Roy Tang

Programmer, engineer, scientist, critic, gamer, dreamer, and kid-at-heart.

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This is Metro Manila

(Note: This post discusses the traffic situation in Metro Manila. I’ve had this post in the works for a while, and it kept getting longer and longer (possibly my longest post to date). I also had my friend David review it first to make sure I wasn’t saying anything too ridiculous, and he and I discussed some of the things and some of his points made it into the final post.)

I’ve basically lived all my 40-odd years in Metro Manila (barring maybe at most half a year total spent outside the Metro). I started commuting around when I was 10-11 years old, so that’s around 1989ish. Jeepney fare then was I think P1.50? Maybe that was the student fare. I remember it took two rides to get to my elementary school so I needed P6 for a round trip. The minimum fare these days is P9, so the increase has been 600% in 30 years. Probably still a bit too low, as jeepney drivers are still quite poor.

During GS, HS and college I rarely ventured too far from home (schools were always nearby) and mostly stuck to Quezon City. I only got to go to the other Metro cities when someone else was driving me there for some reason. I do remember one time I had to take a late night bus ride home from Paranaque during HS, it was my first time commuting in a fully-packed standing-room only bus. For the most part, I didn’t care too much about traffic growing up.

I still remember when the MRT3 opened up (Wikipedia says this was in ‘99), I took a ride during the first week just to go to Robinson’s Galleria, I think, for no reason. I was amazed because the train made it so much easier to go to Ortigas which before that had seemed very far (even back then the buses were always full). I remember thinking back then that the MRT3 had effectively reduced the space between cities.

In 2003, I got a job in Ortigas in Pasig, around 13-14km from home. Not too far, and the commute route was a reasonable 45-60 minutes most days (and 30 mins on really good days). I took the MRT most of the time to Ortigas, as I still have some notes from around that time telling me it was a 1500-step walk from the MRT station to my office. North Avenue station was the first station on the North side, so although there was often a queue, it was reasonable and it wasn’t too hard to get on a train. On the way home from Ortigas, I’d prefer the bus. Since Ortigas was in the middle of the route, the MRT would be quite full by the time it got to Ortigas station, so the bus was easier and I’d often get to sit.

Tracking my social media, I can tell I started complaining about the MRT and traffic around 2010 onwards. Most probably the build-up to the problem started a few years before that, in the later half of GMA’s term. Traffic and commuting and the MRT had gotten constantly worse since then.

By the time I left the Ortigas job in late 2015, I had to allocate somewhere around 2-3 hours for travel time, and even then I’d still occasionally be late. Even today, Google Maps tells me driving that distance at around 10am would take around 3 hours. MRT lines famously grew to be sometimes a kilometer long during rush hour at North Avenue. This was the line to get into the station! By this time I usually preferred taking an FX to ortigas, but that queue usually took at the minimum 30 mins to 1 hr, possibly longer. By this time I had also started taking taxis and ubers where possible (I had the privilege of being able to afford more expensive rides), but even this was quite difficult..

Coincidentally (or not), the traffic troubles coincide with the continuous years of economic growth since the time of GMA. Then-President Noynoy Aquino famously pointed out this correlation, a bit of a tone deaf remark politically (in response to the complaints about traffic), but he was not incorrect. The big problem with the improved economy is that like elsewhere in the world, the gains are not evenly distributed, most of the economic gains went to big metropolitan areas like Metro Manila, which means people are still incentivized to work and move here.

This would not in and of itself have been a problem if the government managed Metro Manila well and scaled up infrastructure as needed to anticipate the economic growth. It’s not just the current admin or the previous admin or the local governments that’s dropped the ball, it’s basically everyone in the national and local governments since the 80s. This catastrophic traffic was predicted at least 40 years ago yet not much has been done. It’s obvious that Metro Manila is overflowing and congested, even our water and power infrastructure is being pushed to the limit in the past year.

Intermission: Signs you might be living in Metro Manila:

  • Wearing your backpack in front to avoid theft
  • Not leaving your wallet and cellphone in your pockets while commuting to avoid pickpockets
  • Waiting at least one hour in the queue for an FX or Jeep or a taxi
  • Waking up at 5am or earlier to get to your 9pm job and just recovering some sleep in the FX or bus
  • Cramming yourselves into the MRT or bus like a can of sardines
  • Haggling with your taxi driver because your destination is “too far” or “there’s too much traffic”
  • Going to wait for the bus at the no loading/unloading zone like everyone else because if you waited at the actual loading zone you’d never get anywhere
  • Walking a kilometer upstream of where you’re going to get a better chance of actually getting on a bus
  • Allocating an extra hour or two to your travel time to important meetings to allot for the occasional MRT breakdown
  • Not enjoying December even though it’s holiday season because you know the traffic is going to be horrendous
  • Hanging around some extra hours at the office or at the mall rather than exhausting yourself trying to get a ride during rush hour
  • Actually walking at least 5km to get to work when all else has failed

Solutions: Before the “dami mong angal, ano solusyon mo?” crowd get into this, I’ll go ahead and make some suggestions. I’m not a city planning expert or anything, just a layperson giving some suggestions that I think are reasonable and/or common sense, and probably better than coming up with inane ideas like “coding by car brand” or suggesting that people just wake up earlier to get to their destinations or denying that we have a mass transportation crisis. The solutions I suggest here are not intended to be a “be-all, end-all”, but perhaps can be the starting point of discussions. And, I know that given the implementation track record of our government this may be difficult, but spitballing solutions to these problems also requires perhaps not a little bit of optimism.

Short-term solutions: It’s sad to say this, but I don’t believe there are any viable short-term solutions. None that can cause widespread relief from the traffic problems anyway. Most of the systemic solutions will be on a timeline of 5 years or more, and will definitely cost serious money.

On a personal level, the best thing any individual could do would be to adapt his own situation as much as possible. If your commute is in the order of 2-3 hours or more per direction, I would strongly suggest looking for a better arrangement, either look for a job closer to home, rent a place closer to your work, or ask for WFH privileges. I realize that not everyone can afford these changes, but sometimes you’ll be surprised at what you can afford.

I find that people are often quite bad at evaluating tradeoffs in time vs money, with a general preference towards money. For example if you’re working in an industry like mine (software development) where the salaries are generally higher than the average in the Metro, there’s a good chance you can afford to pay a bit more for rent or accept a lower salary if it brings you closer to home. But many people will refuse that tradeoff because for them money is the most important thing. Never mind that you’re wasting 5-6 hours daily in traffic. If money were really that important to you, consider spending it to save maybe 3-4 hours of travel time and use the extra time to freelance online and earn more money. Being stuck in traffic doesn’t earn you more money, it takes away your time and your energy and your mental health.

Emergency powers: I actually don’t mind giving the government emergency powers to the government to help speed up procurement timelines and such, but senator Grace Poe has a point when she says the DoTr has to at least provide a specific plan/outline as to how they are going to use those emergency powers, instead of just granting them a blank check.

Move jobs and labor out of Metro Manila. Or at least out of the major business districts (Makati, Ortigas, Taguig). Of course, the government can’t force businesses to move to less congested areas or outside the Metro altogether, but perhaps the economics can be made to favor moving out. The problem with this is that labor and capital are caught in kind of a loop: capital wants to establish offices where the labor market is so they prefer the business districts and are willing to pay higher salaries there; labor wants to work where the salaries are high and there are many options so they prefer those areas too.

One common suggestion I see (on reddit, etc) is to increase the minimum wage in the provinces to reduce the flow of labor to Metro Manila. This is a reasonable first step, although it affects mainly the lower-skilled workers. For example, if a construction worker could be paid the same rate in his home province as in MM, he would be less inclined to go to MM. For higher-skilled work this can be a challenge, since it requires that those companies move or establish offices in the provinces, and increasing salaries run counter to that.

It might be also good to incentivize (provide tax breaks or benefits) things like:

  • Companies that provide work from home days for their workers
  • Companies that provide shifting or flexible hours to avoid rush hour
  • Companies that establish in less populated regions (PEZA incentives, but more widespread)
  • Companies that provide relocation assistance for new hires in less populated regions (so they live closer to work)
  • Affordable housing in major business areas

But the problem with incentives like these is that not only are they revenue-negative, they also add to the administrative burden, i.e. more work is involved to make sure the incentives are going to the right companies. I think it would probably be a simpler approach to just disincentivize (i.e. tax) companies that have offices in major business areas, to discourage further congestion in those areas. The additional tax rate can be made to scale according to the number of employees the company has, so as not to penalize smaller businesses, and the more you contribute to congestion, the more you pay. This has the added benefit of raising money for the needed infrastructure improvements elsewhere. It should be a national government imposed tax (so the cities can’t muddle with it), though the local governments can be asked to help in collections to simplify effort.

Move government offices out of Metro Manila. While we can’t force companies to move out of Metro Manila, there is one big employer that we can just order to, and that’s government. As an example, just near where I live, there’s the Department of Agriculture, Department of Agrarian Reform, Bureau of Jail Management and Prisons, National Housing Authority, etc. There’s no reason these offices have to be in Metro Manila; heck for the DA and DAR it’s probably better to have their main offices closer to the farmlands. There’s also camps like Camp Crame and Camp Aguinaldo. I can see an argument for having the civilian police headquarters in the metro (but probably not smack-dab in the middle of EDSA), but why the military headquarters? Many of these government facilities aren’t in the more congested business districts, but the more we can reduce the overall population of Metro Manila, the better. And moving them to the provinces has the benefit of adding jobs to those areas too.

Infrastructure: Obviously MM needs a lot more of everything: more trains, more train lines, bridges across Pasig River, etc. The focus should be on improving mass transportation options instead of more roads or routes, since those just incentivize people to drive more. We as a country are hopefully on a path to continue economic growth, so our infra needs to be better able to scale up with that growth, and that means mass transportation. This is already a well-known thing, I’m not saying anything new here, the bigger problem is that the governments take forever to implement.

Subway: I am cautiously optimistic about the planned subway from Quezon City to Taguig. David is worried that it will likely be flooded a lot of the time, and that’s much more costly than just an equivalent above-ground rail line. I think the major difference is that the above-ground rail line would have more right of way issues so it may take longer to complete.

Bikes: It would be a big change culturally, but if we really want the city to be able to support larger populations, we have to promote usage of bikes. That means developing bike lanes and bike-friendly roads bike-friendly parking and having companies provide work lockers so people can change and not be smelly after biking to work. Having a bike culture would be a much more efficient use of road space and also improve the health of the population in general and be very eco-friendly. Much better than our current trend of more and more motorcycles.

Mass transportation: we need more, not less. As a lifelong commuter I cringe whenever I find private car owners complaining that PUVs are causing all of the traffic and there should be fewer of them on the street. Try commuting during the rush hours when it’s difficult to get a ride and see if you still have that sentiment. It’s true that PUV drivers need a lot more discipline, but the solution there is to revamp the business model of those services to avoid having the drivers behave that way. The boundary system has to be the single biggest cause of PUV traffic problems.

Jeepney (and Bus) Modernization: I support the goals of jeepney modernization, though in general I think the government is going about it the wrong way.

Back when we lived at our grandmother’s house, our next-door neighbor was a jeepney driver. I like to think that he owned his vehicle (it was always parked at their house), but for all I know he was paying a daily boundary somehow. He ran the Project 2-3 route along Kamias/Anonas, and sometimes he’d recognize us kids when we get a ride on his jeep, and he’d refuse to accept our fare. There is a romanticized notion of the jeepney driver as the serial pull-up-by-your-bootstraps informal entrepreneur, symbolic of Filipino genius and creative expression with all their decorations, and I think such a thing would be fine in smaller municipalities. For a large, densely crowded beast like Metro Manila, it’s simply not an approach that scales, and it’s time to move on.

Public transport is a public good. I believe transport routes should be treated similar to services like water or power. A single service provider, chosen through a competitive bidding process, would serve each area or route/set of routes. If you’ve tried any of the good public transportation systems in other cities like Singapore or Hong Kong, you know this is how it works. Public transport routes are a centralized service, not run by individuals cowboys jostling with each other for riders.

I wouldn’t propose to immediately replace existing jeepney and bus operators with such service providers. It’s ridiculous to think such a transition could be done in a one-time, big-time manner. I would choose a few pilot routes/areas where we can introduce the new service providers. They can initially be competing alongside the existing PUVs.

The service providers could propose the initial fare rate themselves as part of their bids. One of the criteria for the competitive bidding process would be that the rates must be reasonable. Competition with the existing routes would also hopefully keep the rates in line. Rate increases would be subject to approval by a regulatory commission.

In theory, each route/area being monopolized by a single service provider means each driver no longer needs to compete with other drivers on the next route. But we’ll need strict SLAs in place to make sure the service is being provided as expected. The franchise grant should impose certain requirements such as:

  • Euro-4 compliant engines
  • fixed salaries, benefits and no commissions for drivers
  • Prioritize existing drivers of the same jeepney routes when hiring
  • observance of fixed stops.
  • Minimum of X vehicles in the field during lean hours and minimum of Y hours during rush hours (as defined by government - need to conduct studies on the optimum numbers for each route).
  • Penalties for traffic violations by their drivers (with some leeway)
  • And so on

Other factors such as:

  • what kind of vehicles to use (maybe subject to branding guidelines and maintenance standards)
  • how much to pay the drivers

can be left up to the service providers, for them to balance vis-a-vis their proposed rate.

I would however prefer we get higher capacity vehicles than just the 20-22 passengers that jeepneys today can support. I’m thinking something like the public buses/shuttles used in Hong Kong or Singapore. I believe they are smaller than the city buses we have on EDSA, so they can navigate our narrower streets. Maybe prescribe a minimum passenger capacity for vehicles? Actually I would assume the economics are in favor of more capacity (since it means each trip can earn more money), so it might happen naturally. Of course not all routes would be able to support such buses, so maybe only where it makes sense.

With this scheme, we may end up with transport fares slightly higher than what we have now. Probably closer to FX rates really. And honestly, it’s a bit anti-poor, but I think it’s something we have to live with. One of the big reasons the jeepney modernization plan is hard to pull off is because the current fares mean that drivers earn very little for a day’s work. At least this way the market determines the initial rates and the drivers don’t have to live in abject poverty.

As mentioned, we pilot the program on a few routes, and then we can observe the first few routes for a maybe 3-6 months. Are there enough vehicles servicing the route? Are drivers earning enough money? Has traffic worsened? Then adjust the parameters for the next set of routes. We should aim to strike a balance between low fares and reasonable income for the drivers and service providers.

One of the goals should be to make it attractive for existing drivers to switch over to working for the service providers. And also slowly wean people away from using jeeps. Same process could be applied to buses too. Franchise grants can be relatively short so that non performing suppliers can be replaced easily. Once the public gets used to the new service, we can phase out the old jeepneys on a per route basis. (Not all the old jeepney drivers will want to work for the service providers, alternative livelihood assistance may be needed for them)

Premium transportation options: Senator Grace Poe (her again?) was derided recently for a suggestion to have “business class trains” in the MRT to encourage the upper class to take public transportation. Trying to do this in the MRT now is ridiculously impractical (which is why she was derided for the suggestion). However, I do agree that having premium transportation options available to the more affluent might be a good idea. It can still help to reduce the number of cars on the road. I’m especially fond of the P2P buses that were introduced to the Metro a few years back. They’re a lot more expensive than regular buses, but they’re comfortable and as long as it’s not rush hour, there’s not much of a queue. I often take a P2P bus where available. Maybe more routes are in order? Perhaps along the hopefully soon-to-be-finished North-South skyway?

Port congestion is also an issue that contributes to the traffic as well. A lot of trucks are needed to carry the cargo offloaded in the port of Manila to the provinces. I would suggest developing other ports North and South of Metro Manila and diverting as much of the port traffic there as possible. I know we already have some existing nearby ports such as the port of Batangas, but AFAIK there’s still a lot of cargo traffic from outside Metro Manila passing through the port of Manila. The goal should be to minimize that. David also suggests developing freight rail lines from the port of Manila to provincial hubs. Freight rail can fast track cargo shipments instead of relying on trucks which add to traffic.

Optional: Another issue with Metro Manila is that it’s composed of different fiefdoms, er, cities. Each of them have their own jurisdictions and traffic rules and so on. This is unnecessary and contributes to the chaos. I would suggest having a centralized authority managing transportation issues in MM. Something like how Transport for London manages transportation in the greater London area. This body would be responsible for things like:

  • managing service providers, rates, traffic rules
  • enforcement
  • conducting studies
  • proposing solutions
  • and so on.

The traffic management duties of the MMDA can be absorbed by this new body. This requires taking away some autonomy from the local governments, so it requires legislation.

The stark reality is that no matter the denials, we are in the middle of mass transportation crisis in Metro Manila and will probably remain that way for the foreseeable future. We may get some short-term relief from some projects that may finish in the next couple of years (North-South Skyway, etc). But in the long term there is much, much more that we need to do to turn Metro Manila into a sustainable megacity. The idealist in me still hopes we can get our act together and somehow get there. Like I said, a reasonable amount of optimism is needed. We shall see, shan’t we?

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