The crisis in our streets

Compared to the “tanim-bala” problem at the Naia terminals, which severely dented the record of the P-Noy presidency in its final year, today’s transportation crisis in Metro Manila is far more acute. The one element they have in common is the seeming indifference of those in government, or the absence of any sense of urgency to do anything to alleviate the public distress they have caused. Soon, the inability to intervene in some meaningful way is perceived as callousness, a moral failure that is fatal to any administration.

Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo compounds the transportation problem of the metropolis by appearing to trivialize it. He mocks the pain of the commuting public by suggesting, “If you want to arrive early (at) your destination, then you go there earlier.” As though people were not already doing that — cut short their sleeping hours and leave their homes before sunrise.

Panelo insists there is no transport crisis, only a traffic crisis. He says that so long as commuters can still get their rides and reach their destinations, there is no crisis. One is hard-pressed to understand his way with language. Public transport has never been about the mere availability of rides; it has always been about getting to one’s destination safely and within a reasonable period of time.

People do learn to adjust to changing circumstances. They leave earlier (or later), take alternative routes, car-pool with neighbors and officemates, or use the more expensive point-to-point bus service. Feeling harassed about being late for an important appointment, they resort to tandem riding on the increasingly popular motorbike Angkas service. But these are individual adaptations to a problem that which, clearly, requires a collective and long-term solution.

I would not be so touchy about using the term “crisis” to describe the state of mass transportation in Metro Manila. The word, in its original medical sense, simply denotes the need for careful observation of a condition that has reached a turning point—like a fever that could either subside or get worse. The crisis might often require a decisive intervention to avert a steep and irreversible deterioration in the condition of the patient.

In its other senses, a crisis indicates an acute functional disorder in a system, a breaking point, or a difficult or dangerous situation demanding serious attention. All of these meanings are apt descriptions of Metro Manila’s current transport and traffic situation. They refer specifically to a level of vulnerability or susceptibility that, with the slightest disruption, can paralyze the system.

Many taxi or Grab drivers I have talked to say they prefer to take Edsa at any time of the day or night because kahit papaano umuusad ang trapik (traffic moves even if it is at a crawling pace). This is an assumption that perhaps holds true most of the time, but given Edsa’s vulnerability, traffic could ground to a complete halt without warning when there is a vehicle collision.

Drivers of vehicles that figure in such accidents thoughtlessly stop in the middle of the road and get out of their vehicles to inspect the damage. They argue with each other, oblivious of the traffic buildup around them. They wait until a traffic enforcer shows up, takes pictures and asks for drivers’ licenses, car registration and insurance. Only then do they agree to clear the area. This response pattern is symptomatic of a deeper malaise.

Minor as they are, these accidents are a daily occurrence on Edsa, not least because of the bruising sport known as gitgitan (advancing or edging one’s way by repeated slight movements). Edsa is an arena for the display of Pinoy motorists’ most combative driving habits. From the anonymity provided by their heavily-tinted cars, they weave in and out of slow-moving traffic, leaving behind the hapless losers who are stupid enough to follow the rules and keep to their lanes.

It seems to me that it is through these childish acts that we avenge the cumulative aggravations we experience in our daily commute. The bigger and more muscular the vehicle, the more the driver feels at liberty to grab lane space in a street that looks more and more like a scene from Hobbes’ state of nature. The rest of the timid straight-driving population learn to defend themselves by refusing to concede even an inch, fearful that a small act of courtesy to make way for one driver could open the floodgates to more predatory drivers.

We are definitely in the midst of a crisis here, and it is the result not just of the sheer number of vehicles on limited road space, but as well as of the breakdown in common courtesy among road users. The meanness and aggressiveness that fill the online world are equally on display in our streets, a war of all against all.

It’s strange that the “tanim-bala” episode was seen as the crisis of an effete presidency, whereas the chaos in our streets is perceived as a crisis begging for the willful intervention of a strongman. We should be careful not to think that every crisis demands the unilateral use of emergency powers.

Much of this nihilism, writes the literary critic Michiko Kakutani, mirrors a “growing loss of faith in institutions and a loss of respect for both the rule of law and everyday norms and traditions; a symptom of our loss of civility, our growing inability to have respectful debates with people who have opinions different from our own; and our growing unwillingness to give others the benefit of the doubt, room for an honest mistake, the courtesy of a hearing.” We can’t hope to reverse this civic decline by hiring a despot to discipline us.