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Pedestrianizing Session Road

February 2012
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When visiting Baguio City, one should never fail to go to Session Road whether to have a meal or just to take walk along the street. It is perhaps the city’s most famous street and a landmark itself where it used to be that a lot about Baguio is going about along Session Road. Here you will find shops, restaurants, bars and other establishments. Since my first time to go to Baguio in 1995, I have seen the city become more crowded and Session Road become more congested. There have been proposals for the street to be pedestrianized but I am unaware of any detailed study concerning pedestrianization and its implications on traffic and commerce in the area. This, I think, should now be among the things Baguio City should look into with more urgency and perhaps a study can be initiated among the universities there, together with the local chapters of planning, architecture and civil engineering societies.

The following article is from the Business Mirror entitled Road Revolution, which appeared in the newspaper’s February 4, 2012 issue:

BAGUIO CITY—Architect Joseph Alabanza keeps a long-held dream: to see Session Road pedestrianized.

As early as 1972, when Alabanza, former head of National Economic and Development Authoriy-Cordillera Administrative Region (Neda-CAR) was head of the city planning office, policies then had pointed out strongly that something had to be done about Session Road as it was predicted to soon become polluted and congested, and lose it aesthetic heritage, being at the heart of the city’s central business district.

A scene that is exactly what Session Road has become.

Then there were not too many cars and the population was much lower than the almost 400,000 mark today, and there was a lack of urgency to control the traffic situation in the city.

In more recent years, as lecturer and consultant of the architecture department of the St. Louis University, his class drafted, as their theses, a layout plan for the streets of the city. The central blueprint was that of Session Road pedestrianized.

Some consultations were made, but this was strongly opposed by business establishments around.

The yearly “Session Road in Bloom,” a market event for Panagbenga (meaning a season of blooming in the Igorot Kankanaey dialect) on Session Road, which stayed closed for a week, was used as a vehicle to test the plan. But it proved to be too hectic and the pedestrian is too heavy to be desirable for a longer period of time.

Even if it seemed that Alabanza’s dream was far from becoming a reality, the glimmer of hope remains as he continuously lamented the continuing deterioration of Session Road—the heavy pollution, the unkempt façades, the heavy traffic, crimes, the insane cat-and-dog chase of the police with sidewalk vendors. Life in the heart of the city was in shambles, but business thrived as usual.

Road Revo

THEN a group of environmental advocates heard of this dream. Something that was a success in Cebu. They came to tell the people of Baguio about their winning game plan in a forum on January 27.

It is called Road Revo—a revolution to change the way people think about the way they transport themselves.

Road Revo is a concept developed by lawyer and environmental activist, Antonio Oposa, a 2009 Ramon Magsaysay awardee in environment.

“We cannot have a Hollywood kind of transportation system, one of individual and expensive mobility. They have eight-lane highways and their roads are like moving parking lots,” he said.

Our insistence at individual mobility has resulted in serious collective mobility, he said.

“Kanya-kanyang galaw kaya lahat di makagalaw [Everybody wants his own way to move that’s why all could not move],” he said, referring to the traffic congestion that has also resulted in serious air and noise pollution.

The road is supposed to be for everyone, that is why Road Revo is for making road use fair. This would mean a turn-around in priorities.

“There’s a need to change mindsets. Road use and policies must have a bias for people, not for cars,” he said.

A World Bank study shows that only 300 out of a thousand own a car in the country. Oposa pointed out that only 3 percent own cars, and they occupy 97 percent of the road, while showing an image of a street jammed with cars in chaos, while people walked on narrow sidewalks.

He said Executive Order 774 specifically cites the new paradigm that the movement of men and cars must follow the principle that “those who have less in wheels must have more in roads,” and that the system must favor nonmotorized transportation and collective transportation.

EO 774 also ordered the Department of Transportation and Communications and the Department of Public Works and Highways to follow the same principle in transforming the road system.

Oposa said that ideally a good public transport system provides 30 percent for all-weather walkways, 30 percent for bicycle lanes, and 30 percent for a greenbelt and what remains would be for cars.

EO 774 also directs all public open spaces along sidewalks and roads no longer needed to be devoted to urban agriculture, something that has been done in Cebu.

“If we could do it in Cebu, so can you,” Oposa said.

Alabanza said that the city has lost its sense of space, referring to walking and open spaces.

“People used to have a sense of belonging here. Now we feel like strangers in our own place,” he said.

Session Road closed: Music, dining on road, sidewalks

AS an experiment, one side of Session Road was closed from 3 p.m. to midnight the day Oposa and his group of environmental activists were in the city on January 27.

And it did happen. Families dined on tables set on the road and sidewalks. Young people were seen just hanging out with one another. Lovers strolled leisurely. Musicians and poets drew a crowd as they beat on their percussions and read poems. Passersby even stopped to do a few dance steps.

For those few hours, the spirit of community was palpable, one of the aims for pedestrianizing Session Road.

Alabanza said that minimizing pollution was one of the first objectives of the proposed road closure as Session Road has become but a passageway for cars and people between the market and the SM Mall on opposite ends. The safety of pedestrians is also compromised as the sidewalks have become too narrow for the crowd who had to walk on parts of the road.

Oposa showed some examples of the ingenious Filipinos’ inventions of environment-friendly modes of transportation. There is the blueprint for a rail bus. There is already a carousel where people pedal to make it run. There is the idea of giving discounts to volunteers who pedal trolleys on train rails. A prototype for a wind-powered bamboo train is on the works, which can run both with an electric motor or the option for pedaling.

“We are a unique place and we cannot but just copy the transportation systems and models of other places,” Alabanza said. The transportation crisis can give rise to opportunities, something that will serve the city well, he said.

Change attitudes

OPOSA pointed out that the world is now experiencing so much disasters because of climate change and it becomes everybody’s responsibility to change attitudes about transportation systems, as this is the sector that emits one of the highest volume of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

He reminded that people need to think out of the box and to get out from the inertia of collective insanity, of doing the same thing because everybody else is doing it, no matter how senseless it has become. To illustrate, he said that the bicycle runs on fat and saves you money, while the car runs on money and makes you fat. But all the cars suffering the cost of insurance, stress and productivity lost to traffic jams, loss of a healthier lifestyle indicate that habits are hard to break.

Road Revo will help decrease man’s dependence on oil, restore sense of community, reduce criminality as this allows visibility of one another and, most of all, give people a sense of belonging and owning the space which is a secret tip to keeping it clean.

Oposa is on a nationwide campaign to promote Road Revo. Pasig City opened a road for a day on July 8 last year and Ongpin Street in Binondo became a festival road for the Chinese New Year celebration. After Baguio, Oposa will do the rounds in Subic, Dumaguete, Marikina, Davao and Puerto Princesa.

Alabanza’s dream may not even happen in his lifetime, but the wisdom of keeping the air clean, of enlivening the spirit of community and giving importance to people rather than cars has been sown in the few hours of not closing Session Road but opening it for people.

Perhaps pedestrianization will be more beneficial to the stakeholders of Session Road. It would not be an easy task to convince people that a car-free session road will be the way to go. There probably would also be other options, even a middle ground between status quo and pedestrianization. But doing nothing and letting Session deteriorate further is surely unacceptable to most people.


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