Traffic Management

Mr. Cole, who did postgraduate management studies at the London School of Economics, spent a year volunteering in Philippine development work and now works for a British firm in Manila . This article was published in the February 2, 2009 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

Just to clarify the importance of the topic, over PhP 100 billion is lost each year specifically due to poor traffic management. That is almost 1/13th of the entire national budget. Say transport were to improve 50 percent, this could create PhP 50 billion more private and public wealth. There is a huge fund for growth locked in the traffic jams. It really is time to free it.

We all know the main causes of traffic here to be buses, jeepneys, trikes, and taxis. Back home in England, it is tractors, old ladies, and trucks, of which sadly my county seems to have a lot. There are simply too many of them (vehicles, not old ladies) driven badly, and without any due care or consideration for other road users. Yet, the very same can apply to those driving private vehicles (saying that, most of the public transport here is in fact privately owned).

The potent mix of dire levels of law enforcement (the introduction of personal targets would alleviate the traffic problem dramatically) and corruption does not help either. While the police – or at least their supervisors – are entirely to blame for poor enforcement, corruption is a two-way process. There are both the corrupt and the corrupter. It is a debilitating disease and one that can only be alleviated alongside poverty, and proper punishment.

It is impossible to deny that ‘public’ transport is an essential service; even if it has so many detrimental effects. If there was no public transport the cities would grind to halt immediately. And that is not good for business nor good for the country.

To improve traffic flow large-scale changes are needed, but also small incremental ones. Large-scale policies can end up as large scale failures; but they are necessary. Nationalization of bus companies – and perhaps even jeepneys – is an option. The problem is however, that in order to nationalize a service (and really make it public transport) a far better system of management (read operation) must be in place. It must also become efficient, and law abiding quickly. It is neither at the moment, and without good planning nationalization would improve nothing and as such be an albatross around the government’s neck instead of a cash cow.

The Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) has created bus stops, but buses still stop where they please; creating chaos, and going back to the question of police whose fundamental concern is “law and order.”

Small, or incremental, policy changes are already being undertaken by the MMDA. They are trying to lessen the flooding of roads, stopping the gridlock when it rains. However, the MMDA is running into serious problems with solid waste management; effectively people put trash down the drain blocking them. Road management has just become water and waste management.

One of the problems with policies is that they tend to overlap. In tackling traffic, one must tackle urban planning, environment, waste, water and even health-after all vehicles create pollutants.

Tackling the traffic problems in the country is not as simple as psychiatric tests for bus drivers to establish a criminal state of mind (frankly this is a ridiculous policy). Surely it would be more effective, and more efficient to tackle the ridiculous incentive system of bus drivers, or enforce a “one franchise, one route” policy—taking the congestion out of competition.

Someone, perhaps the new University of the Philippines centennial policy scholarship, should break down transportation issues and create a policy tree, finding out where the problems are and offering suggestions as to how they should be fixed. There are truly great minds in this country. Give each one a small piece of the puzzle to deal with, and see what their picture is at the end.

Incremental policy changes can be approached from many different angles. One can take an environmental approach i.e inefficient vehicles should be removed from the road, according to the anti-belching law; a sort of survival of the cleanest, to alter Darwin ’s paradigm. Again however, this would need to be enforced.

One other angle could be authoritarian, and involve the creation of congestion zones: a fixed price for entering certain roads or areas (and using the money generated to invest in public transport infrastructure).

One could even take a medical approach. Roads are the arteries of a country. Clean arteries keep you alive and healthy. Therefore clean roads keep the country alive and wealthy.

The city of Bogotá in Colombia, a country with a similar history to the Philippines, has a visionary traffic management system. Bicycles are subsidized (they can now also be made out of bamboo), making them affordable to all. Bicycle highways have been created, making it difficult to drive as the bike has priority. Cars are banned at weekends in the cities. “Trash can,” i.e. recycling policies from elsewhere is one way of tackling problems.

In short, there are two ways of dealing with traffic in Manila. One could follow Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, who said: ‘Give me a lever and a place to stand on, and I can move the world.’ This would be large-scale policy change, such as nationalization, more railway transits and undergrounds.   On the other hand, one could make small, incremental, policy changes and remember that from little acorns mighty oaks grow.

Mr. Cole, who did postgraduate management studies at the London School of Economics, spent a year volunteering in Philippine development work and now works for a British firm in Manila.

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