Caught in a jam

Caught in a jam

- in Opinion
@Jon Joaquin

Malacañang is only about 10 kilometers from Megamall in Mandaluyong City, but last Friday afternoon I spent almost three hours on the road as my Grab ride inched its way through dense Metro Manila traffic. It was my fault because I left the Malacañang Museum at 4 p.m., way too close to rush hour, but in my mind I was expecting to be stuck only for a maximum of an hour-and-a-half. As we approached Megamall, however, we came to a small side street where the cars were

Inabutan tayo ng Friday rush our (The Friday rush hour caught up with us),” Jun the driver said. After staying still for almost an hour a traffic aide finally came to us and told us about a “secret passage” that would lead us out of the mess: a public transport terminal that bridged our street to EDSA. “But there’s a sign there that says private vehicles are not allowed,” Jun protested. “Just give the guard five pesos and he’ll let you through,” the traffic aide replied. And so it was that we were able to break through the traffic jam by breaking a city rule.

Traffic is always a source of stress to me whenever I go to Manila. I was born and raised in Malabon but I have not lived there since 1990 when I moved to Davao City. As such I have kind of lost the ability to move around, especially since the metropolis has been changing constantly over the past 27 years. When I left, for example, the only transportation running overhead was the LRT (Light Rail Transit). Flyovers and the MRT weren’t even a gleam in the eyes of residents. Now the metro seems to be on three or four levels, and it gets confusing for someone like me who has always seen it as flat.

Add to this the fact that public transport in Manila is a dismal mess. There are the registered jeepneys and buses plying the roads along with their so-called “colorum” counterparts (so-called after the colorum cult in the early 1900s which the American colonizers outlawed; the cult was named after the Latin phrase “in saecula saeculorum” which is invoked several times in the Latin mass). The LRT and MRT have helped a little, but the long lines during rush hour as well as the crushing crowds inside the trains are major obstacles for the fainthearted. The trains are also prone to breakdowns, forcing passengers to actually walk on the railways.

As for taxicabs, I think there’s a special place in hell for them because of the trouble they cause on the public. In Manila, cabbies regularly refuse passengers based on a) destination, b) traffic condition, c) time of day, and d) literally any excuse they can think of. If they do take you in, they overcharge you. It’s also not unheard of for drivers to force passengers out of their cabs if the latter refuse to give in to demands that suddenly get made en route to the destination.

All these — plus an almost infinite number of other factors like the rising number of private cars on the road, corruption among traffic enforcers, and pedestrian discipline (or the lack of it) — result in the chaos that rules Metro Manila roads. During the campaign last year, then-candidate Rodrigo Duterte had promised to solve the traffic problem and said he would ask Congress for emergency powers to do it. So far, we are all still waiting…

Regarding taxicabs, technology has since come to the rescue of weary travelers with services like Uber and its Asian counterpart, Grab. These two have been a lifesaver for me, giving me an efficient and safe way to move around. I used to stress over how to go from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) to wherever I need to be because I did not want to take the taxi; now I simply whip out my smartphone and book an Uber or Grab car.

Unfortunately, Uber and Grab have been facing some problems with government, specifically on the issue of franchise and accreditation. It’s true that the two services have been technically skirting government regulation (public utility vehicles in the country need to have individual franchises, something most Uber and Grab drivers don’t have), but I think this is a case in which government must evolve to fit current reality. Instead of shutting down the services, government must find a way to accredit them. It did so in the past with the FX, a hybrid taxi and jeepney service that started operating without franchise a few decades ago. Government tried to clamp down on them but finally relented when passengers pointed out that the FX vehicles provided better and cheaper service than taxis and jeepneys. The same thing could be done for Uber and Grab.

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