I live in one of the northern cities of the National Capital Region. For a month last summer, I commuted every day to a commercial center in Muntinlupa right at the south corner of the capital region, and it was a 20-km or so affair, one-way. 20 kilometers is not a lot, but for Metro Manila, no distance is ever short enough to be a comfortable, predictable ride. The biggest problem was that I initially trusted EDSA to be a reliable enough route for getting to my destination. I endured the resulting three-hour ride for several days, until I was driven by exasperation to take the MRT, which I’ve always known to be a hellish place to be in during rush hour. And it was, but it is a tolerable kind of hell in the morning, as I found out. It is the evening ride home that is always torturous.
There was one part of that daily grind that I came to appreciate, however. To get from EDSA to Muntinlupa, and vice versa, I took a bus that plied the Skyway. Skyway is an interesting indicator of the state of Philippine traffic: when the highway more popularly known as South Luzon Expressway reached its capacity and traffic jams started bogging down the route, they built a second road supported directly above the old pathway. (It’s a ‘grade separated’ system, as the civil engineers call it.) But to enjoy the higher speed limit and protection from jams afforded by Skyway, you’ll have to pay more than the already steep toll fee of the lower road.
It’s not the prospect of a Speed-type scenario of buses jumping across (or falling from) raised highways that I appreciated while cruising on the expressway, however. It was the inexplicable, shallow joy of watching the city pass by at 60 kilometers per hour from a bus window. The specific vistas offered by the Skyway include an international airport’s runway, a fish cage-saturated lake with a decommissioned coal power plant on its equally-congested shores, and an endless urban sprawl featuring malls, condominiums, and townhouses, some in construction and some starting to show signs of desolation. It’s not exactly a beautiful sight, because a concrete jungle has no intrinsic aesthetic value. It was probably just the diffusion of warm and cool colors falling upon the scenery—more often than not, it was sunset when I passed the road on my way back home.
This kind of appreciation is a defensive mechanism for what is an otherwise depressing state of affairs. Building roads is not easy, nor cheap. There is a science involved in planning, mapping out, and laying down routes across and within cities. Unfortunately, metropolitan Manila is a grandiose study in failure of such urban planning. All efforts to decongest the region now feel more like scattered efforts at disassembling the worst bottlenecks rather than a concerted effort at re-engineering the transportation system at a more fundamental level.
Of course, I know that such a huge effort entails an equally tremendous amount of resources needed. And in this area there is no shortage of blame: the shortsightedness of Philippine government, the impossibility of sustaining focus and agendas across succeeding administrations, etc. But of all these analyses and diagnoses, I think one stands out from the rest, and it is something that applies to very much every national problem: that we, the citizens, are not doing enough on our part.
And here lies the greatest difficulty of all. Think of public transportation: there is no doubt that upgrading mass transportation would be an effective solution to our transportation woes. The efficiency and reliability of a good mass transit system is hard to argue with. Just look at Singapore, or Tokyo, or maybe even New York. But the Filipino is in love with private transportation. We like our cars, and the comfort and security of our own cabins is too tempting to exchange for the infamous crunch of the MRT at rush hour, or the risk of getting robbed in jeepneys on sparse routes. The less public transportation we take, the more cars crowd the streets, and the more inadequate our roads become. It’s like the problem with the environment: I know doing this and that is not for the better in the long run, but the alternatives are too inconvenient right now, and besides, everybody else is doing it. (And as with contributing to global warming, I’m not entirely free of hypocrisy myself with this transportation issue.)
Probably the solution is with correcting another enduring problem with our society that this example reveals: our culture. We clearly lack the communal spirit or national unity needed to effectively solve large-scale, social problems. There is a lot that can be said about the worth of a society just by looking at things as basic as the state of its transportation system.
But how do we solve this one? I don’t know. I don’t think any one person knows, for that matter, and it will take time, lots of it. Surely, the transportation problem is a vital national problem that urgently needs solutions, but at least, unlike with the environment, there is no clock ticking on this one. We probably can take all the time in the world. For now, I’ll just try to enjoy the view from my passenger seat.