Too many vehicles and too few roads

It is not hard to figure out why traffic is horrendous in metropolitan Manila. There are too many vehicles and too few roads. People disdain public transport, so they buy cars the first chance they get.

What emerges is a 640 sq km metropolis where two million vehicles are crammed on a road network no longer than 1,100km. That's roughly 2,000 vehicles per kilometre. Why the disdain for public transport?

Metro Manila has a daytime population of roughly 14 million. Some 11 million of them take public transport. What is available to them?

About 15,000 buses, 48,000 jeepneys, 27,000 taxis and 50km of mass rapid transit rail lines, adding up to an estimated capacity of three million.

The result is commuters being packed like sardines into a can.

Why are there not more public transport modes?

Governments are more keen to build roads that voters will see and admire for years to come than a public transport system that will have to be subsidised and will be under perpetual public scrutiny.

The government has tried to reduce the number of private vehicles on the road by banning them on certain days of the week based on the last digit of their plate numbers.

But that scheme only made things worse, as motorists bought extra cars on the second-hand market - where a 1993 Nissan Sentra can be had for 68,000 pesos (S$2,000) - to get around the ban.

"It's a vicious circle. Unless you have a better public transportation system, those who can afford it will continue buying cars.

"The key is to have a reliable, adequate and efficient land transportation system," said Mr Winston Ginez, head of the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board.

Governments did invest in a mass rapid transit system early on. Manila was the first city in South-east Asia to have such a service with the Manila Light Rail Transit System (LRT) rolled out in 1984. But governments have been slow to add lines to the system, with a 16.9km MRT line built in 1999 and a second LRT line added in 2004.

Manila now has only 50km of city rail. By comparison, Seoul has 526km, Beijing 456km and Singapore 146km.

The LRT and MRT systems currently move some 1.5 million people a day. By 2030, some 7.4 million are expected to take the train. "We need 10 more MRT lines," said Metro Manila governor Francis Tolentino.

The government is building more lines, but progress has been stymied by issues such as two tycoons jockeying to have new stations built closer to their shopping malls.

But the focus has been on building roads. President Benigno Aquino has signed off on projects to build eight roads and nine expressways.

The government is also looking into rolling out a "bus rapid transit" system (BRT) similar to Indonesia's TransJakarta by 2018, with the proposed project in the last stage of a feasibility study.

It involves building 27.7km of dedicated bus lanes, stations and a card-based ticketing system.The BRT will cost 4.65 billion pesos, much cheaper than a rail line, and when finished will move about 280,000 passengers a day.

Mr Ginez said there is no shortage of plans on how to fix the Philippine capital's public transport problems.

What is lacking is the political will to carry them out, and the money to back them up. "If you ask me why we don't have a world-class public transport system that approximates those in cities like Seoul, I'll tell you the answer is 'subsidy'."

Raul Dancel

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2015, with the headline 'Too many vehicles and too few roads'. Print Edition | Subscribe