Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms. This piece was published in the July 5, 2010 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

The most talked-about topic regarding President Noynoy Aquino’s (P-Noy) inaugural address is the wangwang (car sirens used by the powerful to intimidate).

The critics of P-Noy say that the wangwang is a superficial issue. And if what stood out in the speech was the wangwang, this just meant that P-Noy’s address was ineffective.

But they miss the point. P-Noy’s message was fairly comprehensive. P-Noy was emphatic about the grand issues—justice, accountability, economy, jobs, food, education, peace, infrastructure, etc.

But the campaign against the wangwang has a symbolic value. It’s not just about putting across a message that the public will enthusiastically welcome. It’s about sending the signal that no longer will we tolerate the blatant violation of rules and the abuse of power. It thus has a demonstration effect that will discipline the behavior especially of those who style themselves as untouchables.

P-Noy himself is the model for the anti-wangwang campaign. On one occasion, he was late for an event because his convoy was held up by Manila’s notorious traffic. His escorts did not use the wangwang. The convoy stopped at every red light. P-Noy endured the traffic, a daily occurrence for the overwhelming majority of urban Pinoys.

Yet, some people, including P-Noy’s allies are uncomfortable or skeptical, about the anti-wangwang action. Vice President Jejomar Binay wanted local government officials exempted from the rule. A local official, a guest of P-Noy at the inaugural, had a lukewarm response to Howie Severino’s interview regarding the wangwang pronouncement. Howie wrote, quoting the official: “’Sometimes you can’t avoid it. What if you’re getting death threats? Remember, my father was killed in office,’ she said, to the nods of other well-coiffed guests around her.”

The skeptics include a friend, the chief correspondent of a foreign wire agency, who wrote on his Facebook wall that he “wants to bet President Noynoy will sooner or later stop stopping at stop lights.”

Howie points out a dilemma that P-Noy will face. Being the role model for traffic behavior puts P-Noy in a difficult situation. He invariably has to contend with problems that impair security and efficiency. To quote Howie, when the P-Noy convoy is forced by circumstances to use the wangwang or to beat the red light, “the first presidential siren aired on the news will be interpreted as a return to business as usual. Then those lines in his speech…will be replayed over and over again on television. And the honeymoon with the media will be promptly over.”

The GMA-7 veteran journalist nevertheless offers a solution to P-Noy’s predicament: “Be so effective in governance that traffic will move faster for everyone and public safety will vastly improve.” Unfortunately, Howie does not spell out how the perennial problem of metro traffic will be addressed.

I enumerate below a few strategic measures—a change of rules that will change public behavior concerning traffic and use of vehicles.

To reduce the volume of traffic (and earn non-tax revenues, to boot), multiply the current fees for car registration, the use of roads, and the purchase of vanity plates, and the like. Parenthetically, among those who are fond of vanity plates are the ones who make and interpret the rules—the lawyers, judges and prosecutors. The fees generated from all this can be used to improve the public transport system.

Number coding should be tweaked by introducing a price mechanism. Owners of private vehicles must cough up a high fee to use public roads during rush hours. The current regulation through number coding is a monumental failure. Its purpose is to ban vehicles from using public roads during peak hours at a certain day on the basis of the registration plate’s last-digit number. But the unintended consequence is an increase in the number of private vehicles. To avoid the number coding, the high-income families and the upper middle class simply buy at least an extra car.

The public transport system also needs an overhaul. The “boundary system” has to be abolished. Under this system, the compensation of bus and jeepney drivers is drawn from the meager surplus of the day’s earnings, after the agents (in this case, the drivers) reach their minimum sales quota. This system makes bad drivers. To meet their quota, the drivers engage in reckless and insensitive driving and resort to all tricks of the trade. The “boundary system” is a main source of passengers’ inconvenience, traffic slowdown, and accidents.

In place of the “boundary system,” use the wage system to compensate the drivers. Of course, owners of public utility vehicles will object to this. To temper their opposition, what can be done is to consolidate the transport lines and give a monopoly franchise for certain routes based on auction. The nationalization of the public transport system is likewise an option.

An unpopular but definitely effective measure to alleviate traffic (and pollution) is to increase the price of gasoline. It will go against P-Noys pronouncement not to increase taxes. But the leadership can argue that gasoline prices have to be adjusted to their real price. Gasoline prices in Philippines are relatively low. Similarly, the increase in the excise tax of gasoline can be justified as a regulatory measure to address the negative spillovers of too much petrol consumption. At any rate, the main users of gasoline have the ability to pay a higher excise tax. At the same time, the poor and the workers can be protected through well-targeted subsidies.

Banning the wangwang is the first, easier-to-do measure. The next steps to consolidate and sustain the gains from the initial step will be the real challenge.