A few days ago I had the delightful experience of being in Cubao, the metro’s Bus Terminal District, just when the annual Holy Week exodus to the provinces was starting. I was stuck in traffic for nearly an hour, and during that time the bus I was riding was able to cover a grand total distance of about 50 meters. That corresponded to one corner of a mall (featuring McDonald’s) to the next (featuring Jollibee). The view was fantastic. I later found out that the cause of the negligible, forgivable delay was not some terrible road accident as I initially thought, but simply the mass of people swarming the bus terminals lining the Cubao portion of EDSA.
It was already late in the evening, but being the nocturnal person I am, I was wide awake the whole time the bus was speeding from McDo to Jollibee. I enjoyed seeing my fellow passengers in various stages of consciousness: from wide-eyed to sleepy-eyed to nodding off and to asleep and snoring (or so I imagined). My sight-seeing was interrupted at one point when I sensed that everyone in the bus was peering and chuckling at the bus to our left. A gap had developed in the lane, because the driver had fallen asleep while the vehicles in front had moved on. It didn’t take long for someone in that bus to bother waking him up. I thought about what could’ve happened if, upon falling asleep, the driver stepped down on the gas pedal. I guess professional drivers don’t do that.
Of course looking around could only kill so much time, and I was soon weighing my next options. I ended up with indecision. Half of the time, I was thinking, hey, maybe whatever’s blocking us will clear up just now, and the bus will be cruising off at illegal speeds in no time. The rest of the time I spent considering three other options. The first was bringing out my tablet computer, to perhaps finally start reading that e-book version of Pride and Prejudice. (I like to think that I have an interest in classic literature, but experience hasn’t been on my side.) This was balanced by my fear of, you know, getting mugged and losing my precious toy. The second option was to bring out the book of short stories I’ve been reading for a week. This was a much safer option, and I still don’t know why I didn’t take it. The last, and the one I eventually adopted, was to just keep on contemplating about life and traffic in Manila and blogging.
The pleasant situation reminded me of a lecture I attended in school just two weeks prior. As a guest speaker for our environmental engineering elective class, Dr. Cresencio M. Montalbo, Jr. from the National Center for Transportation Studies in UP Diliman introduced the Bus Rapid Transit system and its potential in the Philippine setting. You can read about the BRT somewhere else, but I want to say that I’ve known BRT for a while, and by all appearances it seems to be a much cheaper and more effective solution to the traffic problems of Philippine cities in comparison to the Light Rail Transit systems that the government has been building. I’d say that the large costs of projects appeal more to our officials than actual effectiveness, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. (To be fair, the first LRT line that runs through Rizal and Taft Avenues was built before there was any BRT system in the world. At that time, light rail was the only option.)
I want to share one interesting concept Dr. Montalbo introduced in his lecture, and this is the part that Google can’t easily find for you. He talked about a “dignity of travel.” In my own words: travel is such a mundane part of our daily lives that we, urban dwellers, have taken our poor system for granted. We have become oblivious to the fact that commuting in Manila is very inefficient, dangerous, and unpredictable, when any form of travel for humans should be exactly the opposite of that: quick, safe, and reliable.
All those elements were missing in my recent extended stay in a bus from Cubao. Granted, it was an extreme case, but well-planned cities ought to be able to cope with such predictable spikes in travel volume. That I couldn’t bring comfortably bring out my tablet computer in public transportation is a statement on public safety in Manila. And reliability? I walked to the bus stop hoping I’d be home in a few minutes; I stepped out of the bus glad that it was still dark.
Dr. Montalbo ended his presentation by showing the status of BRT initiatives in the country. Apparently, a BRT system is now in the pre-implementation stage in metropolitan Cebu. It already even has a brand name: Trans Cebu. (Extremely creative, the professor admits.) A BRT system for Metro Manila is currently the topic of a feasibility study backed by the Asian Development Bank, among other institutions.
Let’s just hope that the government consider these projects well, and may they allocate the necessary resources for their proper implementation. It will do them good; there are few better places for the government to directly show the people that it still works for them, than on the road.