Robert Y. Siy is a development economist, city and regional planner, and public transport advocate. He can be reached at email@example.com or followed on Twitter @RobertRsiy.
The Manila Times
CAR centrism is the mistaken notion that cities should prioritize the flow of cars. It permeates Philippine urban and transportation planning, traffic management and even how our government spends. It is also one of the main causes of our mobility, health and environmental crises, affecting each and every Filipino. It is time to discard car-centric mindsets and decision-making. The car-centric mindset sees roads congested with cars and concludes that more roads are needed. Behind this is also the perception that other options such as walking, cycling and public transport are unsafe, inadequate, inconvenient, difficult or unreliable. Car ownership has become an aspiration of many Filipinos who have to endure stressful daily commutes — it is regarded as the only way to achieve safe and dignified travel. The car-centric mindset is taking us in the wrong direction. What perpetuates the mindset is that many decision-makers are car users themselves and see their surroundings from the perspective of someone inside a car. They view fellow car users as the client that deserves attention. As a result, even though car owners are in a very small minority (only about 6 percent of Filipino households are car owners), many government policies, regulations and projects are designed to make travel easier for the few in cars regardless of the large negative impact on the vast majority of Filipinos. When private motor vehicles are prioritized on roads, the effect is to promote and favor the travel option that is the least efficient, contributes to heavier traffic and pollution, results in poorer health outcomes, creates more socially isolated communities and accelerates climate change and environmental degradation. Car centrism breeds dependency by leaving Filipinos little choice except to opt for a private motor vehicle. With all the ills associated with more cars on our roads, it is time to reject car centrism. The negative impact of car-centric decisions on the welfare of most Filipinos is apparent. For example, when roads are widened in order to create additional car lanes, sidewalks are often narrowed or eliminated. New bridges cross the Pasig River but are designed for cars — there is no public transport or pedestrian access and bike lanes are so narrow as to be dangerous for cyclists. On many roads, footbridges are constructed in order to eliminate ground-level pedestrian crossings — this enables cars to have uninterrupted travel but pedestrians end up with a longer, more difficult walk, and those unable to climb stairs are excluded. Car parking spaces are required in buildings (and all of us end up paying for the added cost) even though only the minority who use cars benefit. A significant part of our national budget is consumed in building urban infrastructure for cars. Based on the phenomenon of induced demand, more roads for cars attracts further car use, leading eventually to worse road congestion. Simply adding more roads to keep up with motor vehicle population growth is a futile exercise. It is like buying wider pants to fight obesity. And with only 6 percent of households owning cars, the potential for further congestion and pollution from additional motor vehicles is enormous. Roads and bridges are essential infrastructure, but they need to be placed in the service of the majority who travel without cars. The sustainable solution is to make walking, cycling and public transport attractive and safe so that Filipinos choose these more efficient and environment-friendly options and leave their motor vehicles at home. On every street, we need to make sidewalks spacious, safe and accessible for persons of all abilities, even if it means reducing lanes for cars. Adding trees and greenery on every path will lower street temperatures and make neighborhoods more pleasant for pedestrians. Where sidewalks are narrow, obstructed or missing, low speed limits and traffic-calming infrastructure should be introduced to keep pedestrians safe at all times. Using part of our urban road systems to create a network of protected bike lanes plus the installation of “end-of-trip facilities” (e.g., bike parking, showers and changing rooms) can attract many more Filipinos to take up cycling for daily travel. Already, bicycle-owning households outnumber car-owning ones by 4:1. Bicycles are already in common use for weekend trips to the market or grocery store. With the manifold benefits from cycling (low cost, zero emissions, predictable travel times, and improved physical and mental health), it has the potential of becoming one of the most popular daily travel modes for Filipinos. Build it and they will bike. The Philippines has long neglected its public transportation systems. This is being remedied but much more effort is needed. Already underway is the upgrading and expansion of our rail systems with several major projects under implementation. This needs to be complemented by similar investments to improve our road-based public transport systems (bus, jeepney, UV express and tricycle services). Everywhere, we need to have more and better vehicles, stops, terminals, depots, dedicated lanes for public transport and bus rapid transit systems. A car-centric strategy had led us to our current crises. The good news is that taking road space from cars and turning them into sidewalks, protected bike lanes and dedicated lanes for public transport is one of the best things we can do to improve our mobility, enhance our health, reduce our climate impact and make our cities and neighborhoods more livable. Even car owners will find less traffic on our streets if more people leave their cars at home. The only thing standing in our way — and what we need to reject at every turn — is car centrism.