I used to be a commuter when I was in the Philippines. I used to commute every day via the MRT. But it reached a point where it was more difficult to commute than to drive (and that’s saying a lot in Metro Manila traffic), so I stopped commuting.

I remember asking myself then why the Ortigas Station of the MRT was placed in the middle of two malls – Robinsons Galleria and Megamall. It was my stop, so I experienced it everyday. It didn’t make any sense. It looked like a giant compromise in the middle of EDSA. And I remember feeling that the planners of our metro trains were probably not commuters themselves because there was this general sense that our trains didn’t seem to have been designed with the commuter in mind. The stairs were either too steep, or the escalators stopped working months after they were installed. Our trains were not just commuter friendly.

And then some weeks back, I saw pictures of the MRT falling off the tracks in Magallanes station and injuring several people. I then heard about DOTC Secretary Abaya riding the MRT, and Senator Grace Poe taking two hours off from her busy senate schedule to ride the MRT herself. And then in the spirit of the ALS Bucket Challenge, government officials were challenged by the Filipino people to take the MRT Rush Hour Challenge—which basically meant to ride the MRT during rush hour so they feel what a regular commuter feels like, and hopefully do something about the sorry state of the trains in the Philippines. And that was good, because if things have to change, the ones who have the power to change them have to experience what they are changing, not only to feel the urgency, but also to get a sense of perspective.

And the hype is good, because what hype usually does in our country is get things to initially move. That is how hype helps.

But without the political and administrative systems and follow through as well as the proverbial political will to back up all these hype, I cannot help but feel that this will go the way most media stunts go in the Philippines: as footnotes on Facebook, hashtags on Twitter and as archived photos on Instagram.

Many months ago, in a class at the Asian Institute of Management, we discussed the MRT problem and learned at that time that it lacked an automatic signalling system. Trains need that system to ensure safety. Imagine a metro line with all those trains running at the same time. The automatic signalling system makes the choreography of all these starts and stops happen. Because it’s not working in the MRT, security guards of one station had to manually signal the guards of another station via radio to tell them whether it is safe to move their train or not. What that basically means is that the safety of around 500,000 commuters a day was dependent on this archaic system of understanding intervals and train speed and choreographed by people who get paid minimum wage.

It was literally a train wreck waiting to happen. And it did.

There is hope of course, since there is always hope in our country. We are one of the most wise and ingenious people in the world. The Metropacific-Ayala partnership won the bid for an automatic fare system like Hongkong’s and Singapore’s Octopus Card. It will just be a matter of time before we use our own version of the Octopus cards in the 3 lines of the MRT/LRT, and even in shops like 7/11 and Starbucks to make micro-purchases. That is a welcome change. And with the traction it produces, we hope the buses will follow suit and accept these cards as well.

But let us take a step back and see the MRT situation as a symptom of a bigger disease. The seeming lack of focus (maintenance, adding trains, etc) on our metro lines—until this happened—is problematic because it tells us that we are far from solving the traffic problem in our country, or that there is no systemic solution to the problem that is Metro Manila traffic. Traffic is a system, and should therefore be solved from a systemic perspective. It is not a local problem—meaning it is not a problem of individual cities like Manila, or Quezon City, or Pasig. It is the problem of the WHOLE Metro. When you ask who is in charge of traffic in metro manila, some people will point to the DOTC, the DOTC will most likely point to the MMDA, the MMDA will most likely point to the Traffic Enforcers of the cities, and round and round we go. It is this ‘jurisdictional’ perspective that is precisely keeping us from solving the traffic problem.

Another thing: Traffic is a private problem in our country, not a public one. Countries who have solved their traffic problems have solved it with government taking full control of their public transport system. Look at Singapore, or New York, or even Shenzhen, and contrast that with Jakarta and New Delhi. The main difference? Public transport in the first three is run by government or a government run corporation. Public transport in the last two is largely democratised. Public transport, I believe, is a public trust. We have however made it a private business and allowed the TODAs and the Bus Companies and the Jeepneys to become too powerful. I take the stance that if we are ever to solve our traffic problems, it should be a wholistic solution: from a cap on the amount of cars sold, to higher and higher taxes for older cars, to toll fees on the use of certain roads at certain times, to having more metro lines, to making it more and more difficult to get driver’s licenses AND A PUBLIC TRANSPORT SYSTEM that is designed with the commuter in mind. Enough of “pwede na” solutions. A certain level of patient organisation is needed for this problem to be solved. And if we continue to think of traffic from a jurisdictional perspective, we cannot hope to successfully solve this problem.

How are other countries solving their traffic problems? “At the very same time, when Americans suggest to solve this problem with better navigation and smart vehicle networks, the Europeans have chosen a different way to control this. In London, each car driver is required to pay a ‘congestion tax’ which is very much like the Toll tax except that there is no toll booth. Elsewhere, government regulations have put the maximum speed limit to around 10-20mph in city while completely restricting cars from entering several roads. All of this has been done to promote public transport and to prioritize the pedestrians.” [UNLOCKING TOMORROW’S TRAFFIC GRIDLOCK, Of course, the point is to have a good public transport system running.

It is a question of where we are putting our resources, or where we are spending our loans in. In Shenzhen where I live now, the Metro is one impressive piece of work, and something we can certainly learn from. The city is building 14 more lines (at present there are five lines), and it’s building it really well (everything is covered, pedestrians are given priority, traffic is managed very well, it doesn’t get in the way of human and automobile traffic). First of all, Shenzhen has decided to INVEST in a Metro System knowing that it is the way to go–you shuttle more people, you decongest the streets, you focus on public transportation because that is what ‘the majority’ needs. The Philippines on the other hand is still investing in highways and flyovers, which will just invite more people to buy cars and thereby create more traffic. In a study made some time ago, with the present number of cars and buses, we need 20 levels of EDSA for the traffic to be decongested. So clearly, spending on highways is not the way to go. Tell me a country without a good public transportation system, and I’ll tell you that country is still in the 3rd world. Tell me a country that has not invested in a good public transportation system and I’ll tell you that country has politicians who do not think of the future. Tell me a country who leaves the public transport system in the hands of private individuals, and I’ll tell you that country does not have the werewithal and the foresight to see that public transport is a public trust and is therefore the problem of government. Tell me a country who cannot solve their traffic problem and I’ll tell you that country cannot put their heads together to think of systemic solutions.

Until that time comes, we can expect more train wrecks waiting to happen.

[by Eric Santillan]

eric santillanAbout Eric Santillan
AngPeregrino lives with his wife in Shenzhen, China. He is currently on sabbatical to think about his next big step, knowing that he’s in a country of mind boggling opportunities. Before that, he was a management consultant specializing in sustainable business, competitiveness and culture management; and did counselling. He remains to be a writer for The Mindanao Current, and a retreat giver.

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