Painful slog through Manila traffic

Construction work begins on the third stage of an elevated highway known as the "Skyway" in Metro Manila. The Philippines is considering unorthodox measures like compelling companies to let their staff work from home to ease massive traffic jams that
Construction work begins on the third stage of an elevated highway known as the "Skyway" in Metro Manila. The Philippines is considering unorthodox measures like compelling companies to let their staff work from home to ease massive traffic jams that are expected to arise along areas affected by the Skyway. -- ST PHOTO: RAUL DANCEL
Construction work begins on the third stage of an elevated highway known as the "Skyway" in Metro Manila. The Philippines is considering unorthodox measures like compelling companies to let their staff work from home to ease massive traffic jams that
Construction work begins on the third stage of an elevated highway known as the "Skyway" in Metro Manila. The Philippines is considering unorthodox measures like compelling companies to let their staff work from home to ease massive traffic jams that are expected to arise along areas affected by the Skyway. -- ST PHOTO: RAUL DANCEL
Traffic aides direct motorists at a site where construction work on a new stage of an elevated highway known as the "Skyway" began, on Feb 17, 2014. The "Skyway" will link up with two other highways to provide motorists a fast, albeit expensive, to w
Traffic aides direct motorists at a site where construction work on a new stage of an elevated highway known as the "Skyway" began, on Feb 17, 2014. The "Skyway" will link up with two other highways to provide motorists a fast, albeit expensive, to way to move around Metro Manila’s 17 cities and municipalities. -- ST PHOTO: RAUL DANCEL
Traffic aides direct motorists at a site where construction work on a new stage of an elevated highway known as the "Skyway" began, on Feb 17, 2014. The "Skyway" will link up with two other highways to provide motorists a fast, albeit expensive, to w
Traffic aides direct motorists at a site where construction work on a new stage of an elevated highway known as the "Skyway" began, on Feb 17, 2014. The "Skyway" will link up with two other highways to provide motorists a fast, albeit expensive, to way to move around Metro Manila’s 17 cities and municipalities. -- ST PHOTO: RAUL DANCEL
Traffic aides direct motorists at a site where construction work on a new stage of an elevated highway known as the "Skyway" began, on Feb 17, 2014. The "Skyway" will link up with two other highways to provide motorists a fast, albeit expensive, to w
Traffic aides direct motorists at a site where construction work on a new stage of an elevated highway known as the "Skyway" began, on Feb 17, 2014. The "Skyway" will link up with two other highways to provide motorists a fast, albeit expensive, to way to move around Metro Manila’s 17 cities and municipalities. -- ST PHOTO: RAUL DANCEL
Rush-hour traffic starts to build up along Metro Manila's main Edsa highway, on Feb 19, 2014. Transportation experts estimate that traffic costs the Philippines roughly 140 billion pesos (S$3.96 billion) a year, mostly in missed business opportunitie
Rush-hour traffic starts to build up along Metro Manila's main Edsa highway, on Feb 19, 2014. Transportation experts estimate that traffic costs the Philippines roughly 140 billion pesos (S$3.96 billion) a year, mostly in missed business opportunities. -- ST PHOTO: RAUL DANCEL

The last time I drove in the Philippines, it took me 45 minutes to navigate a three-kilometre stretch of the capital’s main thoroughfare: a highway known as Edsa.

Now, I jog regularly, and I know that if I had run instead of driven, I probably would have covered the same distance twice – with five minutes to spare.

That experience prompted me to do some maths: Three hours stuck in traffic each day, which is the norm in the Philippines, run up to 66 hours a month (discounting weekends), and 792 hours – an entire month – a year.

Assuming that in my lifetime I will have 40 productive years, I’ll be wasting three years of my life just slogging through traffic.

In three years, I can earn a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology.

Nations have waged wars and reordered the world order in less time, and Star Wars nerds all over the world know that the Death Star can be built in three years. Steve Jobs turned himself from a penniless, fruit-eating beatnick into a billionaire and tech visionary in three years.

My point is, three years is a long time to simply waste away sitting inside a car.

Horrendous traffic, however, is a fact of life in the Philippines, and the country is paying a high price for its inability to ease road congestion: 140 billion pesos (S$3.96 billion) a year, according to transportation experts from the state-run University of the Philippines.

The figure reflects losses incurred on petrol burned, unproductive labour, extra public expenditure on traffic aides, and missed business opportunities.

The government isn’t exactly sitting on its derriere, but it is sorting out the problem with a philosophy taken from the pages of Jane Fonda’s guidebook to aerobic bliss: No pain, no gain.

This week, it began work on extending a 16-km elevated highway – known as the “Skyway” – to push it further northward and complete a loop with two other highways that, when completed, will provide motorists a fast, albeit expensive, way to move around Metro Manila’s 17 cities and municipalities.

The catch, however, is that construction of this stage of the Skyway will take three years, and traffic along the affected areas is expected to be so harrowing that the government is considering unorthodox measures like compelling companies to let their staff work from home and schools to cut classes to four days a week.

It is also revisiting a failed experiment to use Metro Manila’s main waterway as a highway. Think of this plan as the boat ride along Singapore river stretched along the entire East-West line of the MRT.

So far, the much-ballyhooed “carmaggedon” hasn’t happened yet. Traffic around the site where construction of the new Skyway began this Monday is still normal, even smooth, when I paid it a visit. But then, construction work has so far been limited to pulling out trees and erecting barriers.

When the tower cranes and pillars start rising, however, traffic is projected to crawl to an excruciating pace of 1 to 9 kmh. When that time comes, motorists may find themselves doing next to nothing at all, except drive, for the next three years.rdancel@sph.com.sg