Traffic, Imagined from Afar

The vehicular traffic problem in major cities, particularly Metro Manila, has gone from bad to worse. It has crippled everyone—commuters, motorists, private companies and public agencies, among others. A 2018 Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) study estimated the economic cost of traffic congestion in Metro Manila alone at 3.5 billion pesos daily, which can be as high as 5.4 billion pesos by 2035.

The suffering it inflicts upon urban dwellers is compounded by an overtaxed public transport system whose operational capacity appears to have reached its maximum limit.

Diagnosis of this urban problem shows a government that has faltered in rural areas. For something this big, traffic surprisingly has not merited the kind of attention it needs, one that is viewed from a national perspective. It is not therefore fair for the public to blame the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) for the worsening traffic problem in Metro Manila when it needs to be addressed by the coordinated work of the entire government.

A quick analysis of the problem will show that traffic congestion directly results from at least two variables. One, increase in population density due to migration and, two, increase in number of vehicles while the road network density remains relatively constant.

Better livelihood opportunities in urban areas drive waves of migration from the rural areas to the urban areas. The suffering endured by rice farmers today, as reported by media, demonstrates why this demographic trend has been going on for decades. Individual response to traffic congestion varies. While both the relatively well-off and average wage earners invest in either real estate or socialized housing outside of the city, they cope with mobility issues differently. Some use private vehicles to get past the highly inefficient public transport system but end up adding to the traffic problem. The greater majority doesn’t have much choice—they jostle for space with fellow commuters and hope they get themselves moving towards their places of destination after an hour of waiting. Travel time is another story, which can take a greater toll on their economic opportunity costs and stress levels.

And we are not talking about thousands of people who suffer on the road at an almost daily basis. The daytime population of Metro Manila alone, for example, swells from 13 million to 15 million, according to World Population Review.     

Livelihood-driven migration becomes a cycle, as business sees opportunities in cheaper labor and expanding consumer market brought about by a growing population. The real estate boom requires labor inputs which attracts more migrants. Industry-linked multipliers, like suppliers of construction materials, add to the mix of pull factors.

Aside from lack of livelihood options in the countryside, the push factors include natural and man-made disasters. Entire villages hit by armed conflicts become ghost towns. Those who have the means flee from them as fast as they could, and invariably seek shelter in urban areas.

The lasting solution to the traffic problem in big cities is a strategy that incites reverse migration. A holistic approach that results in the surge of local economic activity is Step One. The private sector cannot lead this, but it will follow at the first sign of positive indications for profit.

At this point when the shift to a federal form of government has become malabo, the 60-40 sharing of national revenues between the national and local governments in favor of the latter (this was proposed during the deliberations for the enactment of the Local Government Code) needs to be reconsidered.

Senate President Tito Sotto’s proposal to farm out government offices to the margins of the earth is appealing, not only because it clears society of its tenacious blight, but more so because its end is consistent with the goal envisioned by the proposed strategy. But I do not agree with the choice of host locations, which appear to be in the direction of Clark in Pampanga. My idea is for the provincial governments to bid as hosts of such a dispersal program. The poorer the LGU is, as indicated for example by outmigration rates, average family incomes and population density, the higher its chance of successfully bidding for the privilege to host. It can fund these hubs through direct loans, bond floatation or direct subsidy from the national government.

What’s in it for the LGU? Let’s just imagine Batanes hosting the Senate and Jolo hosting the House of representatives. These areas would soon be populated by honorable men and women, by alalays, by mistresses, and the full width and breadth of their extended families, among many others. Vista malls and other property developers will follow. The Catholic schools, good at business and quick to attend to the needs of the vineyard, will not be far behind.

Government offices should be ranked as well. The more corrupt the office is, as indicated for example by the number of complaints filed against its people before the Ombudsman, the more urgent the need should be to have it relocated to the poorest LGU.


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