Opinion: Fix for Manila’s traffic woes go beyond new roads, rail

Only in the Philippines: where a presidential election promise to fix traffic congestion on the capital city’s busiest thoroughfare can get you votes. News on the web recently reported that President Duterte – who made this election promise – is giving up on fixing EDSA’s traffic woes.
“Let EDSA remain as it is for the next 20 years. Don’t bother,” he was quoted as saying in the Sept. 20 report of Coconuts Manila.
I don’t blame him. It is a gargantuan task. The president is asking Congress for emergency powers to solve traffic woes that plague what may be the country’s busiest thoroughfare. Others have tried, and failed. Metro Manila’s traffic problems have been a headache for at least the past generation, maybe longer. There is no quick fix. Improving light rail mass transit services, streamlining routes of public utility vehicles, more roads and bridges and so on are certainly going to help in the short run, until we have more people and vehicles. Then the infrastructure and transit services have to play catch up again.
Long-term solutions require a look at some fundamental causes of traffic problems. For instance, discipline and etiquette on the road – which go a long way to easing traffic – are usually ignored. My nephew, born and raised in another country, observed that traffic rules here are “suggestions” to be ignored so long as you do not get caught. It also explains why many foreigners are terrified of driving around the city.
So how to guide this mindset, convince our errant drivers to leave the free-for-all attitude for a more disciplined, courteous approach on the road? Does the government blast out public service messages over radio for the next decade to drum the message in? Get traffic enforcers to get tough on violators?

Long-term fix
There is no easy answer. And talk is cheap. It takes a lot of effort to change mindsets. Other fundamental changes in the driver community are needed for a long-term fix.
First, there is a need to determine if someone applying for a driver’s licence is really fit to drive. Driving involves a set of mechanical skills to operate a vehicle effectively and safely. It also requires knowledge of the set of rules that govern the roads. As well, some level of literacy – at least the ability to read – is needed, because drivers have to read street signs and act accordingly.
Many drivers are woefully lacking in the knowledge and literacy departments. My children studied a book on driving rules thoroughly before they sat for licensing exams at a Land Transportation Office branch. But at the test center, there were others with fixers who provided test papers and answers before the exam. So applicants need only memorize the answers; there is no need to know the rules.
As well, since applicants do not need to do a road test after passing the exam, there is no way to tell if they are capable of following the rules of the road.
The lack of literacy is more common than I would like. Goodness, I have hired drivers who could barely read and write, so they ignored signs, such as “one way,” “no parking,” “stop,” or “no left turn.” I recently had one who could not read the “exit” sign, nor the arrows pointing left, right or straight ahead. So he was constantly lost in basement parking lots.
Out on the street, he ignored – or could not read – traffic signs. His last employment was taxi driver. I wondered how he managed.
How to fix the literacy problem? Should the school system be taken to task for this? Perhaps. But that’s another story. There is no need for drivers to read Balagtas or Shakespeare, but the vocabulary for traffic matters consists of certain keywords, which they must be able to recognize… and obey.

Then there is driving etiquette. Many rules involving courtesy – like letting someone have the right of way – are designed to help traffic flow. Yet, compliance is weak or non-existent, either through ignorance or arrogance.
Here are a few pet peeves:
1. Keep the intersection clear. I once sat for about 45 minutes on Kalayaan Avenue, in Makati City, where it intersects Makati Ave. When the traffic light turned green, four cars in my lane moved forward. Then, we all stopped again.
Cars on Makati Ave. were blocking the intersection. Traffic officers were there, and allowed cars on Makati Ave. to enter the intersection even when traffic ahead wasn’t moving, and then did nothing to clear the intersection when motorists on Kalayaan got the green light.
It is bad enough we have traffic enforcers who do not know the rules. But they should not be necessary at all if all drivers know the traffic rules and comply.
2. Do not stop in the middle of the street to pick up or let off passengers. It’s not just jeepney and taxi drivers. Even private cars do that. How hard is it to move to the side completely before stopping?
3. Don’t drive in the middle of two lanes (this is one offense), and move slower than everyone else (that’s the second offense), so two lanes of vehicles are backed up. Worse, the driver hogging the two lanes sometimes will stop to let off a passenger (a third offense). This blocks two lanes of traffic. Meanwhile, the passenger becomes a jaywalker to get to the sidewalk (fourth!).
4. Obey “no parking” signs. Keep the street clear for moving vehicles. How often do we have to stop because of a car parked illegally on a two-lane street, leaving only one lane free to handle two directions of traffic?
Anyone who lives or works near private schools knows that just before classes start in the morning, and at dismissal time, the street becomes a traffic nightmare. Driving past the school could take an hour. Drivers there to fetch the students park two, three lanes deep, blocking city traffic.

Double persona
We have a lot of traffic rules. They are good rules, designed to make traffic flow and the roads safe for everyone. What is lacking is awareness of the rules, the discipline to follow them, and the lack of integrity in apprehending those who break them.
In social interaction, people are generally good about showing consideration and being polite, until some of them get behind a steering wheel. Then, another persona appears. Sort of like a Jekyll-and-Hyde complex.
This is not unique to Metro Manila. I see it in urban centers all over the country. Building new transit system, new roads will take how long? Maybe three years? Maybe five?
The longer term and more challenging tasks are re-education of drivers (literacy), integrity in the licensing process (no more fixers) and an overhaul of the driving culture (road courtesy).
Changing these intangibles may take just as long, or longer. It will take will power for our government to start the process, and persistence to see it through.