Tuesday, October 19, 2021

State of Mind

Sure, the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s headline may have been misleading, but the recent statement of Department of Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade – in which he attributed Filipinos’ “state of mind” as a factor to perceptions that traffic in Metro Manila is worse than it actually is – is accurate. But not in the way he put it.

 

To many commuters in the country – Metro Manila may be in the spotlight, but the problem is beginning to crop up in the country’s other urban centers; that much I gather from experience and anecdotes in Cebu and Cagayan de Oro – traffic is not just an excuse, but a reality.

 

An extreme example is the Facebook post shared by journalist James Deakin, about a man who, because of heavy traffic, was forced to walk from the security gates of NAIA 3 to the terminal. He checked in, he boarded, his flight took off, and he landed in Hong Kong – and yet his wife, who dropped him off, was still stuck at the airport.

 

I have never met anyone who has not accounted for heavy traffic in their plans. They leave early. They stock up on snacks in the car. Empty bottles, too, when nature calls. Say what you want about “Filipino time”, but nobody wants to be late for a date, for an appointment, for a meeting. You leave early enough, knowing you’ll get stuck in traffic, but then you find yourself on the road for nine whole hours. (Yes, this did happen to a colleague.)

 

However, it is our collective state of mind that got us to where we are.

 

Filipinos are private people. It’s why we frown upon the “taklesa” (tactless) and the “bungangero” (chatty). Why air your grievances out in public when you can hash it out in private? Why do we need to get involved?

 

From a transportation point of view, this means our preference for cars. One for each family, and then, one for each family member, if you could afford it. Why spend all that time being quiet and awkward around strangers when you can be in control of your fate as you drive? Your friends may have happy experiences whenever they take Uber’s new carpool service – “oh, the nice people we meet!” – but that’s almost always an exception to the rule. That, and private vehicles being a status symbol.

 

Across decades the government has enabled and encouraged this viewpoint. It allowed land developers to build closed-off communities rather than encourage growth in our high streets. It planned highways, extended highways, and built highways on top of new ones. It gave transport operators – taxis, jeepneys, buses – a relatively free hand to do as they please.

 

Yes, the government decided to build public transport systems too, but it is woefully limited – and even more woefully maintained.

 

That state of mind has led us to where we are: being stuck in traffic for nine whole hours is slowly becoming the rule rather than the exception – and that is more acceptable than taking public transportation, what with its rude (and picky) drivers, uncomfortable seats, and inconvenient routes.

 

And we expect all this to be solved within six years, more so a hundred days?

 

Sure, give credit where it’s due: the government is rolling out a plan to improve traffic in Metro Manila, not just through infrastructure but also by developing other urban centers, like Clark. However, to truly solve traffic, we have to provide – and enhance – multiple options. We’re only polishing Option 1 without paying attention to Option 2 – and many people want that option, too. Why do we have to drive a car just to run errands when we can just walk or take a train? Wait – can we walk safely? Do we even have sidewalks we can walk on to? Can we bike safely? Do we have trains that can easily bring us from one point to another? Do we have to transfer five times just to get to our destinations?

 

Here’s one piece of advice: manage expectations. Traffic is a monumental problem, compounded by decades of old mindsets. It will take a long time to fix it. It’s not just in building new roads, but improving public transport systems – and, ultimately, in changing commuters’ mindsets about moving around. I find people are willing to give up cars – especially with the high cost of having one – if they can easily and conveniently move around. Soon trains and jeeps and buses will not just be an option of last resort.

 

Singapore took twenty years to debate whether they should prioritize trains or buses, as part of an ongoing discussion over planning the country for the decades ahead. Look at them now.

 

Henrik Batallones is the marketing and communications executive of SCMAP. A former board director, he is also editor-in-chief of the organization’s official publication, Supply Chain Philippines.

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