The sins committed

As today's traffic mess is founded on compounded sins of omission and commission that accumulated over 40 years, it would serve us all to do what Roman Catholics call, an examination of conscience. Given that the sins committed are extant, and uprooting them will take even more time and cause even more traffic, let us review a short list of these sins.

After the sin, absolution?

Faulty zoning. Unrealistic public transport route planning, mapping and franchising. Backlogs for building roads, mass transit and pedestrian access. Inadequate driver and traffic enforcer training. Discordant traffic reduction measures. It's a long list, but so have been the panaceas tried, tested, junked and rehashed by the authorities. Odd-Even. HOV's (high occupancy vehicles) priority. Coding. U-turns. No left turns. No parking. No loading and unloading. Pink fences. Pre-fab flyovers up in 90 days. Foot bridges. Public access to private gated communities's enclave roads. Tow-away zones. Mabuhay lanes. Bollard blockades. Yellow lanes. Organized public bus dispatch. Segregated bus stops. P2P buses. UV Express. Uber and Grabcar.

No shortage of ideas 

Neither is there a shortage of more ideas that we are thinking of trying or will be trying. RBT or BRT (rapid bus transit/bus repaid transit). LRT (light rail transit). Subways. Elevated cross-metro transit tollways. No-garage-no-registration. Higher tax on 2nd cars. River ferries. Funicular railways or cable cars. Pedestrian zones. Carless days. Pontoon bridges. Congestion charging.

Traffic woes

The dismal science's favorite

That last one, congestion charging, holds special appeal to economists as it faithfully translates the cost of time in terms of marginal utility as reflected in the price. Constructing and enforcing such a charge, doesn't take a lot of time and a lot of infrastructure. The inspiration is Singapore's ERP (electronic road pricing) and London's congestion charge. Our proposal, explained in a previous post, has congestion charging covering all of Metro Manila's radial and circumferential avenues, while leaving minor streets free. For a 100 Peso charge, one can drive on any of the Metro's main roads from 0800 to 2200hrs daily if his/her plate number is allowed, say, if the authorities follow an odd-even vehicle restriction. If the vehicle is not allowed or rather “restricted” on that day, the per day charge doubles to 200 Pesos.

Collection by gantry

Charging and validation is done by pass through gantries with overhead readers that record plate numbers and detect the balance of an electronic tag, similar to the defunct E-PASS. Once charged for the day, no matter how many gantries you pass in the day, you will be considered paid. If you redeploy the electronic E-PASS like tag to another vehicle with a different plate number, in between 0800-2200hrs, you will be charged again. If the authorities want to pursue HOV (high occupancy vehicle) priority, then UV express, taxis, buses, jeepneys should be exempt from congestion charging. If they want more drastic vehicle reduction, then there should be no exception from congestion charging. If the public is initially shocked at the congestion pricing, Coding rules may apply — 50 Pesos charge 4 days of the week, 200 Pesos on coding day. Penalty for failing to load the tag will be by LTO registration renewal and monetary fines.

Footbridge river crossing

Another sound, brilliant but very simple idea was proposed by veteran urban planner Felino Palafox; build footbridges across every 800meters of the Pasig River. This addresses the many roundabout trips people take just to cross the Pasig River. Everyone knows that the Pasig has to have more vehicular bridges to carry all that traffic, but not only do the bridges take time to build but building approach roads will be tough as the Pasig's river banks are not free of obstructions. Having many of these foot bridges will cause a rethink as to how many more road bridges we need and also a rehash of all those roundabout PUV routes as commuters will likely prefer to walk to cross the Pasig and take another ride on the other side. Many cities around the world — like London and Paris — are in the process of adding more foot bridges across the Thames and Siene because they are quicker to build than road bridges and it re-channels demand for public transport trips.

Cautionary tale

But as always the devil is in details. These bridges must provide adequate parking space on both sides of the river. They should be handicapped friendly, which means gradients need to be gentle, and be made of ramps instead of steps. They should be wide enough to avoid crowding. They should be well lit at night and have security 24/7. The problem is when you have such a bridge, it also presents a temptation for the “kariton” (wooden push carts) pushers, pedicab drivers, tricycle drivers, motorcyclists and bikers to treat it as their own bridge. In which case the ramps may need barriers depending on what kind of traffic the authorities want to prohibit i.e. bicycles are OK but not underbone motorcycles or scooters? Bridges also present a temptation for ambulant vendors, who eventually entitle themselves to stake a claim for the space of their wares, and presto, another night market.

In with the high, out with the low

Another proposal is to drive out low density communities where the foot print of high rise communities is growing. For example, as more and more high rise condos line up Apartment Ridge in the Makati CBD, there are proposals to open up low rise garden communities like Urdaneta village to high rise development.

Wall-to-wall high rise

Mathematically, it makes sense to maximize land use for a growing population and to reduce commute distance (but not necessarily commute time) by building the residential towers next to the business towers. Imagine EDSA end-to-end glass and steel skyscrapers ten blocks deep from Trinoma to Cubao, Ortigas, Greenfield, Ayala and Magallanes. But it's not a pretty sight, try as architects can from keeping them buildings looking like Communist bloc mass housing. With such density, the commute times may even be slower than walking unless a subway is built right away. Factor in the possibility that one may live in a condo in Cubao but not necessarily be able to find a job in Cubao or nearby, then you still end up with painfully long traffic commutes.

Traffic scene

Urban blight

A heavy concentration of high rise buildings introduces depressing urban blight. Tokyo, Seoul and Manhattan exemplify the soulless feel of endless canyons of tall buildings versus cities with varied districts where a skyscraper or two sticks out among low rise surroundings. Such as Bangkok, Frankfurt or London. Still, the best is a planned and balanced community with green belts, low rise light industry buildings, clusters of office towers, pedestrianized retail zones, several categories of residential housing from townhouses, single detached, condominium towers and premium garden community residences with golf clubs. If this sounds familiar, this is the Ayala urban blueprint of Makati City with more up to date versions in Alabang and Nuvali.

Mixed use zoning

We believe there is better balance in this mixed use zoning. As real estate prices have gone through the roof, owners of 5,000 sqm Forbes Park heritage garden homes now consider converting their lot to a 40 storey luxury condominium. And yet there is a benefit to having such villages like Dasmarinas and Forbes cluster beside high-rise BGC and villages like Urdaneta and Bel Air cluster beside Rockwell and Makati CBD. By virtue of being garden communities and not awning to awning single detached housing in bedroom communities like the original Camela Palmera homes, Forbes, Urdaneta, etc. function as the lungs of the city and they provide a positive counter effect to concrete sprawl and the greenhouse gases that large condominium buildings emit at construction and occupancy stages. In fact, homeowners of gated villages that resist converting their residential purpose should even gain rewards like tax credits or real estate property tax discounts for the service they do to the environment. Not to mention the view they give to residents of high rise condominiums like those in BGC overlooking the mansions that edge Manila Golf Club and Manila Polo Club.

Wall-to-wall buildings, wall-to-wall traffic

But how about the traffic? Sure, Makati has indeed grown and the traffic worsened. In fact the rapid transformation of BGC from a spacious “lawn” of designer high rise condominiums, graciously spaced from each other in order to appreciate the architecture and to prevent the wall-to-wall skyscraper look of crowded cities like Sao Paolo, Brazil or Wanchai in Hong Kong island, has turned into precisely that; wall-to-wall, block upon block of skyscrapers. Hence the traffic.

The newtown effect

If you look at the historical purity of the concept of the planned “new town” ideal, they were right for several decades of existence. If only the zoning plans were strictly adhered to, the terminal congestion we experience today would at least be manageable. When Highway 54, today's EDSA, was new, the new towns of Cubao, Ortigas and Ayala-Makati that grew beside it were predominantly suburban detached housing subdivisions with a dedicated mixed use CBD. The CBD's were designed to be surrounded by the residential subdivisions and were situated comfortably far enough from Highway 54. It was only when Cubao, Ortigas Center and Ayala started growing that some commercialization crept towards the edge of Highway 54. With CBD's planned to be far from Highway 54, transit traffic or traffic not headed for the CBD was not unduly detained by traffic toeing and froing from the CBD. But then this set back from the main artery was lost, consumed by the need to provide more space for the expanding CBD. And this is where all the traffic congestion began.

Classic urban planning

Still, this urban planning model of Ayala, Araneta, Andrew Tan and Sen. Villar is still the way to go. Look to China, which has some 300 or so fast-growing cities with attached new towns. The new towns are clustered mixed use with zones for all kinds of dwellings, single, multiple, high and low rise, greenbelts, school zones and the mandatory man-made lake plus sprawling golf club. All this surround light industrial parks and walkable-bikable CBDs. Despite the plethora of computerized traffic light junctions in these new towns, there's hardly any traffic.

What if, after the war, we did this 

Translating this piece of urban planning to Metro Manila 60 years ago, right after the war, the imposition to make Quezon City the capital would have worked. The radial and circumferential roads from Manila were already planned. All that was needed was for the authorities to stick to the plan: rebuild Manila, restore the MERALCO trams, build more Pasig River bridges as planned by Daniel Burnham and create a greenbelt/flood catch basin by preventing any kind of construction or squatting on the marshes of Sampaloc, the foot of Sta. Mesa Heights, San Andres Bukid, Maricaban creek and other major Esteros on the flood plain. Reclamation of Manila Bay after finishing the Rizal Memorial Coliseum should have ceased to prevent clogging flood outfall.

EDSA on a regular day

Cluster the cities

The satellite cities and clusters of townships that were in the planning stage then — Grace Park, the Quezon City housing projects and residential triangles, Philamlife homes, Cubao, Ortigas Center, Ayala-Nielsen airfield — should have been given strict borders that should not encroach on the greenbelt and flood catch basins in between these new town clusters. The greenbelts were also to be vigilantly secure from squatting. The main radial avenues and circumferential roads should have limited access i.e. limited number of exit interchanges/junctions so that these main arterial roads would not have been peppered with too many at-grade traffic crossings, slowing down transit or through traffic. Highway 54/EDSA would have been laid out like a modern expressway with controlled limited access to the cities that border it instead of direct access to store parking bays and driveway gates on EDSA itself.

Flee from the city 

For manageable traffic flows for the future, urban planners can still use current models of mixed use clusters with specific zones for certain activities, so roads can be planned with preloaded capacity expansion for future changes in traffic patterns. Perhaps if the original plans of Ayala and Araneta were stuck to, any increase in demand in commercial space should have been built in zones farther away from the main artery or better yet, channeled to other townships — similar to the way Makati was spilling into BGC, Taguig and Ayala Alabang. If this spacing was followed, traffic in the Metro wouldn't be as bad as it is today.

Those garden communities

Existing garden communities in the heart of a city should be preserved and even rewarded with tax breaks. Though accused of promoting urban sprawl, the gated garden communities contribute not only to better carbon capture, but also spread out the concentration of motor vehicle traffic. Nuvali shows the way where even man made flood drains are configured like natural rivers. Multiple green zones are shared by residential clusters. Fences are low and set back from the main road, affording owners of a 400 sqm lot, the vista and feel of a 1,000 sqm lot without the burden of higher taxes, association dues and landscape maintenance. To the few who grew up in a New Manila or Forbes Park bungalow set in 5,000 sqm of garden, Nuvali's Montecito and Abrio affords the same feel of relaxing space even for lots as 'small' as 1,500 sqm because the low fences and wide common areas surrounding the lot approximate the feel of having a 5,000 sqm lot. Indeed this is not for everyone, but recognize the environmental benefit of these large garden residences as opposed to 40 storeys of 400 sqm condos one on top of each other.

Three ring roads, more railroads

Alas, we can no longer turn back the clock on Manila's urban planning. Which is why, the near term quickie solution to traffic is congestion charging. The medium term solution is the 2 cross-metro expressways and the completion of C-5 from Cavitex all the way to NLEx segment 8.2. Add to this is increasing the capacity of existing cross metro railways or RBT/BRT, but not necessarily a subway since Manila is hopelessly flood prone. And let's not forget, adding more crossings over the Pasig River, whether foot bridge, rail or road bridge and yes, even cable cars.