Caught (up) in traffic

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Monthly Archives: January 2011

Discipline along a killer highway

Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City was given a tag as a killer highway due to the frequent occurrence of road crashes along the road, many of them resulting in fatalities. Only last December, a retired judge was about to cross the highway on his vehicle, his wife (a retired teacher from a prestigious science high school) with him as they were heading to church. It was very early in the morning since they were going to the Simbang Gabi or night mass – a tradition in the Philippines during the Advent Season leading up to Christmas Day. Despite probably signalling and their being cautious enough, their vehicle was hit by a speeding bus. The driver of the bus was to claim later that he used his lights and horns to warn the judge against crossing. There was no mention if the bus driver attempted to slow down, the safest thing to do when driving at night and knowing that there are many crossings along the road he is traversing. In fact, this should be the first thing on the mind of anyone aware and conscious about safe driving.

There are many incidents like the one above and not just along Commonwealth or other Metro Manila road. Road crashes occur along many of our national and local roads everyday and the casualties just pile up, and many are often just treated as statistics especially when nothing is done to address the issue. Such road crashes occur due to many factors that are usually categorized into human, vehicle or environment-related. Most often, as findings in the Philippines indicate, it is the human factor that results in a road crash.

Driver error, poor maintenance of vehicles, and ill-designed roads can all be traced to human shortcomings. Environmental factors are also ultimately rooted on the human element. Speeding is one thing and aggressive driving is probably another but altogether general driver behavior along Philippine roads are clearly a manifestation of a lack of discipline and not necessarily the lack of skill, although the latter is also a significant factor if one is to focus on public transport and trucks.

There are few exceptions and it seems “few” is a relative term often leading to the example of Subic. At Subic, we always wonder how and why drivers seem to be disciplined. Some say it is because of the fines or penalties for traffic violations. Others say it is psychological and a legacy of the base being previously under the US military. I would say it is more of the traffic rules and regulations being enforced firmly and fairly in the free port area. I would add that motorists and pedestrians have embedded this in their consciousness such that there is something like an invisible switch turning on when they drive in Subic and turning off once they are out of the free port.

For a corridor like Commonwealth, perhaps the best example to emulate would be the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX). Along that highway, its operators the Tollways Management Corporation (TMC) have established a strict regimen of enforcement and have applied state of the art tools for both monitoring and apprehension. These tools include high speed cameras equipped with speed radars that detect speeds and capture on photo cases of overspeeding. Photos are used as evidence upon the apprehension of the guilty party at the exit of the expressway.

The current campaign along Commonwealth is premised on the strict enforcement of a 60 kph speed limit along the arterial and the designation of PUV lanes (e.g., yellow lanes) along the length of the corridor. The initiative would be manpower intensive and features novel tools such as the use of placards,  loudspeakers and public relations in order to encourage motorists and pedestrians to follow traffic rules and regulations. The results as of today look promising and there has been a significant reduction in speeds and general compliance for PUVs serving the corridor. The numbers might be misleading if we attempt to conclude about the success of the program now. Perhaps the more reliable statistics would come out after the campaign has been implemented and the effort sustained over a month’s time. Nevertheless, it gives us a nice feeling to see less speeding and less weaving among vehicles that were once observed as though they were driven along a race track. It would be nice to once and for all kill the “killer highway” tag and make Commonwealth an example of how traffic management should be implemented. We are always searching for examples of good if not best practices that can be replicated elsewhere. If we succeed in the “Battle of Commonwealth” then perhaps we could eventually win the “War Against Irresponsible Driving and Jaywalking.”


I drove to and from the airport early this morning and couldn’t help but notice that there are just too many over-speeding vehicles even considering that it was 2AM/3AM. It is quite normal for motorists to take advantage of the light traffic and drive their vehicles fast. In traffic flow theory, this is termed as free flow, when drivers have the freedom to select speeds (free flow speed) since there are significantly less vehicles on the road. This does not necessarily mean that drivers may opt to increase speed to approximate an aircraft’s take off run. It is not necessary and above all, it is irresponsible.

Should the person be driving under the influence (probably going home from a session with friends), then the combination of speed and heightened blood alcohol level would highly likely lead in a crash. Most often these are fatal road crashes, the ones we usually see in the morning news where authorities and viewers can only shake their heads and come to the conclusion that maybe the driver was speeding and/or the driver had a drink too many. The saddest part is when these drivers involve others who were driving safely but where involved anyway due to the behavior of the guilty party. These result in the unnecessary loss of lives, injuries and damage to property.

There is no legal limit for blood alcohol content (BAC) in the Philippines. But this is not to say that we do not have references from countries that do have one. In the US that limit is 0.08 while in Japan it is practically zero. This simply means that if a police officer or traffic enforcer apprehends you with a suspicion that you are driving under the influence (DUI), you are required to take a breathalyser test to determine if indeed you are intoxicated. They are quite strict in these countries who have a lot of experiences of road crashes involving drunk drivers. And proof of this are news of celebrities, athletes and other well-known people getting apprehended and punished for such irresponsible behavior. That is why in other countries, there are designated drivers who are not supposed to drink or, especially in cases where public transport is available, people choose not to drive at all.

Then there are those who have the propensity to speed up but are actually too tired or too sleepy to drive safely. I was able to catch an episode of Myth Busters where they were able to establish that drowsiness or being sleepy can be equally or even more dangerous than being intoxicated. When one falls asleep, even what seemed to be a short wink, can lead to tragedy. And we have often heard of stories where the survivors of a crash claim that the driver was nakatulog (fell asleep) .

Still, most of the drivers of the vehicle I observed this early morning seem to be neither sleepy, intoxicated or, God forbid, bangag (under the influence of drugs). Many seem to be the aggressive types, which more often are the reckless types, too. Call it stereotyping and over-generalizing but from what I saw this morning, many of the speedsters happen to be on modified vehicles and many of them had the tell-tale markings of a wannabe race car driver based on the decals or stickers and the vehicle designs.”Kulang na lang pakpak at lilipad na.” (The only thing lacking are wings and the vehicle will be taking off.) What is worrisome is that they do not only speed but also tend to change lanes in tight situations where other vehicles have formed platoons (e.g., slow-moving trucks or cars that have matched speeds). This creates situations where the slightest mistake may result in a road crash.

In the absence of high speed cameras like the ones installed along the expressways to take photos of over-speeding vehicles as proof when authorities apprehend them at the exits, there are supposed to be police officers or traffic enforcers on mobile units posted along major highways to serve as deterrents to over-speeding and other traffic violations at this time of day. I did see some of them in their vehicles along Circumferential Road 5 (C5) but they seem to be either disinterested or, believe it or not, sleeping! The latter I saw for my own eyes as I was pulling out of a gas station where I took a toilet break just after seeing another one of those wannabe race cars zip by. It was an MMDA vehicle (a pick-up) with what I counted as 4 occupants who appeared to be sleeping considering that their seats were reclined. I just hope I was wrong and that they were only resting after really doing their jobs. To be fair, they might be really tired after making rounds and just let the speedster go by since they couldn’t probably catch up to the vehicle given the speeds. But then again, it is when they take time off when tragedy usually occurs and it is expected of our officials to be on their toes and to be wide awake to respond to such situations in order to prevent crashes from happening in the first place.

Monorail or AGT?

I’ve been asked a lot about the proposal to have a monorail or an AGT for the University of the Philippines Diliman campus. A monorail is a rail system much like what we have with the difference mainly that it runs on a single rail. Monorails may be of the straddle type where the vehicle is in the conventional position above the rail or it can be the suspended type where the vehicle is essentially hanging from the rail structure. Capacities vary since many monorail systems are considered light rail while there are few that significant capacity to be categorized above light rail but still below conventional mass transit heavy rail systems. By the nature of monorails, these are all elevated systems. Among the examples of monorails I’ve used myself are the Tokyo Monorail (straddle) and the Chiba Monorail (suspended).

AGT stands for automated guideway transit and designs vary with some operating along railway tracks and others running along guideways using pneumatic tires that are not so different from buses only that these are trains. AGTs are also driver-less hence the “automated” tag. Unlike the monorail, it is possible to have AGTs constructed at ground level. Many guideways are essentially parallel strips of pavement where the wheels would traverse and there are devices such as sensors built in to the vehicle that allows it to steer with respect to a rail or wall constructed along both sides of the guideway. In certain cases, the guideway cross section is L- or U-shaped for this purpose. I rode on two such systems – the Tokyo New Transit System or Yurikamome (translated as Sea Gull) and the Yokohama Seaside Line. An attraction for these systems because they are driver-less is that passengers can be seated at the front of the train thereby availing a view that only drivers used to have. It is actually popular for first-time passengers as well as children.

There are many other examples of such monorail and AGT systems in other cities around the world. However, there are none yet in the Philippines. Perhaps the closest we got to having a monorail was the proposal for one to be constructed in Makati City back in the 1990’s. It was envisioned that the system would serve the CBD and connect buildings along the alignment to the EDSA MRT. It would be a loop system to serve the many offices and commercial establishments in the CBD. The proposal, however, fizzled out and was never constructed although the idea has been revived time and again in relation to other plans for public transport in that city.

A newer proposal is a monorail system for Bonifacio Global City. This system, however, will not be serving the entire development but only the area in its northern part including what is called the Bonifacio Triangle that is adjacent to Kalayaan Avenue. This is partly due to the live proposal and current efforts to put up a bus rapid transit (BRT) service between the Makati CBD and Bonifacio and serving the core areas including developments adjacent to C-5 (e.g., Market! Market! and Serendra). There is no timetable yet for this proposal and there are no detailed information available so far for public consumption although it has been mentioned to possibly utilize Japanese technology.

Now, there is also a proposal for either a monorail or an AGT for the UP Diliman campus. It was mentioned already in several news articles in media and is apparently the idea of the head of the science and technology agency of the country. Among the things mentioned is that the system will be replacing the jeepneys that currently provide transport services to both UP and non-UP commuters. The campus, after all, is located strategically between two major thoroughfares – Commonwealth Avenue and Katipunan Avenue (Circumferential Road 5).

While I advocate modern transport systems and would like to have these realized in our country, I have apprehensions with regards to having a monorail or AGT inside the campus. Among these apprehensions concern the appropriateness of such a system for UP considering that it is an academic institution that, despite the existing land use, will not be generating much traffic. What would be increasing here is the amount of through traffic, particularly those trips using public transport due to the nature of the location of UP. Thus, it is UP’s call whether as a policy the university will allow such through traffic in the future. This would send a mixed signal to the public considering that the existing sticker system and gate entry/exit policy for private transport seeks to minimize through traffic in the campus.

Jeepneys plying routes inside the campus are actually tolerated by the university due to the demand for public transport among its constituents, which includes students, staff and faculty. Two particular routes, the Ikot and Toki, travel only within the campus, ferrying their passengers to and from the different academic units (e.g., Palma Hall to the College of Science complex) and other places of interest such as the Shopping Center and the dormitories. In fact, there used to be no C.P. Garcia Street that physically connects Commonwealth and Katipunan and bypasses the campus core. And through the years, development along C.P. Garcia has progressed to a point that there is now a perceived demand for public transport along this corridor. So perhaps a proposed monorail or AGT should be along this corridor and not inside the campus itself where

On the engineering side, I have no doubt that the expertise for the development, construction, and operations and maintenance of such a system is available. Yet, the biggest and usually the most important question is who will finance the system? Will the revenues be enough to pay for the initial outlay and be able to sustain the system? Or will the government fund a demonstration line (2 kilometers as some articles mention) to provide proof of concept but will actually fall short of connecting Commonwealth and C5 – a prerequisite for its success? Where will the money be sourced from? Government coffers? That would mean that it is the taxpayers who would be paying for the system and from the initial looks of it, it certainly will not be a good investment given the limitations and its justification as a proof of concept rather than a viable mode of transport.

Thus, a lot of caution should be taken if such a project is to be pushed for UP. A jeepney-sized vehicle may still be the more appropriate form of transport though buses service may also be explored. The arguments against these conventional vehicles usually pertain to driver behavior and the common complaint against air and noise pollution, particularly the former where poorly maintained or non-compliant vehicles belch smoke that leads to the deterioration of the environment. These issues, however, may already be addressed by a combination of governance and technology. The University  reserves its right to bar entry of polluting and recklessly driven vehicles and it has shown it can firmly enforce traffic rules and regulations inside the campus. Then there are already initiatives and options to “clean up” the jeepney and introduce features to make it a safe ride for commuters. The bottom line still is whether UP would decide for or against through traffic now and for the future.

Aesthetics? That’s another story and would surely require another set of expertise to discuss.

Traffic discipline and technology

In a recent post entitled Replicating success, I stated that the challenge for the government is to replicate the success of the campaign against wangwang or the illegal use of sirens. I indicate a short list of four items that I wished would be part of a Top Ten list of road traffic rules violated by motorists and pedestrians. Perhaps the list should include swerving and aggressive lane changing. Maybe even add to that tailgating and beating both green and red lights at the intersections.

The point is that there are just so many rules and regulations that are ignored by motorists and pedestrians who are used to lax traffic enforcement with the exception of perhaps only a few places in this country. These few places include Subic and for a time, Bonifacio Global City. In 2007, UP Diliman and its partners from the private sector led by the Automobile Association Philippines (AAP) and Toyota established a model traffic safety zone in the campus, focusing on the Academic Oval. The initiative included the introduction of traffic schemes such as a one-way counter-clockwise circulation for the oval, and the installation of standard traffic signs and road markings. Training was also provided to the university police force as well as to the traffic enforcers deployed around the oval.

Even without traffic tickets to issue to violators, the university was successful to some degree in enforcing traffic rules and regulations, particularly apprehending and firmly reminding motorists about traffic rules inside the campus. Constituents were also made aware of the issues pertaining to road safety and many stakeholders like students and staff contributed with some even stopping counterflowing vehicles and turning them back despite resistance and even arrogance and profanity in some cases. In most cases, motorists guilty of violating traffic rules and regulations were not even constituents of the university though some claimed to be alumni or relatives of students. These included drivers of vehicles with red plates (indicating they were government vehicles) and young motorists who seem to fit what some people would like to define as stereotypes of people likely to ignore rules. However, it took UP Diliman 3 years to achieve this level of discipline in its roads and there are still many complaints, primarily directed at jeepney drivers who seem to be quite hardheaded when it came to changing their driving behaviors (and habits). Subic was not an overnight success either and yet motorists seem to change when they enter the former military base’s gates and drive along its streets.

The question now is whether wangwang is just a fluke, a lucky punch in boxing parlance. Our enforcement agencies are often accused of being ningas cogon, a common practice where enthusiasm and activity is present only at the start but rapidly wanes as time passes by, much like how grass burns strongly at first but fizzles out later. Surely, this is not a case of sustainable traffic management.

The challenge, therefore, is still on sustainability but also and always building capacity to be firm and consistent with enforcing traffic rules and regulations. Such includes the use of emerging technologies that enable non-contact apprehension (and the MMDA is right on in this aspect) but should also lead to more aggressive campaigns to ensure public awareness and comprehension that they are being monitored. But more than this, it should be emphasized that those monitoring should be competent and fair in their observations such that non-contact apprehension will succeed and will not be subject to ridicule by a knowledgeable public who are already wary of abuses by government. It is very important that at this stage when IT is being introduced to enhance traffic management including public transport and logistics, that technology is not misconstrued as invasive and a tool for corruption. That way, we can move forward and perhaps, in the near future, enable intelligent transport systems to enhance traffic and safety in our roads.