Boggling the millenials

Just to boggle the imagination of today's traffic-spawned millenials, I used to tell them this story. When I was a young laddie in the sixties [late] and seventies, prize meals, worth a long drive could only be found in two places in Quezon City; a four course sizzling steak dinner at Open Steak House in a cul de sac just off West Avenue and a ten course Cantonese set menu at Kowloon House restaurant on West Avenue, near the Delta junction of Quezon Boulevard, today's Quezon Avenue.

One Peso toll, 25 minutes point to point 

It didn't matter that my assigned seat in the family Rambler station wagon was the rear most row rear facing seat. The prize meal was reward enough to keep immune from motion sickness. For the princely sum of Peso 1.00 toll from Meycauayan to Balintawak on the spanking new North Diversion Road, foodie heaven was a consistent 25 minutes away; from the ancestral home in Malhacan, at lunch time, rain or shine, hell or high water. In those days, there wasn't a Balintawak Cloverleaf produce market whose expanse and refuse would clog the creek and flood Highway 54, a.k.a. EDSA today.

Mega billion projects

With several billions worth of infrastructure spent over 7 administrations, 37.8B and 378.0B, respectively may look like small beer today, specially that the tenure of the PRRD administration is programmed to spend 8.4 Trillion Pesos for this “Golden Age of Infrastructure”. With the administration's turnabout emphasis on GA [Government Appropriation] construction, funded by ODA [official development assistance] relegating PPP [public-private partnership] to O&M [operations and maintenance] 37.8B will buy us the Metro-Manila EDSA BRT [Bus Rapid Transit] and the JICA sponsored ODA, the Metro Manila Subway for 378.0B. As the signing of these and more are being rushed, the cost-benefit analysis and feasibility studies are straining to keep up.

Building the Metro subway and BRT: How hard can it be?

EDSA takes it all

The EDSA BRT will run on the 48.6km Monumento to MOA length of EDSA with 3 loops – one to Ortigas Center, another to BGC and then Ayala CBD. The Metro Manila Subway on the other hand as planned by the Japanese starts burrowing at Quezon Memorial and connects to Ayala CBD, BGC and MoA with a spur to NAIA.

Cheaper and deeper than light rail 

According to transport authorities, the EDSA BRT justifies itself for cost considerations as BRT's are faster to build/operate and cheaper to capitalize vs. Light Rail systems. The higher capacity Subway on the other hand is justified on the need not to disturb the already coagulated surface transport within the greater Makati jurisdiction, even as costs are multiplied by a factor of ten.

Arteries and capillaries

Presently, the crucial C-4 circumferential road of the Metro, otherwise known as EDSA, serves as the distributive artery for commute journeys to all the bursting CBD's and east-west transport corridors that grew along EDSA's main lateral junctions; Grace Park, Cubao, Ortigas, Ayala, etc. Along with C-3, C-5 and C-6, it is one among the several planned but partially completed ring roads that expanded concentrically to link 5 other “R” or Radial roads that spread outward from the core, Manila City, to form the Greater Manila urban area. Thanks to the accelerated economic growth that rolled from the early 90's, all these roads are clogged earning the reputation as one of the world's longest urban rush hours. Not surprising since road and transport infrastructure is forty years behind the demand curve.

Urban sprawl from the Metro employer magnet 

As urban planners proposed, the best and fastest way to alleviate massive congestion was to urban sprawl. Industries relocated south along the SLEx, along with countless bedroom communities. But the main employment generator was still what is now known today as Metro Manila. Road building and transport just couldn't catch up with the increasing demand. All forms of traffic reduction measures and enhanced traffic rules enforcement are being tried continuously, but traffic congestion remains.

Building the Metro subway and BRT: How hard can it be?

Transfer all ports, air and sea

Nevertheless, there are low hanging fruit that just need a regulatory push. Easing access and distributing container traffic to the ports of Batangas to the south and Subic to the northwest would greatly ease the already expanded capacity of Manila's North Harbor. Transferring more landing slots from NAIA to Clark would also greatly alleviate air traffic. On paper, the road network to these entrepôts already exist from the STAR expressway to the south and the SCTEx to the north, but the main bottleneck is still transiting through Metro Manila.

Complete the cross metro highways

The medium term solution lies in two cross Metro tollways; MMSS3 [Metro Manila Skyway Stage 3] and the NLEx connector or MLEx [Metro Link Expressway]. The third leg of this trans-metro highway is the completion of C-5 which still needs the NLEx link via Segment 8.2 from Luzon Ave. and the C-5-CAVITEx link from NAIA Skyway-Merville. MMSS3 won't be finished by 2018, MLEx by 2020 and the ends of C-5, perhaps 2020 unless emergency powers speed up the right of way acquisition. To this, we did not add all the other ODA funded projects, the Calamba to Matnog South Rail project, the Tutuban to Malolos North South commuter rail project and the Malolos to Clark NAIA-Clark rail link, all of which will still need feasibility studies, bidding and of course, a hopeful deadline.

Dispersing transport hubs

The next three years of commuting traffic looks bleak. And even if all the three above cited cross metro highways are operational, Urban Planner Felino Palafox predicts that, unless major industry and transport hub dispersal isn't done now, in three years time the two elevated tollways and C-5 will just become parking lots.

Building the Metro subway and BRT: How hard can it be?

Integrated bus terminals

What to do? Besides the on-going expansion of MRT-3, LRT-2 and LRT-1 ridership capacity, the other near term panacea is to push through with BRT on EDSA. This is after controlled bus dispatch and segregated bus stops has long been implemented. Dispersal of bus terminals from Pasay and Cubao to the outer integrated bus terminals in the North, South, Southwest and East cannot be implemented as the 4 major bus terminals will take another three to four years to complete.

BRT from the BF era

The BRT as planned during the tenure of Chairman Bayani Fernando of the MMDA [2005-2009] could not be maximized as a dedicated exclusive 2-lane guideway on EDSA because EDSA already gave up 2 middle lanes for the roller coaster MRT-3 route. Adding the two exclusive yellow lanes for buses would have meant squeezing the more numerous private vehicles to just 3 lanes.

Circulatory and distributive

Now, restricting private vehicles on EDSA to favor HOVs [high occupancy vehicles] like buses is traffic planning SOP. But EDSA is the sole functioning commute distributor of the city to all the CBD's on the lateral fringes of EDSA. Hence banning private vehicles from EDSA en masse would impact business activity and also blockade north south transit traffic even as industry and transport hub dispersal is effected. Moreover, the competing/augmenting EDSA commuter carriers – MRT-3, regular buses- all squeeze on the same surface roadways. Thus, a BRT dedicated busway would further reduce EDSA vehicle capacity and restrict cross-EDSA's circulatory/distributive traffic function.

Legal counterflow

The MMDA of BF concluded then that to make BRT work, it would need to run like some successful BRT's do in other countries; i.e. the dedicated bus lane would need to travel in the opposite direction of traffic. It will also need to hug the curbside since EDSA's median, the ideal placement of a BRT, is already occupied by MRT-3.

Building the Metro subway and BRT: How hard can it be?

Kicking out the yellow lane buses

What this means is that the BRT buses will be right hand drive and the access entry and exit doors will be on the curbside. These BRT buses will travel contra-flow and stay, single file, close to the curb- the existing yellow lane, making it ideal to run on an overhead electric catenary system similar to a trolley bus or rubber tired tram. To keep the bus stop and bus way exclusive to the BRT, planners were considering a higher ramp for door access at the bus stops so as to keep non-BRT buses from using the BRT contra-flow lane. Besides, regular buses wouldn't be able to dock on BRT bus stops and being left hand drive with passenger exit on the traffic side, they would have lost access to the yellow lane curb anyway.

Also kick out the terminals

For BRT to work, MMDA would have to kick out all the bus companies plying EDSA. Which would include all the provincial bus companies that “carbarn” in Cubao and Pasay. Naturally, the Bus companies were not going to let this happen. Even if all four integrated bus terminals were already up and running, bus companies with existing EDSA franchises will not roll over and play dead once a BRT is made exclusive to EDSA and the three proposed loops on Ortigas, BGC and Ayala.

C-5's problems

The planned BRT for C-5 also faces the same problems. Many portions of C-5 have sections too narrow for any exclusive BRT guideway. These chicanes are the flyovers and at grade service roads of the Kalayaan twinned elevated U-turns, Bagong Ilog flyover, Ortigas-C-5 flyover, Libis-Blue Ridge tunnel and flyover complex and the Luzon Ave.-Commonwealth flyover. This list doesn't even include the proposed Katipunan express viaduct that rises above the Katipunan junctions to Ateneo-Miriam and CPGarcia in UP. Nor the C-5 elevated tollway from Libis to Luzon Ave. as proposed by Metro Pacific Tollways.

The PhilTrak solution

Like a long suppressed blast from the past, PHILTRAK, the original BRT, born in the Philippines since 1989 and continuously updated as a mass transit network for the Metro since 1999, seems to have a workable and far more economic solution. Now a fully beefed up consortium of domestic providers of technology, skilled labor, local manufacturing, engineering design, transport and finance PHILTRAK envisages a BRT network on EDSA, C-5, Commonwealth and Quezon Ave. that will snuggle up on the curbside with dedicated elevated boarding platforms for commuters. PHILTRAK will only take one half of today's current double yellow bus lane. In tight areas on some junctions of EDSA and C-5, PHILTRAK will have one bus guideway elevated over the at-grade traveling in opposite directions. So as not to antagonize the bus firms that heavily invested in terminals in Cubao and Pasay, PHILTRAK will invite the bus firms to be a member of the consortium and now function as intermodal transport to the feeder routes of the PHILTRAK mainline.

Building the Metro subway and BRT: How hard can it be?

Subway, the pipe dream

What would take longer to build but hopefully minimize any kind of surface traffic aggravation is the Subway. Though Metro Manila is flood prone, today's technology makes even cross harbor subway crossings feasible, though the expense of keeping the subway flood free would be more than considerable. Compared to Manhattan [bedrock] and Hong Kong [granite], Metro Manila's substrata is mostly adobe, porous and easier to bore. Burrowing technology can easily dig deep enough to avoid disturbing the foundations of the buildings and dwellings of BGC, Ayala CBD and MoA, and the areas to be serviced by the Subway. The Upcoming Japanese funded USD7.0B subway from Quezon Memorial Circle to BGC and NAIA [MoA later on]studiously take the Metro's high ground to avoid the flood prone coast though it would skirt the Marikina Valley Fault line. The future Ayala CBD loop will be an engineering feat considering what lies beneath this country's skyscraper dense city. What needs to be clarified are the property rights of such as our laws are not clear on such matters. Being a judicial matter, expect issues on this to be not as simple as cut and shut.

All of EDSA as a pedestrian zone

If both the Subway and BRT are finished and the 3 cross metro highways are whole and functioning, only then can we revisit Felino Palafox's proposal to convert EDSA and its last overdue flyover complexes [Tramo-Taft-Roxas Blvd. and Roosevelt-North-West Ave.] into a garden parkway consisting of BRT, MRT-3, bikeways, broad and landscaped pedestrian “highways” [like in Seoul, S. Korea and High Line in Manhattan] while instituting the U-turn systems, limited access for private vehicle traffic to cross EDSA and banning all forms of through or transit traffic for private vehicles. This is in conjunction with Mr. Palafox's long time reminders of tripling the number of bridges across the Pasig and his more recent proposal of building more foot bridges crossing the Pasig spaced 800m apart.

Gloom, doom and our near term solution

We admit, we present a gloomy picture for the next 6 years despite the zeal and the bright direction of the PRRD administration. Even if emergency powers were enacted for traffic alleviation and even if there are willing financiers, the big ticket items like the EDSA BRT and Subway are going to be a heavy debt burden while positive results are not absolutely guaranteed. Still, a lot can be achieved by dispersing the bus terminals, air and sea transport hubs, and applying our favorite quick but flexible solution that we previously proposed : congestion charging like London's and Singapore's ERP but using the simpler E-PASS platform.