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Ningas Cogon

February 2011
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After focusing on one negative trait, I didn’t expect to be writing immediately about another. Again, I do this in the context of transport and traffic, and to drive home the point that we really need to go back to the basics in as far as solving transport and traffic problems in this country is concerned. Ningas cogon refers to how a type of grass burns when set on fire. There is initially an intense burning of the grass but after a short time it dies out. This behavior of the burning is often alluded to when describing efforts that are not sustained and especially those that showed enthusiasm (and therefore promise) only at the start. It is also associated with an initial show of interest that eventually and shortly wanes for one reason or another.

Only two weeks back I was writing about Commonwealth Avenue and how it was called a killer highway. At the time, I was hopeful that the renewed effort to impose discipline among motorists and especially public utility vehicle drivers and pedestrians would result in a significant improvement of safety along the highway. The initial results seemed to be encouraging, with a dramatic decrease in the number of road crashes and deaths in the first few days. I even had several opportunities to observe the efforts of enforcers, the combination of MMDA, PNP and QC personnel, to keep PUVs along their designated lanes and remind motorists and pedestrians to follow rules and regulations. I was pleasantly surprised, for example, to see vehicles “slow down” to 60 kph instead of the expressway speeds they usually attain along Commonwealth. At the Philcoa area near Commonwealth’s junction with the Elliptical Road, PUVs were being guided through the loading and unloading area and violators were quickly apprehended by MMDA and PNP personnel closely watching the traffic.

Meanwhile, I read a few newspaper columns giving mixed reviews about the program. One column in particular from a major daily mentioned that the effort lasted only a few days and that traffic reverted back to pre-discipline zone times. My reaction was one of disappointment, not for the government but for the columnist whom I thought came up with a premature conclusion, given that changing motorist and pedestrian behavior and attitudes along a major thoroughfare would take time. I did mention though in my previous post that enforcement should be firm and sustained in order for it to be successful and enduring. Also, I was already wary of the tendency for such programs to go the way of others before it – ningas cogon.

Last Sunday, I drove along Commonwealth on my way to visit my in-laws in Novaliches. I decided to do an experiment using a simple method that I learned when I was a student at University and which I also teach my students in undergrad civil engineering. In what is called a floating car technique, I attempted to travel according to the speed limit of 60 kph. I also tried my best to keep my lane, only changing when it was necessary. I also tried to count how many vehicles would pass me, indicating how many traveling my way were faster than me and therefore over-speeding.

The first thing I noticed when I entered Commonwealth from University Avenue was that buses and cars were again zipping by me and so I didn’t bother anymore to count those passing me. I did maintain my speed so I could have a reference as to how fast the other vehicles were relative to mine. Approaching the Fairview Market area, I also observed that people were crossing almost anywhere and that some barriers have been moved to allow jaywalkers to cross the median. Meanwhile, the pedestrian overpasses were all crowded and I could see the entire length also occupied by vendors. Not an enforcer was around to bring order in what was a chaotic marketplace scene – along a major highway.

I repeated the experiment in the afternoon when I drove from my in-laws home to my parents’ home. Taking the opposite direction, Commonwealth was even more congested when I approached the Fairview Market area. Buses, jeepneys and tricycles practically took up 3 lanes, stalls, hawkers and pedestrians took up 2 lanes and there was only 1 left for all other vehicles to pass through. No one among those who clogged the highway seemed to care and I again saw no enforcers to mahage traffic. If there were, I’m sure they were somewhere else and definitely not doing their jobs.

It is both disappointing and frustrating that the traffic discipline program along Commonwealth went the way of ningas cogon. In fact, the MMDA seemed to have celebrated what they thought was success prematurely, even stating that they were to apply similar strategies to other major roads in the Metro. By the looks of the outcomes along Commonwealth, such efforts along other roads will eventually go the way of ningas cogon. Such results send the wrong message to motorists and pedestrians and reinforce the perception that the authorities don’t really mean business and that such programs are just for show. So far, it seems that this perception will continue to pervade along Metro roads unless the MMDA, the PNP and the respective local government units get their acts together. Again, it shows that going back to the basics remain the main challenge and overcoming the ningas cogon tendency the main obstacle for our authorities.


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