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Traffic and air quality

Along one of my commuting routes, I couldn’t help but take a photo of what lied ahead as our vehicle was crawling along Marcos Highway in Antipolo. The following photo pretty much captures the relationship between transportation and the environment; the latter in terms of air quality and the former in the form of our congested roads.

Smoggy Metro Manila in the horizon as vehicles are crawl along Marcos Highway towards Masinag Junction

With traffic practically back or even worse than pre-pandemic levels, one cannot help but think about what could have been if government planned and executed during the time of the lockdowns in preparation for the eventual return to workplaces and schools by most people. The peak of the pandemic when total lockdowns were implemented was supposed to provide the opportunity to make the drastic changes required of transportation. You cannot find a better time for a reboot and yet here we are and again struggling with our daily commutes. We can just hope that other cities and municipalities will not go the way of Metro Manila.

The return of carmaggedon and the illusion of low vehicle ownership

Traffic seems to be back to pre-pandemic levels in the Metro Manila and its adjacent provinces. You can experience this along major roads like Commonwealth Avenue, C-5 and yes, EDSA. The number of vehicles on the roads including motorcycles defy what is supposed to be low motor vehicle ownership in Metro Manila (as claimed by DOTr and JICA in the MUCEP report and echoed by groups who cite the report as if it is flawless).

Intense traffic congestion along C5/Katipunan Avenue. The photo shows traffic on the C5/Katipunan flyover’s northbound side and towards the direction of Ateneo, Miriam and UP Diliman.

The reality appears to be that more households actually own motor vehicles and the inefficiencies and unattractiveness of public transport continues to convince people to take private transportation, including motorcycles, over public transport options. The inconvenient truth according to one senior transport expert is that while cycling has gained ground, the numbers are minuscule compared with those taking either private or public motorized transport.  Yes, carmaggedon is back and looks here to stay for a while longer until the so-called game changers like the MM subway and Line 7 are operational. Will they change the commuting behavior or are these too late in as far as solutions are concerned?

On reducing driving and its inherent risks

Ever since the automobile was invented and eventually mass-produced, there has been an increasing risk associated with motor vehicle traffic. Laws, policies and regulations have also been influenced to favor the car rather than people. And so we now have what is termed as a car-oriented and dependent transportation system that seems so difficult to undo as most people appear to be enamored by the car. Owning a car (or even a motorcycle if you want to extend this idea of individual ownership) remains an aspiration to a lot of people.

Here is a link to the compact version of a comprehensive report by Todd Litman that presents and argues for a new paradigm where driving is considered a risk factor. There are data and a table comparing old and new traffic paradigms to help us understand the situation and what needs to be redefined or re-framed in order to achieve our safety targets or vision.

Litman, T. (October 20, 2022) “Driving as a Risk Factor: A New Paradigm,” Planetizen, https://www.planetizen.com/blogs/119287-driving-risk-factor-new-paradigm?utm_source=newswire&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=news-10202022&mc_cid=beacdc2a04&mc_eid=9ccfe464b1 [Last accessed: 10/28/2022]

To quote from the article:

“Safer vehicles, roads, and driving may reduce crashes but achieve few other goals, and sometimes contradict them. Transportation demand management and smart growth policies increase safety in addition to helping to achieve other planning goals, and so can be considered win-win solutions.

More comprehensive safety analysis tends to support social equity goals. Many conventional safety strategies, such as larger vehicles with more passenger protection, and wider roads with fewer intersections, tend to increase walking and bicycling risks. In contrast, lower traffic speeds, TDM, and Smart Growth tend to improve safety, mobility, and accessibility for people who cannot, should not, or prefer not to drive.”

The key takeaway here should be that people should have the option of not driving at all in order to reduce the risks associated with driving as well as reduce congestion. A more comprehensive

On bicycles vs. self driving cars

You’ve probably seen this graphic, the top part of which is attributed to the Cycling Promotion Fund. The last image is reproduced in the lower part of the image but labeled to emphasize what space is required to transport 48 people on electric cars and autonomous or self-driving cars.

 

It is quite obvious that even if the current fleets of cars are replaced by electric and self-driving models, they will practically be the same problem in terms of road space occupied and the resulting congestion. So perhaps e-cars or autonomous cars are not really the solution we are looking for.

There is this nice article where the author articulates the how bikes (and active transport in general) should be the a more essential part of future transport and society than the automobile:

Collignon, N. (September 9, 2022) “Bikes, not self driving cars, are the technological gateway to urban progress,” Next City, https://nextcity.org/urbanist-news/bikes-not-self-driving-cars-are-the-technological-gateway-to-progress [Last accessed: 9/16/2022]

There are two quotable quotes from the article that I want to highlight here:

“Today the potential benefits from cycling on health, congestion, pollution and CO2 emissions are crystal clear and increasingly quantifiable, but the benefits of self-driving vehicles remain hazy. When ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft promised lower congestion and reduced car ownership, they instead increased congestion and led to a decline in transit ridership.”

and

“The concept of “jaywalking,” for example, is integral to the “car technology” of today. The crime of crossing a street without respecting the dominance of cars was invented by the car industry in the 1920s, who pushed hard to define streets as a place for cars, not people. Our car technology today is also defined by the restriction of movement it imposes on people.

When we begin to see technology through the lens of systems, it becomes clear that genuine technology-led progress will focus on dealing with the accelerating complexity of today’s world, not increasing the complexity of our tools.”

On floods, transport and traffic, again

It’s that time of year again when the heavy rains lead to flash floods along many roads. I took the following photo as we slowly progressed towards Cainta Junction early this week. The Felix Avenue approach was flooded after more than an hour of heavy rains fell upon Cainta and neighboring towns. We learned later that the rains fell on a larger area as EDSA and other major road in Metro Manila also experience flash floods. These cause traffic to slow down if not outright stoppage. Many commuters can get stranded when PUVs are not able to run due to the floods. Deeper waters mean light vehicles including motorcycles and bicycles cannot proceed along certain roads, further exacerbating the traffic situation.

Motorcyclists emerge from their shelters to travel along flooded roads. A common sight when there are downpours are motorcyclists huddling under overpasses, bridges, or whatever shelter may be available to them. Many bring rain gear but opt to just stop and wait it out until the rain stops.

A cyclist braves the floods – while pedestrians will likely stop and wait it out for the rains to stop or for the floods to subside, cyclist might just pedal on. They just have to be more careful as potholes and other dangers may be hidden by the floodwaters.

Cainta Junction has been submerged by so many floods over so many years. Even with the new drainage constructed under and along Ortigas Avenue Extension, Felix Avenue and Bonifacio Avenue, it seems their capacities are not enough to handle the rainwaters. That or perhaps their intakes need to be redesigned to more efficiently take on the heavy rains and the resulting runoff.

 

Suffering and salvation for transport and traffic

I shared the following photo on social media with the label “Kalbaryo at Kaligtasan”:

Cyclist pedaling ahead of cars queueing along the C5 ramp towards BGC

The label or title has double meaning. Conspicuous in the photo is the image of the Crucifixion atop what is a small shrine along Circumferential Road 5 across and facing SM Aura. The image appears to be a reminder or symbol of suffering but with the superimposed image of traffic congestion, alludes to the suffering endured by motorists on a daily basis. The “kaligtasan” or salvation part of the photo is in the form of the cyclist or the bicycle (I really have to explain that, right?) that offers an alternative or even hope for those who seek it. One thing the pandemic has taught us is that active transport in the form of walking or cycling is part of the solution to the transport problems we are experiencing. Public transport, of course, is touted as an ultimate solution but the reforms and infrastructure required are and will take time to implement, and these are already encountering problems leading to further delays or ineffectiveness.

On phasing out cars in cities

I’m sharing another article on reducing car dependence. The article was referred to by the previous series that I shared recently.

Nicholas, K. (April 14, 2022) “12 best ways to get cars out of cities – ranked by new research,” The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/12-best-ways-to-get-cars-out-of-cities-ranked-by-new-research-180642 [Last accessed: 5/20/2022]

Here are a few excerpts from the article:

“Question: what do the following statistics have in common?

The second-largest (and growing) source of climate pollution in Europe.
The leading killer of children in both the US and Europe.
A principal cause of stress-inducing noise pollution and life-shortening air pollution in European cities.
A leading driver of the widening gap between rich and poor urban residents.

Answer: the vehicles on our streets, primarily the not-so-humble passenger car.”

also this:

“The research is clear: to improve health outcomes, meet climate targets and create more liveable cities, reducing car use should be an urgent priority.”

and this:

“To meet the planet’s health and climate goals, city governments need to make the necessary transitions for sustainable mobility by, first, avoiding the need for mobility (see Paris’s 15-minute city); second, shifting remaining mobility needs from cars to active and public transport wherever possible; and finally, improving the cars that remain to be zero-emission.”

You can also listen instead of reading it as it is a narrated article.

Articles on examining the role of the planning profession in both perpetuating and solving traffic congestion

Planetizen recently published a three-part series of articles examining the role of the planning profession in both perpetuating and solving traffic congestion:

Part 1: Brasuell, J. (April 13, 2022) “Planning and the Complicated Causes and Effects of Congestion,” Planetizen, https://www.planetizen.com/features/116834-planning-and-complicated-causes-and-effects-congestion [Last accessed: 5/17/2022]

Part 2: Brasuell, J. (April 20, 2022) “How Planning Fails to Solve Congestion,” Planetizen, https://www.planetizen.com/features/116914-how-planning-fails-solve-congestion%5BLast accessed: 5/17/2022]

Part 3: Brasuell, J. (May 12, 2022) “Planning for Congestion Relief,” Planetizen, https://www.planetizen.com/features/117153-planning-congestion-relief?utm_source=newswire&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=news-05162022&mc_cid=34b0612d40&mc_eid=9ccfe464b1 [Last accessed: 5/17/2022]

I think these articles are a must read especially for students (and not just practitioners or professionals) and is sort of a crash course on transportation engineering and planning. It covers many concepts and learnings from so many decades and touches on certain programs that are most effective in reducing car trips. To quote from the article, the top 12 programs based on case studies in Europe are:

  1. Congestion Pricing (12-33% reduction in city-center cars)
  2. Parking and Traffic Controls (11-19% reduction in city-center cars)
  3. Limited Traffic Zones (10-20% reduction in city-center cars)
  4. Workplace Mobility Services (37% drop in car commuters)
  5. Workplace Parking Charges (8-25% reduction in car commuters)
  6. Workplace Travel Planning (3-18% drop in car use by commuters)
  7. University Travel Planning (7-27% reduction in car use by university commuters)
  8. University Mobility Services (24% drop in students commuting by car)
  9. Car Sharing (12-15 private cars replaced by each shared car)
  10. School Travel Planning (5-11% reduction in car use for school trips)
  11. Personalized Travel Planning (6-12% drop in car use share among residents)
  12. App-Based Incentives (73% – proportion of app users declaring reduced car use)

Are we ready to confront congestion and at the least start discussing these car trip reduction programs? Or are we content with the current discourse, which remains car-centric?

On the number coding options for Metro Manila ca. 2022

The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) recently announced that the agency was studying options for a new number coding scheme under its Unified Vehicular Volume Reduction Program (UVVRP). UVVRP is basically a travel demand management (TDM) program focused on vehicle use restraint. In this case, private vehicles, particularly cars, are the target of volume reduction. Here’s a graphic from their Facebook page:

Coding schemes posted by MMDA on their official social media page

The schemes are not really new as these were also considered before. Are the conditions new at all? Are we assuming things changed due to the pandemic? Or will there just be a return to the old normal in terms of traffic congestion? Here are some past writings on the topic including a 3-part series I wrote back in May 2011:

I think many of the arguments I made in those more than decade old articles hold or apply to the present. Even with the increasing popularity of active transport in the form of bicycle facilities appear to have not made a dent to the transport problems in the metropolis. Many questions abound and I have seen and read comments pointing to the many transport infrastructure projects currently ongoing around Metro Manila as proof that transport and traffic will be improving soon. Transportation in general may indeed improve once the likes of the Metro Manila Subway, Line 7, Line 1 Extension, and the PNR upgrades come online (i.e., all operational) but we have yet to see their impacts outside the models created to determine their potential benefits. Will they be game changers? We do hope so. Will UVVRP be needed in the future when these mass transit lines (including others in the pipeline) are all operational? Perhaps, but a scaled down version of this TDM scheme might still be needed and may suffice if people do shift from their private vehicles to public transportation. The fear is that most people eventually taking the trains would be those who are already commuting using road-based public transport like buses, jeepneys and vans. If so, the mode share of private transport will not be reduced and those traffic jams will remain or even worsen. Maybe we should be discussing road pricing now?

Cities and Automobile Dependence: What Have We Learned?

We end the year with an article from Todd Litman via Planetizen. The topic is something that we really need to ponder on as we or if we are to move towards more sustainable transportation for our cities and municipalities. The experiences during this Covid-19 pandemic should have provided us glimpses of how it could be if we put active and public transport above automobile dependence or car-centricity.

Source: Cities and Automobile Dependence: What Have We Learned?

The main article may be found here (in proper citation for academic/researchers reading this):

Newman, P. and Kenworthy, J. (2021) Gasoline Consumption and Cities Revisited: What Have We Learnt?. Current Urban Studies, 9, 532-553. doi: 10.4236/cus.2021.93032.