There a was time when, after the New Year rush and the Feast of the Black Nazarene, Manila traffic eases somewhat, making the Yuletide season's endless standstill seem like a distant nightmare away. No longer.
Traffic in, traffic out
In untangling the traffic problems of the Metro's ring roads, traffic authorities also pay attention to the inlets to and outlets from the Metro, specifically the NLEX and Skyway. If those Metro entries/exits are congested, how can traffic even flow? But before we get into that, let's talk good news.
Skyway's smart solution
One afternoon, we caught both the Skyway elevated A & B toll barriers in Alabang converted to North Bound toll collection only while southbound traffic was Pass-through. And what a difference it made in keeping toll paying queues from blocking traffic at the on ramp and sometimes blocking through traffic Skyway at-grade. Motorists and media are grateful to Mr. Bonoan, South Tollways COO, who listened to our complaints and suggestion.
Megaworld's smart solution
Over at Fort Bonifacio, Megaworld's McKinley West development opened up its roads to one way SLEX bound traffic to free up the traffic light junction at Lawton in front of the Philippine Army headquarters. Again, another well thought-out traffic easing measure.
Forewarned is forearmed
Up north, the early lane segregation by NLEX's TMC (Toll Management Corp.) traffic personnel has kept the traffic queues moving as motorists make their way west to Grace Park, east to Cubao and south into truck-infested A. Bonifacio where roadworks for the columns of Skyway Stage 3 have significantly reduced road space for traffic. TRBSAFE retweets NLEX Ligtas reports post updates in queue length from 500m to a one time 3.5kms. long so that motorists can chose to divert to Mindanao Ave. or Karuhatan at the Smart Connect clover leaf.
NLEX goes wide
Since NLEX is a crucial outlet of the Metro, it was a welcome sight to see First Balfour begin the clearance of the median of NLEX from San Fernando to Sta. Rita. in preparation for the widening of the NLEX from 2x2 carriageway to 3x3. When finished, not only will it speed up traffic but also reduce the frequent occurrence of accidents on this long section during long weekend exodus and re-entry. The construction barriers have the added advantage of canceling headlight glare from traffic on the opposing carriageway.
Ahead of sched
Within the crucial EDSA ring road, DPWH did an early finish to repairs to Dario bridge, restoring EDSA to its full 5 lane glory. Elsewhere on EDSA, the millions of traffic bollards freed up after the APEC Summit have been put to good use segregating the 2-lane yellow Bus Lane.
Market, market, going, going...
At one point, the closure of the 3 private markets, among them the Cloverleaf produce market in Balintawak (due to sanitation and safety problems), was threatening to ignite some form of public street protest, but timely Police crowd control units and a sizeable MMDA presence kept the area peaceful and, more importantly, kept traffic flowing. This Balintawak market zone is due for a major makeover as Ayala Land has exciting plans for the vicinity.
Faith in the daily commuter
Though we may not have the quantitative data to prove it, the presence of the HPG (PNP Highway Patrol Group) at crucial traffic light junctions — watchful over jeepneys tempted to block the yellow box while loading/unloading, at U-turn slots where poor merging skills can cause a fender-bender blocking the U-turn slot, and at bus stops where overcrowding can spill over to all 5 lanes of EDSA, blocking all traffic — is reassuring. We witnessed troopers assigned to the Magallanes off-ramp on EDSA-Pasong Tamo quickly clear a car to car rear ender. This is not to say that the MMDA traffic patrolmen cannot do the same as they used to do so during much of the Bayani Fernando era and even for most of the Francis Tolentino era. Now on to the real news, the bad news.
Traffic backed up like 2004
With the return of traffic light control to EDSA-Roosevelt-Congressional, the traffic queues for North bound morning peak hour traffic reaches all the way up to SM City North EDSA. The last time this happened was in early 2004, when, you guessed right, the U-turns were yet to be implemented and EDSA traffic was controlled by traffic lights. Compare this to a brief slow down of traffic in front of Waltermart when the U-turns were still open.
The opposite of trip-cutting?
Although traffic now flows freely at the EDSA West/North Avenue junction, the closure of the Trinoma U-turn has forced jeepneys plying their West Ave. route to divert on EDSA to Quezon Ave. before proceeding to North Ave., perhaps, in violation of their LTFRB franchised route. Traffic is further aggravated as the Quezon Ave. junction has also reverted to traffic light control. The long stop cycle induces loading/unloading outside of the authorized zones.
Do they stay or do they go?
The morning crawl to Cubao and Makati is virtually a carbon copy of the EDSA images and videos during the 2015 Yuletide season, save for long serried ranks of APEC Summit plastic bollards segregating the double yellow lanes. In a complete reversal of the policy recommended by foreign funded traffic studies four years ago to limit the number of buses on EDSA by culling 'colorum' buses, (without LTFRB franchise to ply the EDSA route) the authorities are now adding more buses to EDSA in the hope of getting self-drive motorists out of their private cars and also alleviating the transport shortage due to the catastrophic failure of the MRT-3. To think the MRT-3 was designed to supplant buses and jeepneys on EDSA while the modified vehicle reduction program or so-called 'coding' was supposed to be temporary to ease traffic during the MRT's construction in the late Nineties.
Traffic like the APEC summit
The most insensitive placement of bollards are found on the merging lane of EDSA-Quingua-Rockwell on ramp. This circuitous route is the only way motorists on Kalayaan Ave. can reach Rockwell. Unfortunately, today's traffic czars blocked this route, claiming that segregating bus and private car traffic take priority over the loss of access for Rockwell-bound motorists forcing them on traffic choked detours either through the Fort-McKinley route or the Guadalupe clover leaf.
Barrier on, barrier off
The plastic bollards on the yellow lanes are nothing new, considering that during the latter days of Mel Mathay's Metro Manila Commission (MMC), steel barriers were already in place between EDSA Ortigas and Shaw. Participants in the Feb' 86 EDSA people power movement made alternative use of these barriers in defense of their occupation of EDSA. After the '86 revolution, the barriers disappeared only to reappear again as concrete wedges. That too disappeared and by 2005, Bayani Fernando's pink fences took over. In time, those were also displaced.
Priority to HOV or maximize road capacity?
The here today, gone tomorrow story of any form of barriers for the Yellow Lane is cognizant of the shifting priorities given to HOV (high occupancy vehicles like buses) exclusive “express” Bus lanes, like in other mega traffic cities, OR increasing road space to facilitate merging and de-merging of all kinds of vehicles heading in or out of EDSA in order to maximize road space. This merging space is critical to EDSA as EDSA has so many major thoroughfares crossing it. That's why there is a constant flow of vehicles going in and out of EDSA.
The true measure
As for standstill traffic, bollards or no bollards, peak hours crawl through the years have always moved at the same pace, perhaps a bit faster when the U-turns were complete. What has lengthened over the years is the duration of peak hours. The true gauge of how effective these lane segregation measures are is during the off-peak or so-called coding “window” hours. In truth, traffic always flows faster during all those periods of time, in all EDSA sections, when the barriers were absent. With today's grave slow down of traffic speeds even during off peak hours, traffic volume at peak hour is already preloaded with vehicles that are delayed from clearing the main thoroughfares because of the slowdown caused by traffic lights and bollards. These bollards segregating the yellow lanes never worked because EDSA has too many junctions too close to each other.
The commuters know best
Perhaps this is not even known to the 'boots on the ground', i.e. MMC or MMDA traffic enforcers, most of whom are off-duty during off-peak hours. Usually, traffic enforcers' location assignments are rotated so many, if not all, will not be able to track the traffic flow changes whenever policies change. Thus there isn't any MMDA traffic enforcer who has been on the same beat for over 40 years. In contrast, there are many many more of us regular commuters on EDSA who have been pounding that same route for over 40 years — we know when traffic eases or worsens. These bollards segregating the yellow lanes never worked if applied in such a wholesale fashion because EDSA is fed by too many feeder thoroughfares with junctions too close to each other. Hence, the bollards have worsened transit times during the off-peak window hours and we believe, the snail's pace, even for buses, is proof of its failure. Traffic czars and managers, ignore us at everyone's peril.
Slow is better than full stop
It is also high time that Sec. Almendras and Mr. Emerson Carlos revisit the closure of the U-turns in Quezon City. The long red traffic light cycle duration impounds stopped traffic exponentially. It congeals traffic far more than having periodic slow downs when vehicles crossing EDSA from the side streets maneuver and merge with each other to negotiate the U-turns. Moreover, HPG troopers will have an easier time concentrating their attention on the U-turn slots unlike traffic light junctions which require them to pay attention to different directions of traffic for every traffic light cycle change. Traffic is a flow concept and even if the flow slows down at the approach of U-turns, it processes more vehicles quickly than 160 or 90 second duration full stop red traffic light cycles. The ideal is to avoid stops and to keep moving, no matter how slow. A slow flow is better anytime than clogged mains at full stop. Stops will only aggravate the amount of vehicles that block the road.
U-turn on the U-turn policy
Traffic on EDSA has, beyond a doubt, worsened but it was not this bad during the waning days of Francis Tolentino, who, over four years, wisely tried to keep the U-turn dogma simple and pure. The return to traffic lights has made things worse.
A. Bonifacio, the bottleneck
As for the entry of traffic from the North, the free flow of traffic on the NLEX was bound to impound at Balintawak, owing to A. Bonifacio being maxed to capacity, being the country's main truck route. If only road right of way acquisition moved faster, the NLEX Harbor Link from Karuhatan toll barrier to C-3 and the Port Area would have diverted truck traffic from this section, which is now even more constricted because of the construction of Skyway Stage 3.
Our suggestion in 2012
Back in 2012, when Skyway Stage 3 and the NLEX connector were thought of as competing cross metro expressways, we suggested that a hybrid of the two competing expressways. Just as the two then conflicting cross metro expressways agreed to a common alignment (from Buendia to PUP), Skyway Stage 3 could have proceeded west along C-3 to connect to the NLEX Harbor link with Harbor Link to Karuhatan serving as a common alignment. This makes the Buendia to Karuhatan journey a seamless all elevated expressway journey.
Stage 3 to NLEX; a difficult transition
As it is, Skyway Stage 3's route, Passing through A. Bonifacio, was approved during the FVR era of 1995. By 2000, the MRT 3 was already mulling an extension to Monumento, which in turn became an extension of LRT 1 in 2008. This necessitated building an elevated railway over the Balintawak cloverleaf. Ideally, Skyway Stage 3 should have Passed over the Balintawak cloverleaf and brought back to earth on the NLEX, beyond the Novaliches interchange. Now building a flyover over the LRT-1 would have been costly, so Skyway Stage 3 now descends on narrow A. Bonifacio before it clears the clover leaf. Thus, when Stage 3 starts operating in 2017, expect a traffic bottleneck at A. Bonifacio, as motorists ending their NLEX journey queue to get on the on-ramp to Stage 3.
The alternative all elevated express way
Not only does our proposal of diverting Stage 3 to C-3/Harbor Link avoid constricting A. Bonifacio during construction, it will make a Buendia to Karuhatan journey an all elevated expressway route via the NLEX Harbor link.
TRB; the slow regulatory bored
The widening of NLEX from Sta. Rita to San Fernando, genuinely good news, will make the traffic from the North reach the Metro sooner and quicker. Which means that the bottleneck at Stage 3 on-ramps should be considered a looming reality, even as Stage 3 opens to traffic. Nevertheless, the NLEX widening is still waiting the approval of the TRB (Toll Regulatory Board) for the financial component (toll rate adjustment) for this widening project to pick up speed. Ironically in charge of the nation's toll expressways, the TRB of the past 5 years, has acted in a manner that cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as express.
As for TRB's lip service to ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) interoperability, or the ability of different kinds of payment media — tap card, RFID sticker, DSRC tags, etc. — to be welcomed on all our toll expressways, regardless of toll road concessionaire remains a dream. Some 2 years ago, close on the heels of CAVITEX's adoption of 'Easy Drive' RFID stickers to augment the E-tap swipe card, San Miguel Infrastructure decided to introduce RFID stickers to Skyway and SLEX, two of its three South Tollways, which, including STAR, is the agglomeration of all three of San Miguel's Southern tollways.
The joys of E Pass
For more than a decade, South Tollways has always been the happy home of some 250,000 plus E-Pass users, who breeze along at 10km/h driving through exclusive toll barriers that rise to the E Pass beep. True, there have been problems with balance reconciliation, but successive upgrades of facilities, tag readers and software have been catching up with the resolution to these niggles. E-Pass continues expanding its payment options and collection points to this day. Also, E-Pass tags were transferable to an extra or borrowed car, great for those coding impaired days.
Farewell E Pass
Alas those days are numbered. By April 1, April Fools Day, E-Pass will no longer be welcome at the South Tollways as AutoSweep RFID takes over. AutoSweep has been on transition mode for a little less than 2 years now. When it was launched last year, the first 200,000 stickers were given away free and as of this writing, there are still lots of free stickers available. AutoSweep was hamstrung by its limited payment centers and stickering venues. Moreover, failure rates at exit toll gate readers, range from 20% to 40% depending on who you talk to. Still, Auto Sweep scored a world's first as RFID normally works for single toll fee charging like CAVITEX and supposedly doesn't work for multi-exit-multi entry tolling as in Skyway-SLEX.
The AutoSweep advantage
AutoSweep's technological advantage is that it is cheaper as it does not need any battery powered tag. The downside was it is non-transferable, being dedicated to only the stickered car. In the meantime, E-Pass was prevented from selling more modern tags last year, in preparation for its eventual exit.
Slower than cash payment lanes
With toll gates now sporting RFID and E Pass readers, there has been a general slow down at the ETC gates as the tag and sticker reading speed has slowed to a halt resulting in embarrassingly longer traffic queues at the ETC gates vs. the cash payment gates. It's rare nowadays when an ETC equipped vehicle — E-Pass or AutoSweep — can breeze through an ETC toll gate without the need to hand over the AutoSweep Card or E-Pass tag to the stationed clerk. This clerk, in turn, verifies the balance before the barrier is raised, making the process almost as slow as the Jurassic era swipe card that was in use on Malaysia's tollways.
We lament the fact that South Tollways and Capstone, the E-Pass company, cannot seem to get along anymore. It's a pity as the tag/sticker reader problems at toll gates can be solved if Capstone was not prevented in investing in more upgrades and selling better tags to replace the older tags with expiring batteries. On the other hand, the RFID reading problems seem intractable despite the supplier's commitment to eliminate the high percentage of failure.
It would have been great if both RFID and E-Pass worked together, mirroring the success of EasyDrive and E-Tap co-existing together in CAVITEX. It's really a pity that interoperability — the day when your EasyTrip works in SLEX as well as your E-Pass working in the NLEX, CAVITEX, SFEX and SCTEX — is still far far away; another worthwhile idea that TRB seems to show no interest in pursuing.
When old is better than new
All these years has taught us lessons the authorities keep discarding. If only the authorities can return back to the old ways, then traffic wouldn't be as bad as it is today. By a simple process of elimination, we can divine why traffic on EDSA is so much worse. We need to go back on track with what was working fine before. Reduce the number of buses. Remove the traffic lights. Bring back the U-turns. Use those APEC bollards elsewhere and stop reducing the multi lane capacity of EDSA. Former MMDA Chairman Francis Tolentino knew what was better left alone. This leaves us with the one last major factor why EDSA's traffic is unbearable; the failure of the MRT-3. At least there was some relief with the introduction of Beep cards, but with the reduced Passenger capacity, we just have to wait for those new trains to start running. Sometimes, the old ways of doing things — no yellow lane barriers on EDSA, E-Pass tags complimenting RFID stickers, U-turns etc. are better. Today's changes, particularly on EDSA, have made traffic a lot worse than it should have been.