Infrastructure for people, not cars




The Manila Times

Business Times

THIS past week, one of the features on “Rise and Shine Pilipinas,” a program of PTV4, was a four-level elevated expressway project, an unsolicited proposal, that would cover both EDSA and C5. In my opinion, it is the type of infrastructure project we should avoid in Philippine cities. Such projects foster “car-dependency” by reinforcing urban environments where dignified travel is possible only with a private motor vehicle. More road space for cars offers only temporary traffic relief. Whenever traffic eases, more people are attracted to using motor vehicles. Greater car use brings more congestion, more pollution, increased consumption of fossil fuels, accelerated climate change and worsening health outcomes. Projects such as Skyway 3 and the new bridges across the Pasig River have failed to deliver on promises of solving EDSA traffic. We need to learn from our mistakes. We need to abandon strategies that have not worked or take us backward. We expand roads to add more car lanes while reducing the space for pedestrians and bicycles. In order to make cars go faster, we remove groundlevel pedestrian crossings and build elevated footbridges, in the process reducing the mobility of Filipinos unable to climb stairs. We set traffic signals to prioritize the movement of vehicles, giving only minimum time for pedestrians to cross intersections. We replace sidewalks with parking spaces for cars. We build new bridges to cross rivers, but only those in cars are able to travel across the bridge safely and conveniently. When the government authorizes or builds “car-centric” infrastructure, it sends the message that you need to be in a car to enjoy the benefits of our public spending. Then, there is the question of inclusivity and fairness. In a country where only a small minority (about 5 percent of households nationwide and only about 12 percent of households in Greater Manila) are car owners, it makes little sense to pour billions of public funds mainly to serve a segment of the population that is already better off and with the means to travel independently. Public resources need to focus on the vast majority who are “mobility-deprived” — those who are reliant on public transport, walking or cycling for traveling around our cities. The challenge of our economic managers and infrastructure planners is to reverse and remedy this historical misallocation of transportation investments. Our officials can deliver early results by working with the existing stock of transport infrastructure and enhancing its utility. A city’s roads and bridges represent arguably a city’s most extensive and valuable physical assets. Yet, to move people, these valued assets currently utilize and favor the least efficient and least inclusive mode of transportation — the automobile. Do the math. A lane of road that is 3.5 meters wide can move in an hour with either 2,000 cars; 9,000 people on buses; 14,000 people on bicycles; 19,000 people walking; or 20,000+ people on a mass transit system (train or bus rapid transit). Transforming and upgrading our urban roads so that they are more productive in terms of moving people and goods (rather than motor vehicles) should be a fundamental objective. The goal should be to revise the use of urban roads and bridges to facilitate the flow of the most efficient and commuter-friendly travel modes. It would be a far better use of scarce budget resources than investing in new urban roads and expressways for motor vehicles. The key ingredient is political will. Widen sidewalks everywhere, add shade trees and greenery, and make them fully accessible even for persons with disabilities. Create dense networks of protected bike lanes that enable cyclists to travel to all parts of the city with confidence and ease. Invest in improving public transportation systems so that services are sufficient, convenient, reliable and safe. Place public transport vehicles on dedicated lanes, where possible, so that they can move unimpeded by friction with private vehicles. Much of this can be accomplished by repurposing existing roads and bridges so that they move people and goods (instead of cars) efficiently and safely. When you plan a city around cars, you get more cars. This is what the Philippines has been doing for decades and reaping unfortunately the manifold problems of rising motorization. The 2023 national budget needs to abandon investments that will serve mainly car owners and create greater cardependency. Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno summed up this point in one of his recent interviews: “I think we should really focus on mass transit systems, hindi iyong (not) roads. Kasi ‘pag roads, bibili ka pa ng kotse (Because if we focus on roads, people will buy cars) to take advantage of roads. Dapat (It should be) mass transit system, so you can travel without owning a car.” Time to reflect this sound advice in our national budget. Robert Y. Siy is a development economist, city and regional planner, and public transport advocate. He can be reached at com or followed on Twitter @ RobertRsiy