I have spent the past six months holed up in a flat alongside EDSA, and so I’ve had a somewhat closer view of how things along Metro Manila’s major artery has changed.
At the beginning of the lockdowns, of course, EDSA was empty, a stark image compared to just a few days before, when vehicles crawled and the horns of buses and cars echoed around the condominium complex. I remember joking to myself that all the government needed to solve traffic along that thoroughfare once and for all is to keep everyone home and shut down the economy in the process. It was funny then.
As the situation eased somewhat life began to return to the highway, for better or worse. I drove through EDSA a few months ago and was genuinely surprised to encounter a traffic jam just after Cubao. But public transportation hasn’t come back to pre-pandemic levels, as most people are still compelled to stay at home. No blaring horns still, although I do hear a lot more sirens these days.
Of course some buses now ply EDSA, albeit in dedicated (and closed off) bus lanes with dedicated stops corresponding mostly to existing MRT stations. I have seen the barriers erected whenever I make my weekly grocery trips, initially plastic, now steel. In the rare times I’ve driven south, I’ve seen one of those bus stops being finished off just before the Guadalupe bridge.
The government has, sensibly, taken advantage of the relative lull to put into swing some projects they believe would ease traffic along EDSA. Why initial plans for a bus rapid transit system along the highway were scrapped, only to be brought back together hastily in response to the pandemic, beats me. (There were at least two more BRT plans for Metro Manila, but apparently they didn’t seem feasible considering our roads are now heavily congested; right now BRT routes are being developed in Clark and Cebu.) Better late than never, you might say, but one can’t escape the niggling feeling that when we finally go back to whatever normal means these days, these schemes will be scrapped.
The same goes for the sudden emphasis on bike lanes. Yes, biking may be a “new normal” form of transportation, but we severely lack the infrastructure to support it. A four-day “pop-up bike lane” along EDSA worked because there was a lower volume of vehicles on the road. Otherwise, bikers have to share its narrow, uneven sidewalks with pedestrians. My walk back from the grocery goes past a construction site that blocks half the sidewalk. Imagine me carrying a packed tote bag with provisions and having to give way to bikers behind me, while not being hit by car drivers who may have forgotten about the 60kph speed limit.
Of course, these things take a while. No one can develop a comprehensive bus transit system overnight, and it’s clear the government is pushing (or imposing, depending on your view) some reforms because there is an opportunity to do so. But it would be great to see more permanent plans to decongest Metro Manila and provide better connectivity to its surrounding regions apart from big-ticket infrastructure projects. I have cited here before how Singapore took twenty years to plan, construct and open its first MRT line – and now the city-state has a sensible transport system.
At least we now have a National Transport Policy, drafted up by the National Economic and Development Authority a few years ago but only finalized early this year, with the publication of its implementing rules and regulations. It does not provide solid plans – it’s not the intention of the document – but it does provide a rough blueprint of what the country’s transport system should be, as well as how it will be regulated, maintained and overseen by relevant government agencies. Its vision: a transport system that will prioritize the development of modes that can accommodate more people, as opposed to more vehicles. Thus, heavily-hyped plans for two subway lines, one monorail line, two light rail lines, BRT systems, and maybe a comprehensive bike network in the future, too. (And perhaps a permanent end to those blaring horns.)
With this in place, we hope that we can see better coordination and more foresight as the government maps out its plans to provide better connectivity to Filipinos – and, perhaps once and for all, decongest Metro Manila – and by that, I don’t mean just EDSA. A good first step would be presenting concrete strategies, and not ones hobbled together out of necessity. What we have now may work, but it will not hold as we work towards economic recovery. (And transport will play a big role: the planned Bayanihan 2 stimulus package will allocate PHP 2.6 billion to public transport development, including PHP 1.3 billion for bike lanes in Metro Manila.)
We need solutions that truly put into account how we intend to move in this so-called “new normal”, ones that truly have our right to freedom of movement in mind, and not just showcases that might contradict each other. (Take, once again, the planned airports in Bulakan and Sangley Point.) If that’s the case, we might be digging ourselves a deeper hole.
Supply Chain Mornings: Our supply chain workshop series returns on September 24. We will be tackling optimizing your transport costs with the help of our facilitators with real expertise: Victory Group’s Ike Castillo, Personal Collection’s Pio Bernardo, and SCMAP’s Ochie Ochoa and Max Yap. Register now, as slots are limited: visit scmap.org to learn more.
The column is written by Henrik Batallones, the marketing and communications director of SCMAP, and editor-in-chief of its official publication, Supply Chain Philippines. More information about SCMAP is available at scmap.org.