence traffic. Both Cubao and Ayala Makati have begun to have long stop-go tailbacks during rush hour. Mel Mathay's solution was to convert Highway 54's service roads into 2 more additional lanes for what was then known as Epifanio de los Santos Avenue or EDSA. Incidentally the acronym “EDSA” first seen as the route identification sticker of Mini-buses plying highway 54. Rotundas were demolished to make wider 4-way traffic junctions. Trained traffic assistants called traffic aides were distributed to assist Police traffic officers were resorted to. Traffic aides were specifically trained for on the road traffic management and need not have Police qualifications like knowledge in criminology. To regulate the hundreds of wild and unruly mom-pop and small unit bus operators, the MMTC [Metro Manila Transit Corp] government bus company was introduced to standardize bus size and safety features with zonal fare pricing to compete with the standard distance based fare computation. Where computerized traffic lights could not be introduced, raised platforms for traffic cops, some of whom waved traffic flow in break-dance fashion, were installed in the center of junctions. By the 80s, the LRT was already operational and more and more junctions had computerized traffic signals.

People Power Problems

By 1986, Cory revolutionary government installed Joey Lina as the officer in charge of the MMC. The country was so poor and in default, it couldn't even afford to repair roads, much less invest in new roads, light rail transit and new buses. The MMTC disintegrated and a massive shortage of buses dumped rush hour waiting commuters packed and spilling over the curbs. By 1989, Sec. Orbos was appointed traffic czar. The government imported a few China buses but they broke down on short notice. An LRT for EDSA was being planned but finding a builder and financier was proving tough because of the country's poor international credit standing. PHILTRAK, the predecessor of BRT was offered but the DoTC was more dead set on an EDSA LRT. Instead, the Yellow lane, a dual bus lane, was carved out of EDSA and the chocolate boys – traffic officers in chocolate brown breeches and campaign hats –were deployed. They proved to be very unpopular as they were extremely anal in arresting private car motorists that wandered into the yellow lane. During the last year of Cory's term, several flyovers were hurriedly built on EDSA and Roxas boulevard.

PUB apprehensions

MMA, MMDA and UVVRP or coding

The MMC, rechristened the MMA previously headed by Jejomar Binay in 1990, became the MMDA in 1995. Its first head was Chairman Oreta who relegated the job of traffic planning to Col Romeo Maganto, colleague and one of the shock troops of Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim. Maganto proposed the first UVVRP or Unified Vehicle Volume Reduction Program for EDSA and the main streets of Metro Manila for the rush hour. Initially imposed as an odd-even ban, it copied old European practice of restricting access to narrow roads in the Medieval parts of their towns and cities cars with license plates of either odd or even number depending on the day of the week. Odd-even bans also applied to parking restrictions on certain sides of small streets, depending on either odd or even calendar days. A variation of UVVRP imitated the HOV [High Occupancy Vehicle] practice in the US; if your car is banned that day, you can be exempted if you carry more than 2 passengers. Cars with nearly opaque windshield tints had a field day getting away with unmolested by traffic aides. Within a few months of imposition, Maganto modified the odd even ban to today's so-called number coding whereby the ban is imposed on certain days of the week depending on the last number of the license plate. The construction of the Skyway and the MRT 3 was to perpetuate the imposition of coding to this very day.

BF, U-turns, the pink and the blue

The 7 year term of BF Bayani Fernando from 2002 to 2009 was to prove to be the most innovative and intrusive of all MMDA chairmen. BF pushed the latest urban thinking in congestion relief; the paired U-turn system, Elevated U-turns, cheap imported steel from China to construct foot bridges, blue and pink fences to herd stubborn pedestrians, median segregated bus stops, traffic fines paid direct to bank accounts, the coding “window” [ coding rules suspended during off peak hours] and many more. Along with aggressive clearance of squatters, BF was strict about recovering intrusions to road right of way, which he started as Mayor of Marikina. This worked wonders in not only making streets neat and aligned, but greatly improved traffic flow as obstructions were removed. Many of the ideas were well studied but because of the urgency and exigency of applying traffic solutions, particularly fences and bus stops, BF's men resorted to trial and error, leading to tragic-comic aggravation of traffic flows during rush hour and Christmas season. MMDA TV and MMDA Radio 1206 AM was also introduced.

Continuing the innovation and fine tuning today

The current MMDA under Chairman Tolentino continues with this legacy of trying new ideas which even brought the return of traffic lights to some junctions, the adjustments of U-turn spacing, mini roundabouts, bikini roundabouts, zipper lanes, Pasig River Ferries, Motorsiklo lane, overhead electronic info billboards, TNAV, CCTV internet streaming traffic broadcasts, twitter and the special 24 hr. truck lanes to relieve congestion at the Port of Manila.


Panaceas in lieu of Permanent solutions

Much as the current situation of major catching up with the infrastructure back log has exhausted all kinds of traffic alleviating measures, short of drastic odd even or the variation of the so called odd-odd, even-even bans [successive banned days depending on plate number ending], the public continues to groan under the deterioration of public transport rail alternatives. To those who want to replace the current traffic czar or install another traffic czar above the present MMDA Chairman, we ask,to what end? The same compounded and accumulated problems will still be with us until the time that the major traffic relieving infrastructure projects are finished. But as the president always cries that the media is always criticizing without presenting solutions, we present ours.

We can change the way we live

Traffic has already changed the way many of us live. Developers are squeezing more and more high rise CBDs closer to home or even having the residential towers right where the office towers are. Take a look a residential-office clusters in BGC, Eastwood, Rockwell, Century Mall, Ortigas, Tiendesitas, Greenfield Mandaluyong, etc. where the ideal of living there reduces the commute time to a pleasant walk and a couple of elevator rides. Also, with the sprinkling of more CBDs across the city and suburbs, the so-called reverse commute – when your way to office has lighter traffic because its in the opposite direction of everyone's way home and vise versa – is no longer applicable as both destinations – residential and office – have become unitary. It used to be that people residing in Quezon City or Alabang worked in Makati so if you were one of the few who resided in Quezon City but worked in Alabang, your daily commute was easier because you were against the flow of the rush to get into the Metro. But now the reverse is also true which is why during rush hours, both directions are just as crowded. The exception to the rule here is in the far flung bedroom communities in the South where no one works and everyone just goes home to.

What can we do?

Granted we cannot change the traffic situation tomorrow, we can change the way we live. The GMA era of Holiday Economics, now recycled in Congress as the 10/4 week – the 40 hour work week compressed into 4 ten hour days whether Monday to Thursday or Tuesday to Friday - wasn't given a chance to develop but it was a good idea. Holiday Economics was a start and should have embraced changing or staggering office, school and shop hours, but again it wasn't given a thorough try out.

Change our working hours

Although it will take a lot longer and adjusting to changed circumstances will prove difficult, changing office hours of critical businesses like banks, hospitals, ports, government offices, can make our society a genuine 24/7 one. This new work pattern will distribute the use of roads and transport. Imagine, as it is, the congestion we cause every day stretches our working day to more than 12 hours spent out of the home, with easily one third of that spent in traffic. Contrast this to how traffic flows freely after midnight until dawn.

The BPO lifestyle example

Clusters of young office workers knocking off a few “Red Horse” beers early in the morning “happy hour” shows that working odd hours in the call center or BPO [Business Process Outsourcing] sector prove that you can still have a life even if your days are nights. Domestic chores at home are dealt with in the day time after a long day's sleep, as nights become the de facto the working day. Note to that the high spending BPO crowd are usually private car owner/driver commuters too and just think of how much easier their commute to office is. Give a thought to night time pleasure spots like night clubs and restaurants that stay open late. They don't have to deal with the monstrous traffic jams of the daily rush hours. As a motoring journalist, we mostly spend the dawn writing, early part of the day recovering sleep mixed with domestic chores and the evenings attending media events. Editors don't need to be in the office everyday as they don't need to chair meetings with artists, journalists and printers everyday.

Compensating additional energy and time expense

The energy and wage expense of keeping offices working at night and encouraging working at home in the day may well be compensated by saving all that energy and time that would have been wasted and lost to traffic congestion during the classic rush hour.

No ideal examples so far

Indeed, a true 24/7 urban lifestyle hasn't been achieved yet. New York City, the closest one knows to a 24 hour city, is still mostly deserted at night while its rush hours are as murderous as in any of the third world's mega cities. Hong Kong is well placed to live a 24/7 life and yet the profit motive isn't enough to push its citizens to live/work 24/7. Perhaps, its probably because they have very efficient means of transportation for three fourths of the working day. But for us who don't have the luxuries that New York and Hong Kong take for granted, and we know that the possibility of a more efficient transport environment is decades away, our only choice is to change the way we live. Its daunting.

Simulating it boggles the imagination

We were thinking of how life would be if passport applications, human contact banking, grocery shopping, school physical education, domestic chores, brainstorming meetings, etc. were done at night or dawn, and we found it unimaginable. But is it impossible? When it comes to play and having fun, we know how do it whether day or night. For it to happen, there may have to be a massive change in our presumed day time activities – for example – if all banks were only open at night. Drastic? Ridiculous? As we sit in traffic all day, we hope some workable way to change our lives to beat the traffic vicious cycle comes up.

Change by our own

We can change as many traffic czars as we desire but we are in for a disappointment if we want traffic relief. It is not in anyone's ability to jump past the time to build infrastructure. But we have the power to change the way we live. Question is, would we prefer that, whatever that change may be?