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In defense of expressways

May 2021
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Expressways have been on the receiving end of criticisms and bad press lately mainly due to the recent much publicized proposal of a Pasig River Expressway (PAREX) by a private corporation. While I also do not agree with the alignment of this proposed tollway, I take exception to the generalization of expressways as sort of a manifestation of evil.

There seem to a lot of information being posted about and vs. expressways. However, it is important to sort through the hype as well as the misinformation that people tend to post about expressways. Yes, there are expressways being demolished or that have been demolished in other countries. These were probably so because they were ill-planned in the first place as are many other elevated pathways (e.g., poorly planned and designed footbridges), and many of the cities removing them have also developed their transport systems to be more efficient in terms of their people’s mobility. That is the case with Seoul and that certainly is the case for Tokyo. In fact, Tokyo had been moving their surface railways underground for the past decades. And now it seems they will be doing so for certain expressways. Does Tokyo have an efficient transport system? It does and perhaps is among the densest if not the most extensive rail and road system in the world.

It is important to have context to the matter. NLEX and SLEX, for example, were developed as relatively free-flowing, high capacity, high-speed roads that were the alternative to the national highways that directly connected many municipalities and cities. The latter had many intersections or junctions with other national roads as well as carry mainly local traffic including public transport such as tricycles and jeepneys. Expressways are built to be part of the primary arterial network and not as local roads. They are built for access rather than mobility.

From L-R: SLEX, Skyway, and the East Service Road. The Skyway connects the NAIA-X to the left and the NLEX connector section onwards through. SLEX eventually becomes the South Super Highway, which is an urban street.

So, are expressways anti-pedestrian? Basically, no. Though they clearly were not developed or constructed with walking in mind. In fact, expressways are generally built along secured right-of-way and are limited access facilities. In the Philippines, all expressways are tolled; meaning you have to pay to use them. Expressways are built more for long distance travel and not for the shorter ones where walking is most appropriate.

Are they car-centric? Not necessarily so because they provide a less congested alternative for long distance transport of people (buses and vans) and goods (trucks). Would you rather take the Manila North Road (McArthur Highway) to Baguio City and endure over 7 hours travel time? Or would you take the 4-hour trip via 3 expressways (NLEX, SCTEX and TPLEX)?

Are expressways supposed to reduce traffic on local roads? Yes and no. Yes, because they actually do reduce traffic at the local level when you divert long distance travel to expressways. The math tells us there is subtraction there. However, it is a no in terms of local traffic increasing over time, which should not be charged to expressways, as they are a function of other elements coming into play including population increase and economic growth. This includes a contribution to induced traffic or new trips generated by the perception of infrastructure being adequate and having the capacity to cater to more trips that are not necessarily borne by cars.

Do we need more expressways? Probably, but not in the locations or alignments like the one proposed for PAREX. Incidentally, there is another expressway being planned that seems to have escaped the attention of those against PAREX. I am talking about the Laguna Lakeshore Expressway that will be a combination of at-grade (over reclaimed land) and elevated (viaduct over the Laguna de Bai) sections leading to heart of Laguna and towards Quezon province. But that’s another story…


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