The Frankenstein of Metro Manila traffic

We have all experienced being stuck in “monstrous” traffic jams. Used in this context, the adjective merely refers to the largeness of the problem. But the original references of the word “monster” may, in fact, be more appropriate to the kind of complex vehicular traffic that huge metropolitan centers like Metro Manila generate and confront today.

The Latin word “monstrum” meant a “warning of misfortune” or an “evil omen.”  From this usage came the English word “monster,” meaning a “misshapen or horrifying creature.”  The fictional character of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster probably best captures all the connotations that this word is heir to—creature, demon, specter, ominous, hideous, ugly.  In Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, the monster had no name.  But, when he spoke to his creator, the scientist Victor Frankenstein, he would sometimes refer to himself as “the Adam of your labors.”

What more apt description of modern-day traffic can one think of? The “Adam” of our labors—a phenomenon entirely made by us to serve our purposes—has long surpassed our ability to control it. Disavowed and abandoned by its creator, the creature acquires a will of its own, adjusting to the ways of humans but never quite comprehending their intolerance.

It is this growing autonomy of road traffic, its self-production as a system—in a word, its autopoiesis—that we need urgently to understand if we are not to be immobilized by the very instruments we created to enhance our mobility.

Firstly, I think we have to recognize that this creature—the complex traffic problem we confront—did not sprout overnight. Neither was it generated by a single source. It is rather the outcome of cumulative actions coming from many directions, consisting of uncoordinated individual responses to perceived conditions, an assortment of micro adjustments invented by road users who need to get from one point to another.

In well-organized societies, like Singapore, these situations are anticipated, studied, and planned for long before they become a full-blown reality. Extrapolations are made from the first visible perturbations, and solutions are crafted years before the problem is felt and recognized by the average citizen. The lead time that is thereby gained allows for coordinated responses and the luxury of experimentation. In contrast, in more free-wheeling societies like ours, the tendency is to be reactive. There is no time for thoughtful technocratic planning. But, on the bright side, because of their urgency, such problems tend to be more resonant across various sectors of society, thus inviting broader participation.

Secondly, the basic reality of everyday road traffic is that it crosses space willfully and, in the long term, cannot be compelled to abide by city limits established by municipal ordinances. A measure adopted by one local jurisdiction is bound to create new conditions and new problems for the adjacent local governments. One good example is the City of Manila’s decision to unclog its streets of traffic by restricting the movement of cargo trucks headed for and leaving its ports to a few hours of the day and confining these vehicles to a designated lane.

At once, the restrictions produced consequences that have spilled far beyond the borders of the city. Trucks and container vans quickly piled up inside the limited spaces of Manila’s ports. The city government hoped that shippers would eventually see the long-term advantage of using the alternative ports in Batangas and Subic. Whether they will is far from certain. But, in any case, the pain created by this local measure would have been greatly eased if the problem had been confronted at the level of the metropolis, if not of the nation.

Thirdly, I believe we would be grossly underestimating the complexity of the traffic problem if we thought this was merely the result of one stubborn mayor’s initiative. If we can step back for a moment from our present troubles, we may notice that there are now more trucks, big and small, and more buses and private vehicles on Metro Manila’s roads, than we have ever known. But, the streets are not multiplying fast enough to keep up with the growing volume of motor vehicles. There are more cars and motorcycles competing for space on city streets than at any other time in our country’s history.

These are palpable signs of a growing economy. More people are going out shopping. Malls have to be restocked every hour of the day. Cargo trucks carrying construction materials—e.g., gravel and sand from the lahar quarries of Pampanga—have to traverse the internal roads of the city to supply the needs of an incipient building boom in the metropolis. The hundreds of thousands of young people who sustain the business process outsourcing industry must commute daily from their homes to their work stations.  Many rely on the Metro Rail Transit to manage their commuting time. The resulting increase in passenger volume is bound to strain the limited carrying capacity of this mode of mass transport. These issues are exploding at the same time because they are all connected.

As one might expect, the air is filled today with a rhetoric of anxiety and blame-tossing over the impending demise of a metropolis that is supposed to be near choking point. Metro Manila is not dying. But, it is likely to shrink, many of its functions gradually taken over by the provinces surrounding it. Like the monster who pleaded with Dr. Frankenstein to make for him a bride so as to ease his loneliness, Metro Manila’s traffic, ultimately, can only be relieved by the creation of other metropolitan centers.

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