Manila Traffic Madness

For anybody who has ever tried to navigate a car through Manila’s heaving traffic, dodging jeepneys, smoking buses, weaving motorcyclists and rapacious traffic policemen, brace yourself.

In what critics are calling Armageddon in the packed city, the Metro Manila Development Authority is warning commuters things are going to get worse. And stay that way for as long as four years.

The slowing traffic is due to the commencement today of a number of major road projects including a 15-km, US$590 million elevated roadway that will link the major expressways that run north and south out of the sprawling city. Some of the projects are located in the business districts of Quezon, Makati, Ortigas, and Bonifacio Global City, which already have high traffic counts and continuing jams.

City officials face a dilemma. If they don’t build the projects, traffic will inevitably get worse in a city that already ranks among the world’s worst. Although the development authority says the link will cut travel time between the two expressways by 20 minutes, the center of Manila is inevitably going to be torn up until 2017 by the expressway link, and by a second major project connecting the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Expressway Phase 2 to Entertainment City, a seaside development. The Metropolitan Development authority projected that on the EDSA expressway, the current major arterial into the city, traffic is expected to increase by 55 percent, slowing it to anywhere between 1 and 9 km per hour during the four-year construction period. When the rainy season arrives, which inevitably paralyzes the city with floods, the chaos is going to be almost unimaginable.

The country is paying the price for decades of infrastructure neglect at a time when newfound prosperity is causing the number of cars on the road to skyrocket. The burgeoning vehicular fleet soared from 1.9 million units in 2010 to 3.3 million by last July. The Japan International Cooperation Agency, in a report done last year, said 3,000 km of new road must be added to the 5,000 km. now criss-crossing the city in order to alleviate traffic congestion.

And while President Benigno S. Aquino III is being given relatively high marks for straightening out a corruption-ridden infrastructure bid process under the two previous presidencies, the number of large-scale projects at the same time carries considerable risk of paralyzing the city and driving out foreign direct investment. The two major links are among a much larger list of infrastructure projects being undertaken in the Metro Manila area including underpasses, flyovers, offramps, interchanges and light rail extensions, all of which are expected to run concurrently throughout the remainder of Aquino’s term in office.

The Philippines ranks 87th of 148 countries in terms of road quality, according to the latest World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report, well behind Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. The Philippines allocates about 3.0 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on infrastructure spending, well below the 5.0 percent average in Southeast Asia, according to the report.

In a recent report, the CNNgo.com website ranked Manila third worst in the world for traffic problems, behind Beijing, which recently suffered a traffic jam 62 miles long that lasted five days, and New Delhi.

Malacañang spokesman Herminio Coloma on Sunday sought understanding from the public, citing in particular the traffic congestion that would be caused by the construction of the Skyway Stage 3 project.

“We call on our people to share in the burden of sacrifice and bear with the short-term inconvenience so we can build better roads that will ensure faster travel and more productive living in our highly congested National Capital Region,” Coloma said on a local radio program. The public is being asked to “make adjustments in their work and travel schedules and personal lifestyles to cope with the expected traffic congestion in Metro Manila to be brought about by the impending construction of Skyway Stage 3 project,” Coloma said

Francis Tolentino, the chairman of the development agency, said construction will overlap and result in further gridlock. The agency has proposed alternate routes, suggested distance learning at universities, cutting the school week to four days, staggering business hours, creating more bicycle lanes and reopening ferry services on the Pasig River, which courses through the center of the city.

“In a perfect world, major infrastructure projects should be staggered in order to minimize disruption,” according to a report by the country risk firm Pacific Strategies & Assessments. “The Philippine government is putting a huge amount of pressure on different agencies by undertaking these projects at the same time. It will be crucial to expedite construction without sacrificing structural integrity, and ensure that these projects will be integrated easily with existing road and mass transit networks in the metropolis.”