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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Metro Manila: The City of Man?

Why are 70 people riding in a bus less important than two people riding in a car? If you’re talking about time, why is it that our time in the car is more important than the time of people in the bus? That’s elitist and economic segregation…very subtle but very pervasive.”

Benjie dela Pena, a Harvard-trained Filipino urban planner based in Washington, DC, was talking about the way private cars are given more priority on Philippine roads. He cited the example of South Super Highway, the main artery that connects Makati to Southern Luzon, where public buses are restricted to the narrow two lane service road while all private vehicles have free reign over the main portion of the highway.

Talking to Benjie dela Pena about urban planning has changed the way I see Metro Manila. To the untrained eye, Metro Manila suffers from congested traffic, uncollected garbage, uncontrollable squatter colonies. However, to him, these are just manifestations of a deeper problem, a problem that has been festering for decades.

Before Second World War, Manila truly lived up to its moniker, the Pearl of the Orient. But the War left Intramuros, the heart of Manila, devastated. Manila was the second most bombed city after Warsaw. It is not widely known that Intramuros and the outlying areas were flattened by the Americans who were trying to flush out the Japanese.

Since then, haphazard planning coupled with mass migration from the provinces into the capital has made Manila what it is today, a city of 12 million people with infrastructure trying to cope with the daily influx of people in search for jobs.

Squatting is defined as the act of taking over a piece of land that is not your own. To Dela Pena squatting is an urban housing solution. The supply of formal living quarters is inadequate to satisfy the flood of people into Metro Manila. The government’s solution is to periodically relocate squatters into settlements but the problem persists because of three factors: (1) relocation sites that are far from jobs, (2) lack of public transportation linkages to the relocation sites, and (3) the presence of rent-control which capped rent increases.

With rent control having the effect of drying up the supply for low- and medium-income housing and property developers concentrating on building upscale condominiums and apartments, the urban mix in Manila has been jarring especially to the first-time visitor. A cluster of ultra-modern buildings would be surrounded by squatter housing made from corrugated steel, plywood, used tires and plastic sheeting.

In terms of transportation, the knee-jerk reaction to the perceived problem of traffic is to enforce a color-coding system, which is a misnomer because it has nothing to do with color but with the number of a car’s license plate. The last digit of one’s license plate dictates which days one can use one’s car. Another common response to the traffic problem is to widen roads. It is not too uncommon to find out that trees have been unwitting victims to urbanization. The decades-old Acacia trees along Katipunan Avenue have been sacrificed on the altar of smoother traffic. And yet, to Dela Pena, these are but palliative solutions because for the problem to be truly solved, the metropolis needs to have a full scale mass transit system that can carry the thousands of commuters each day. But, it is a difficult paradigm shift when most of the policy makers do not use public transportation. The policymakers’ view of the problem would be from the passenger window of a chauffeur-driven luxury sedan and from that view, the obvious solution is to ensure that the flow of private vehicles remains unimpeded.

Mass transit need not be expensive nor have long gestation periods. Some cities use the Bus Rapid Transit System, which is a cheaper than the light-rail transit system that exists currently in Manila. The BRT provides dedicated lanes on major arteries for buses to use. It also utilizes well-designed bus stops. It has been a success in cities like Jakarta and Curitiba. One thing that the BRT can solve is the “Mad Max”-like driving of bus drivers. People dismiss it as inherent to Filipino driving culture and that nothing can be done about it. According to Dela Pena, it is matter of understanding the incentives involved. Bus and jeepney drivers operate on a “boundary” system. Drivers rent vehicles from operators and guarantee a pre-agreed daily rate. Any ticket receipt that is beyond the boundary, goes to the driver. With such an incentive scheme, the natural instinct of the driver is to make his/her boundary in as few trips as possible. This manifests itself in a free-for-all competition for passengers. Buses and jeepneys try to outmaneuver each other to scoop up as many passengers as possible in the shortest amount of time. What then can be done to change this? Dela Pena suggests that main and feeder routes can be assigned to different public transportation consortia. The BRT system and a defined salary system for drivers can solve a lot of the problems of reckless driving and traffic in the main roads of Metro Manila.

Urban planning needs a long-term horizon. However, with political terms that are in increments of 3-6 years, it is a challenge for political leaders to think long-term especially when most of the benefits will probably be enjoyed by the politician’s successor. Ideally, an independent authority needs to spearhead urban planning that would have a generational outlook. Perhaps, that was the idea behind setting up the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA). However, Metro Manila residents are still waiting for manifestations of independence, authority, and planning from the MMDA.

Dela Pena encourages all Filipinos to think of what kind of cities we would like to leave to our children. It is an appropriate question considering that 70 percent of Filipinos now live in cities. According to him, we Filipinos need to start talking about our cities. We need to be active in voicing out what we want for ourselves and our children: clean environment, parks, efficient mass-transport, safe and secure neighborhoods.

Once citizens realize that they have the power, politicians can do their own math. Seventy voters stuck in a public bus on a two-lane service road is definitely worth more in political votes than two voters in a BMW.

This podcast is a 3-part conversation.

Part 1 covers the History of Manila, Manila as Pearl of the Orient, Devastation that came with World War Two
To listen to Part 1 of the conversation, click this link: Episode005A (15 minutes)

Part 2 covers the discussion on what makes a city livable.
To listen to Part 2 of the conversation, click this link: Episode005B (25 minutes)

Part 3 tackles the solutions and recommendations for improving Metro Manila.
To listen to Part 3 of the conversation, click this link: Episode005C (19 minutes)

To learn more about the urban planning issues facing Metro Manila and other Philippine cities, visit Benjie dela Pena's blog, Another Hundred Years Hence. The best thing about the blog is that dela Pena does not dwell on the negatives but focuses on solutions.


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