A Perfect storm

9/08 Carmageddon 2015: like a perfect storm, it took the confluence and perfect timing of all possible factors and variables to converge and combine. Consider the man made elements for this powerful storm: bad driving, accumulated mismanagement of rail operations and maintenance, infrastructure gap, haphazard zoning, inadequate drainage, expanding population, booming auto sales, inconsistent traffic rules enforcement and yes, as Mar Roxas says, heightened economic activity.

Dissing in action

As far as traffic rule enforcement is concerned, I won't be joining the chorus of wails by Senators and irate motorists, absent the visibility of traffic enforcers at the height of Carmageddon 2015. Why? Because even if they are soaked and visible doing their job, there are not that many of them to be seen, wherever and whenever, by each and every one of the 300,000 motorists or 3 million commuters stuck in stand still or slow moving traffic on the southern zone of the Metro, particularly EDSA, Buendia and Osmeña Blvd.


I give the traffic enforcers the benefit of the doubt that they are somewhere there, ready to untangle any failed give-and-take right-of-way standoff, record the details of a fender-bending shunt or assist a stalled motorist while also trying to figure out what to do with the bigger mess of stalled traffic. Consider that these “boots on the ground” are also waiting for orders from higher ups, who are also trying to get an accurate panorama of what's happening. But they too are also trying to figure out what to do. Even if there was a giant real time panoramic picture of three quarters of flooding Metro Manila by all-weather flying drone that night, what would it have shown? A whole city's network of streets turned into a virtual parking lot because the floods have stopped any forward progress in all the critical junctions. Increasing the HPG and MMDA complement to 2,000 or even 20,000, soaking them at their stations, won't be able to do anything in a situation like this, save to be visible just to cease ranting Senators from venting their ire on them.

Traffic rule enforcement can only do so much

After a 2 day “honeymoon”, the power of the weather was more than enough to negate any positive effect that the EDSA deployment of the PNP HPG [Philippine National Police Highway Patrol Group] effected from Day 1. With HPG on the ground, it proved that sterner traffic rules enforcement can produce some desired effects but is no silver bullet that slays the traffic beast. Which also proves the point that even if you put SAF commandos or Philippine Marines to impose traffic order, you will still need the help of the MMDA as only they know the history of needs and wants of all the various interacting stakeholders of urban life, all of whom, unfortunately, are both, simultaneously, victim and cause of traffic.

The Metro's Food supply begins at Balintawak

Case in point: clearing the daily dawn traffic bottleneck at the Balintawak Cloverleaf markets to ease traffic flow was the easy part. The culprit, trucks and vans unloading food and farm produce at the service lanes of EDSA was prevented. But this made food and farm produce deliveries to the market virtually impossible, even at dawn, leading to the nasty consequence of threatening the food supply of the Metro as these markets cater to almost half of the city population's food needs. So the HPG relented and allowed unloading of food and produce, albeit in a more orderly fashion. This is something that the MMDA knew all along, though it must be said that the HPG was desirably tougher on unloading than MMDA were.

Dependence on the Balintawak markets

The problem at Balintawak lay many decades ago, long before the first Balintawak market enticed more markets to be put up in the area. In the 70s and early 80s, Balintawak's markets became an indispensable source of the city's food supply which comes from the vegetable farms of Central Luzon and Cagayan Valley. But these markets were just your standard local market; big roof covering lots of stalls without any planned delivery bays for trucks as the sidewalk, the outer lanes and service road of EDSA sufficed.

NFX, the northern FTI to replace Balintawak

During the Marcos era, there were already plans to create a northern twin of the FTI [Food Terminal Inc.] in Bicutan which was already serving as the entry point of farm produce from the South. But since this never got going, Balintawak served as the de-facto North FTI. And grow it did. Finally, during GMA's term, the North Food Exchange [NFX] was launched at the Bocaue-Balagtas section of the NLEx. Besides being a Northern FTI, the NFX was to be an intermodal station for provincial buses, city buses and shuttle buses to the North Rail station. Moreover, the NFX was supposed to build spur expressways to Balagtas, Bustos and Sta. Maria, thereby relieving the severe congestion at the Bocaue-Sta. Maria interchange. If this was built, there would have been a huge exodus of provincial bus terminals from Grace Park and EDSA, Cubao to the NFX. But by 2010, typical of the current administration's distaste for projects started by previous administrations [except Cory's], the NFX was junked with nothing to replace it.

The Cubao conundrum

As for Cubao, the HPG was stumped with the daily problem that faced MMDA traffic personnel for decades: PUV habits of waiting while packing their vehicles with passengers and not proceeding to cross Aurora even when the traffic light shows green. There definitely is a traffic offense in this situation and the daily multiple occurrence of this in Cubao will surely need traffic officers several booklets of traffic tickets if they are to enforce the rule against obstruction of traffic flow. It is truly a difficult problem to solve- PUVs can only load and unload where the passengers insist they want to embark or disembark – even if this is indeed the designated zone. There is only so much road space to accommodate the thousands of commuters embarking/disembarking on the street to transfer to/from Jeep, bus, MRT and LRT 2. Limiting the dwell time of PUVs to 20 seconds or 30 seconds still amounts to a long amount of time exhausting the green go traffic cycle. The only solution we can see here is to construct a huge elevated intermodal transit center. This multi-level stack of esplanades will allow segregated embarkation and disembarkation of PUJs, PUBs, LRT 2 and MRT 3 passengers, while keeping the at grade junction free for no-stopping through traffic only. But this transit interchange esplanade will have to be built to avoid blocking access to the two train stations in the area. Not that easy.

To close or not to close

In other EDSA sections, HPG is eyeing the closure of some U-turn slots, like the Philam life U-turn on EDSA, but they should be cautioned because MMDA knows the bigger picture and is the better judge as to segregating traffic flows and as to why some U-turn slots are maintained close to each other.

The Weather

For a moment, suspend belief in reality and assume that we have solved and corrected every traffic related human fault – drivers, enforcers, train maintenance, car restrictions, zoning, infrastructure, etc. The one factor beyond our control is the weather, which we all know was the main catalyst of Carmageddon 2015. Remember that besides being in a tropical country, Manila is bounded by 2 big bodies of water – Manila Bay to the west, Laguna de Bay to the west. Even if the rain bearing clouds come from the Pacific or the West Philippine sea, the bay and the lake are giant sources of evaporating water that augment the rain clouds, while winds, hemmed in by the Antipolo Hills, also channel into the Metro area. Experience for the past 30 years have shown that for every cluster of rain cloud columns hovering over the entire metro area, the heavy showers that ensue and last for more than an hour is guaranteed to impound water into the two large swamplands – Sampaloc and San Andres Bukid - that existed on the outskirts of Manila during Spanish times. With 2 large zones of the Greater Manila Area impassable, traffic in the entire Metro grinds to a halt.

Sampaloc and San Andres Bukid

Of the two catch basins, the smaller one, centered in Sampaloc, is on the north bank of the Pasig River. It covers an area bounded by the north and north eastern arc of C-3, west by Roxas Boulevard by the Bay and Aurora Boulevard to Legarda to the south, roughly parallel to the Pasig river. This encompasses mostly lower south QC and much of Manila and Caloocan. The bigger catch basin is on the south bank of the Pasig river, centered on San Andres Bukid. This catch basin is bounded by Pedro Gil on the north, Roxas Boulevard on the west, JP Rizal in Makati on the north east, Chino Roces and all the way up to MIA road on the south and south west and C-5 to the south east. This covers most of Makati, half of Manila, most of Pasay and a portion of Paranaque and Taguig. When this zone gets flooded, traffic standstills stretch far into the SLEx to the south and far as Pasig City to the east, which, along with Marikina, has its on flood prone floodplain by the river.

Man made rivers and underground cisterns

For the past decades, government has dug up several radial main streets in these two giant catch basins to install ever larger drainage mains to drain to the Pasig river or Manila Bay. The latest redigging of Chino Roces created a virtual underground river beneath what used to be Pasong Tamo. Zobel Roxas and Buendia has, over the years, several expansions of drainage capacity. Despite these efforts, flooding still results as there are not enough drainage outfalls crossing thru the American colonial era reclamation zone which is today's Rizal Memorial Coliseum in Malate. The Peacetime bayside residential community which used to be Pasay also lost direct flood outfall access to the Bay when reclamation for the PICC, ECOP and the other government buildings was finished. To begin with, the Spanish era canals or “esteros” were already woefully inadequate by the time Manila was rebuilt after the war. The reclamation projects of the American colonial era and the Imelda Marcos era constricted the exit velocity of excess rainfall to Manila Bay. Today's reclamation on the bayside of Paranaque and Las Pinas is already aggravating flooding in coastal Cavite.

Flooding due to reclamation?

Bearing this in mind, one should already doubt the flood mitigation abilities of the proposed giant Laguna Lake Dike Expressway PPP. This project entails large reclaimed islands separated from the lake shore by a broad water channel. We suspect that the come-on for this project is the huge real estate development of the islands because without them, the high cost elevated Laguna Lake expressway will take decades of high tolls to recover investment. But what is not addressed is how this LLDEx will solve the Laguna lakeshore flooding. It doesn't take rocket science to figure out that most of Metro Manila's flooding is caused by the huge reclamation projects by the Bay. To think that LLDEx PPP project was proposed because the current administration cancelled the preceding administration's flood control project for Pasig River and Laguna lake that was already contracted to a world renowned Belgian flood control specialist.

Waters from the mountains

Though not an immediate factor in Carmageddon 2015, but also a source of flooding, is the rain/storm waters cascading from the Sierra Madre Biodiversity Corridor from that eponymous mountain range. These waters converge towards Montalban and Marikina via the Kaliwa river. Back in 2010, Ramon S. Ang of San Miguel Infra revived a Marcos era plan to build the Kaliwa and Laiban dams to harness not only hydro electric power but to create a new potable water reservoir for the growing Metro. If these dams were constructed, the Metro will no longer be overdependent on Angat dam for potable water and hydroelectric power, so that Angat's water resources can be channeled to agricultural irrigation. Imagine, this would have even saved us from water rationing and agricultural production depletion in this current El Niño drought. Unfortunately, a combination of tribal land claims by Dumagats and uncontrolled settlement by squatters is already making this project more and more difficult to implement. Unfortunately, again, the administration shelved this project only to allow a partial go ahead for the Kaliwa dam this 2012. To this date there has been no bidding conducted yet.

Room for cisterns?

This flood overview of the southern Metro poses a problem for the proposed subway passing under Buendia. The DPWH [Dept. Public Works and Highways] will find it difficult to buy private real estate to build many huge underground cisterns necessary to impound flood waters before releasing into the underground channels en route to Manila Bay. With Skyway stage 3 columns being built at Buendia, and even more columns bored once the elevated NSCR gets going on the PNR tracks, there is hardly any space cisterns similar to what BGC has and what is being built in Blumentritt near UST.

Lack of drainage channels and bayside out falls

Many of the major under street flood channels built along the Pasig river's north bank in the city of Manila are also constricted. There will be some flood relief though once the gigantic DPWH underground cisterns by Blumentritt start operation. Fact is, we need more of them, but they take time to excavate and build. Plus, in a heavily built up area like Manila, there is virtually no vacant property to strategically locate these underground cisterns. Look at what happened to the UST [University of Santo Tomas] grounds; they may have been an ideal location for an underground flood containment cistern, but the risk of nearby historical structures collapsing into a sinkhole was very high so the plan was scrapped.

Failure to follow zoning

The flood problem is caused by a failure to follow the pre-war zoning plans for the greater Manila area. Zoning restrictions, applied right after Manila was depopulated and flattened by artillery barrage in 1945 should have prevented development of low lying swamp/marshland or flood plains. The original plan was for the establishment of Quezon City on higher ground to replace the flood prone capital of Manila. Quezon City, accessible via Highway 54 and Quezon Avenue was to have the Quirino era housing projects to house Manila residents displaced by the destruction of World War 2. But the post war housing shortage caused uncontrolled development of the flat but low lying areas on the boundary of Manila. Hence, Sampaloc and San Andres Bukid became the new bedroom communities for the city folk rebuilding their lives after the War's destruction.

Forced evacuation, anyone?

Since good zoning plans were bypassed out of necessity in the early 50s, there isn't much zoning can do today except to to require new build high rise condos to have its own rain gathering cisterns. Thus it would even be churlish to propose the depopulation of these 2 catch basin ex swamplands as these are age old established settlements with several generations of families, established work places and about 5 million lives. This is not as simple as evacuating people out of the West Marikina seismic fault zone.

More of the same in the meantime

We hate to sound pessimistic but even if all the traffic relieving infrastructure plans for the metro – NAIA Skyway, NLEx metro link connector, BRT [Bus Rapid Transit], NSCR [North South Commuter Rail], Skyway stage 3, Subway, the flood impounding cistern project in Blumentritt, etc. - are inaugurated tomorrow, it just take one hours' worth of downpour and the Sampaloc and San Andres catch basins return to their original waterlogged marshland state 300 years ago. City traffic will still come to a standstill at all the major at-grade intersections, new and old, within those ex-swamplands. Those cisterns will have to built and built fast.