Carmageddon: New commuter railway project envisioned to ease Manila’s worsening traffic congestion
By Jinky J. Jorgio
Manila— Valerie Hollero commutes daily between her home in Mandaluyong City and her office in Pasig. During the nighttime on weekends, when road traffic has a semblance of normalcy, the five-kilometer distance can be traversed in 15 minutes.
On weekdays, it takes Hollero 30 to 45 minutes to travel between the two cities. It gets worse during rush hour.
Traffic in Manila, a city of 15 million people, often comes to a total standstill, defeating the Philippine government’s grand plans to tackle what Filipinos call "carmaggedon."
The Philippine government has implemented a number-coding system that bans vehicles from public roads during rush hour on two weekdays. But there is no magical solution to the traffic nightmare that gets worse over the years as the city’s population continues to grow.
The latest data from Amsterdam-based TomTom International B.V. showed Metro Manila had a 53 percent congestion level in 2020, better than the 71 percent congestion level in 2019. This means a 30-minute trip would take 53 percent longer than it would during baseline uncongested conditions in Metro Manila.
Traffic experts attribute Manila’s traffic predicament to disproportionate urban growth, coupled with a lack of investment in public transportation that forces residents to acquire private vehicles.
A joint report by the Chamber of Automotive Manufacturers of the Philippines Inc. and the Truck Manufacturers Association in December last year showed total vehicle sales reached 240,642 units as of the end of November, overtaking the 223,793 units sold for the full year of 2020. Compared to the 196,197 units sold in the January to November period last year, the latest sales went up 22.7 percent.
Business leaders have warned that, at the current pace, Manila runs the risk of becoming uninhabitable in the next decade.
Traffic jams takes their toll on the country’s economy. In 2018, the Japan International Cooperation Agency reported that the Philippines was losing 3.5 billion pesos a day due to traffic congestion.
Filipino commuters acknowledge that the traffic situation in Manila is the result of a combination of several factors that include attitude. Hollero, a lawyer, cited “the lack of courtesy, lack of knowledge and lack of discipline.”
“There are times when vehicles from the leftmost and middle left lanes, that are supposed to go up the flyover, swerve to the right toward the underpass,” Hollero said.
“These drivers prefer to cut the line instead of falling in line - to the annoyance of those in the middle right lane. This lack of discipline clogs up three to four lanes right before the flyover.”
Hollero said the traffic situation in Manila can no longer be solved by the government alone. “The citizens should also take it upon themselves to be disciplined, courteous and educated,” she said.
Instead of waiting in long lines for bus or jeepney rides, Mia Bunao uses her bike, sometimes taking alternate inner-city routes to go around the city. But even those routes get clogged due to illegally parked vehicles and people spilling out on the streets due to the absence of safe pedestrian walkways.
“Private vehicles, often with a single person as an occupant, account for more road space used than the public transport sector,” Bunao said. “When the infrastructure is car-centric, it is not sustainable.”
Buano said the number-coding system may have its merits but has little impact. “What the government should do is allocate a budget for building infrastructure for mass transport and active transport. We must move people, not cars,” she said. “A good mass transport system would be the best solution.”
On Oct. 6, the Philippine Department of Transportation signed four civil works contracts totaling $1.87 billion for the South Commuter Railway Project. The project, which will lay nearly 55 kilometers of railway segment to connect Metro Manila with Laguna province, is being financed with $4.3 billion in loans approved by the Asian Development Bank in June.
The railway project is part of the North–South Commuter Railway network, which is ADB’s largest infrastructure financing in Asia and the Pacific to date. ADB is also financing the construction of the Malolos–Clark Railway Project, which comprises the northern segment of the railway network.
“This project will open tremendous opportunities for economic integration across Metro Manila and neighboring provinces and create a significant positive impact on the local economy,” said Winfried Wicklein, ADB deputy director general for Southeast Asia.
“It will strengthen the country’s economic recovery, create as many as 35,000 construction jobs and more than 3,000 permanent jobs during the railway operation, and improve access for residents of Laguna province to employment in Metro Manila,” he said.
Once completed, ADB said the commuter railway will provide affordable, safe and fast public transport, and help ease road traffic congestion. More than 600,000 passengers are expected to use the entire railway system daily by 2040.
Under the project, 18 elevated and at-grade stations will be built and provide safe access for all, including the elderly, women, children and people with disabilities.
ADB said the commuter railway will connect to the future Metro Manila subway system. Travel time between Manila and Calamba using the railway will be reduced by over half, from 2.5 hours currently by road.