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The engineering blame game and a need for some re-education

December 2014
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A prominent architect was always posting on his social media account about how much of what’s wrong with our infrastructure (especially transport-related) are due to engineers. It was a sad commentary particularly because he wasn’t mentioning anything about the involvement and responsibility of architects in the planning and design of infrastructure. For most projects that fall under the category of ‘planned development’ including mixed use developments like the Eastwoods, BGCs, Nuvalis, MOAs, and other similar projects are planned and designed mainly by a team of architects. Highways and streets are part of these projects and often, engineers are given the task of detailing and in certain cases, analyzing and ending up with the responsibility to justify designs provided to them. So for those types of projects funded or led by the private sector, its probably the architects who have much say in the plans and designs and who should be scrutinized for their shortcomings in as far as sustainable or “green” criteria are involved.

It is a whole different story, however, for public roads, especially those that are classified as national roads. The reality is that many DPWH engineers need to re-tool, learn and practice principles of sustainable infrastructure design. This includes incorporating green or environment-friendly design principles, which includes consideration of the landscape. We met some DPWH engineers in one seminar before on sustainable transport who thought environmentally sustainable transport (EST) was simply environmental impact assessment (EIA) and who proudly claimed they already knew about the topic. I think many engineers and planners in government need to unlearn many things and dissociate their minds from a lot of what they have come to accept as standard, acceptable or correct that are actually sub-par, archaic or flawed. Kapag nakasanayan na at matagal nang ginagawa o ginagamit ay napagkakamalang tama at angkop kahit na sa katotohanan ay hindi.

A good appreciation of history and heritage also appear to be scarce these days whenever the DPWH is involved. Proof of this are the road widening projects in Leyte and Iloilo that now threaten many ancestral houses that are located along the national roads. Many contend that road widening is unnecessary because congestion has not set in along many of the sections that have been widened or are candidates for such projects. It can be seen along many widened roads along Tarlac and Pangasinan, for example, that the problem is not really congestion but poor enforcement of transport and traffic regulations. Such include tricycle operations, roadside parking, and encroachments on the road right of way (RROW).

In most cases its pure and simple analysis that needs to be conducted first. Are roads really congested and requiring additional lanes? The evidence does not seem to support many cases of road widening as data on congestion from the DPWH Atlas itself requires validation on the ground. A recent World Bank study, for example, found that for many national road sections reported as congested in the Atlas, the opposite is true when validated on the ground. Such issues with data that are used as basis for decisions whether sections need to be widened are serious and lead to a waste of funds as well as negative impacts on heritage or historical structures.

The DPWH still needs to do some re-inventing and should actually take the lead in many initiatives. Among these are those pertaining to what are being referred to as “complete streets.” Last week, there was an article in newspapers where the DENR called for pedestrian and bike lanes along roads. The call was not specific to national or local roads but it is something that the DPWH should have already anticipated and working at for roads under it jurisdiction given the outcomes of the International Road Assessment Program (iRAP) project that covered several thousand kilometers of national roads that pointed to the need to improve roads to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists. It is a matter of having progressive or dynamic rather than reactive or static stance at the DPWH and this requires more than just the rudimentary engineering background for the agency to take road planning, design and construction to another level.

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