Big dreams but little action for Manila's traffic nightmare

Motorists eat a meal on the back of their vehicles after they were caught in heavy traffic in Manila.
Motorists eat a meal on the back of their vehicles after they were caught in heavy traffic in Manila.PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (AFP) - Web designer Maria Zurbano kisses her three-year-old daughter goodbye and sets out in the pre-dawn darkness for a torturous commute through the Philippine capital.

Her ordeal, a return trip of up to six hours every weekday, is expected to get even worse as the number of cars explodes in the chaotic mega-city of more than 12 million people.

Dubbed "carmaggedon" by locals, business leaders are warning Manila could come to a total standstill despite grand government plans to tackle its traffic.

"Physically, during these trips, I feel ill. My back is always hurting. It affects my health to have to sit down for so long," said Zurbano, 36, as she waited for a bus outside her home at 5:00 am.

After finally ending a cramped mini-bus trip of just 17km to the financial district of Makati, Zurbano despaired of being trapped in a traffic hell.

"Traffic just gets worse and worse. I just get more stressed and stressed but it doesn't look like anything will change. I will just have to learn to bear with it," she said.

Traffic in the capital and its surroundings is already costing the country about three billion pesos (S$90 million) a day, or about 0.8 per cent of gross domestic product, according to government figures.

And it is steadily worsening as an emerging middle class fuels a car boom - car sales rose 23 per cent last year with nearly 300,000 new vehicles hitting the roads.

Compounding the problem, decades of infrastructure neglect has left Manila with a just a few major roads across the city and their gridlock "peak hours" often last for three or four hours.

Commuters have few other options with Manila's dilapidated rail network tiny in comparison with neighbouring South-east Asian capitals such as Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.

A chaotic private bus and mini-bus network with drivers who regularly flout traffic laws by, for instance, stopping in the middle of roads to pick up passengers, is widely perceived as adding to the problem.

"This is going to be the most critical problem the next administration faces," John Forbes, a senior adviser at the American Chamber of Commerce in Manila, told AFP.

Forbes warned Manila risked becoming "uninhabitable" in the next three to five years - meaning people would simply be unable to get around the city - if urgent action was not taken to build roads and rail lines.

Elections for a successor to President Benigno Aquino, who is required by the constitution to stand down after a single six-year term, will be held in May.

Aquino has proved a generally popular president but he has been the target of fierce public criticism for a perceived lack of urgency in updating the nation's creaking infrastructure.

He earned widespread condemnation mid-way through his term with comments that worsening traffic was merely a sign of a growing economy.

His aides have since sought to project a sense of empathy and urgency, pointing to new expressways and an extension of a train line as planned projects that will ease the congestion.

They have also emphasised the adoption in 2014 of a "Dream Plan" to fix the urban chaos, which outlines US$65 billion(S$93 billion) of infrastructure spending by 2030.

The plan envisages a wide range of massive and unprecedented projects for the Philippines, such as a subway, satellite cities linked to Manila by high-speed rail, relocating air and sea ports, as well as many new roads.

Finance Undersecretary Gil Beltran, an economist who has studied the traffic problem, said the plan's huge price tag is within the government's reach.

"Financing should not be a problem because the funders are ready," Beltran told AFP, pointing to the nation's improved credit rating that will allow cheaper loans, as well as expected help from the Japanese government and multilateral lenders.

But many experts believe there is little chance of many projects going ahead.

They point to the nation's chaotic and corrupt democratic system, as well as a strangling bureaucracy, which prevent infrastructure development.

A glaring example is the construction of a 19-kilometre light rail line on the outskirts of the capital that was meant to have been finished by the end of last year - but it has not even been started.

Touting the project in 2013, Aquino joked he was ready to be run over by a train if it was not completed by the end of 2015. But his government has not even finalised the tender process.

Gilbert Llano, president of the Philippine Institute for Development Studies, a government think-tank, echoed the ironic tones of many experts when talking about the government's infrastructure plan.

"It's called a dream plan (because) it will stay in the realm of dreams," said Llanto.