The Urban Congestion in Metro Manila

For the past two years or so, the urban congestion in Mega Manila has always been in the news mainly because of the traffic gridlock in the major roads and secondly when port congestion became a hot issue. Palliative solutions have been tried in the past like the number coding scheme and truck ban hours but still over the years traffic has gotten worse because the number of vehicles is continuously increasing while there are no new roads except for some elevated expressways made and proposed.

In the past, there was no such thing as urban congestion in Manila. In the mid-1960’s it became national news when a traffic light was installed in the intersection of Recto Avenue (still referred to then by its old name Azcarraga) and Rizal Avenue because it was the first traffic light ever in Manila (and probably in the whole country). When I first studied in Manila in 1968, the buses can then still run at 100kph in many portions of Quezon Boulevard. The buses of the 1970’s can also attain that speed in many stretches of EDSA.

But then many more people came to Metro Manila and cars became more affordable if not more accessible. In the 1990’s, traffic gridlocks was becoming more and more a norm and even the building of skyways and MRT lines along with the truck ban hours seemed not to have helped at all. There seemed to be simply to many people and people will always need a form of transport. Suppliers of goods and services to the people will also need transportation along with the producers or importers of goods.

People move to Manila because the employment and opportunities are there, that is the simple fact and that is coupled with the lack of employment and opportunity in the provinces (but maybe not in Cebu). People also don’t like to work the farm anymore because the yield for the backbreaking work is not commensurate because there is no productivity gain. Everything else like schooling or having malls or being sosyal (as in nakakaangat daw sa taga-probinsya) is secondary to the question of economic opportunities and employment.

Employment in Metro Manila can be roughly divided into three: office employment, service establishment employment and factory employment. The driver of the first is the fact that Manila is the national capital and national commercial center. The offices of government and the commercial firms are concentrated in Metro Manila and those employees will always need transportation and so do their family.


Photo Credit: Underwood and Underwood, John Tewell

The second one, however, mainly thrives on the needs of so many people concentrated in Manila who needs many things for their lives from food to education to services, etc. Move out the people and employment, the services sector will shrink. The third, however, is the one I am interested in because it has a connection to shipping.

At the start of our industrial era, the factories and processors were concentrated in Manila, Navotas, Malabon and Novaliches (the old town absorbed into Quezon City), Kalookan (the labyrinths of the waterways extended there and notice the name) and Polo (now known as Valenzuela). It happened to get concentrated there because it had access to the sea and shipping was the primary mode then of moving goods (there were no trucks then yet). The ships moving goods ranged from liners to small freighters and to the casco.

The first expansion of the factories happened along Pasig River which was a navigable river then and connected to our first industrial belt. Mandaluyong, Makati, Taguig and Pasig began to have factories and in the 1960’s the expansion reached Ugong in Pasig and Libis in Quezon City. This expansion up to Libis which was already shallow was supported by lighter barges.

In the latter half of 1960’s and 1970’s, there was a conspicuous industrial expansion that were no longer connected to our waterways. Factories sprouted along EDSA, fueled by that great highway and then it spilled into the South Super Highway, an extension of EDSA. Those expansions were dependent on the truck. That was also true for the expansion that happened in those times along MacArthur Highway in the north. These expansions were no longer dependent on our waterways but on the highways and the trucks.

The next frontier of expansion happened in Muntinlupa, the Zapote road and then Laguna. I heard an old engineer say it was wrong. Wrong because it was so dependent on trucks and it is going further and further from the docks. Soon it had the name CALABARZON, coined by the administration of Fidel V. Ramos, identified as a growth area. Though it is not distant from Laguna de Bay, the problem is that lake was not navigable especially as it was already becoming crowded with fishpens and getting shallower with siltation.


President Fidel Ramos might have foreseen the problem of the coming road and port congestion and so he proposed that Batangas will be the new national port. A modern port henceforth rose in Batangas but it was not completely finished because of the greed of some foreshoreland people who thought their land is worth prime subdivision land. Batangas did not become a national port even though its counterpart STAR expressway was built.

There was opposition to the move to Batangas. The national shipping lines were did not like because their top people were already too rooted in Manila (“Are there good schools in Batangas?”). When to think the idea of President Ramos is actually correct. And to consider also that Batangas was nearer to the rest of the country and it is not far from international shipping routes. In reality, a section of the new port was for international shipping and it is underutilized even now.

The idea of Batangas port becoming the new national port died with the end of the term of President Ramos (though some are trying to revive it now). If Batangas became the national port and there was push to encourage relocation of industries there then the congestion of Mega Manila would not have been this worse as felt today. With industrial relocation part of the supply and services sector will move and follow too together with the transportation facilities that support them.

Now to just serve those industries move cargo and container vans to and from Manila ports a fleet of 8,000 to 12,000 for-hire trucks are needed on a 24/7 basis. That does not even include company trucks or the private trucks of their suppliers and dealers. All those trucks, service crews including mechanics plus all the port, shipping and ancillary personnel (like the guards) have their families in Metro Manila and they need to have transportation too. That goes true too for the various kinds of suppliers. The multiplier effect.

Now what they are talking is to spend up to a trillion dollars over time to “solve” the traffic congestion in Metro Manila, where it is most concentrated. That consists mainly of building new infrastructure like skyways, MRTs, subways, airports, etc. But like the skyways and MRTs of the past, I think that will just end in failure as in it won’t have any effect in the long term.


Photo Credit: University of Michigan, John Tewell

With industries concentrated there, people will still migrate to Manila because the opportunities are there, service establishments will multiply, cars will multiply too, goods have to be moved in and out of the port while at the same time road-building will simply not be able to cope with all those increases. What we need perhaps is the relocation of the industrial zone to a place where it can be directly served by ships so that not that much trucks will be needed to move the goods. That new industrial zone could be somewhere in the coasts of Batangas. It should not be in Laguna or Rizal.

In Davao City, there is not that much traffic until recently. One of the reason is there is a lot of ports serving foreign and local vessels and this stretches from Sta. Cruz, Davao del Sur in the south up to Pantukan in Compostela Valley in the north. Davao City and Panabo City alone in a stretch of 32 kilometers has some 12 ports or so serving ships from Manila and abroad and that does not even include the tanker jetties. And to think these Davao ports dock about 25 foreign ships a week and with the local ships in greater number.

We could even move the national capital. Brazil, Malaysia and India was able to do that, to name a few. I am not saying in Cebu because Cebu has no more land. Well, it does not even have a coastal plain. Why, the national capital need not be even on the seacoast! Look at Brasilia, Kuala Lumpur and New Delhi. It need not be situated on the industrial belt too. Better it is not so to forestall congestion.

We need to look into these solution rather than indulge in engineering palliatives (like skyways and MRTs) and restrictions (like “number coding” and truck ban hours). That will not solve the traffic problem in Metro Manila. We have to think outside the box and identify the root causes of the traffic congestion.

If we continue with those palliatives, ang masaya lang niyan ay ang mga contractors at suppliers (only the contractors and suppliers will be happy).


Photo Credit: Carl Mydans, Life Magazine

First and third photo credit: Gorio Belen


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