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In defense of expressways

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…

On congested tollways during the pandemic

I finally was able to go on a long road trip yesterday as friends invited us to go on an excursion to Quezon to a prominent pottery artist’s place in the town of Tiaong. I first thought we would be going via the backdoor of Rizal since we were already in Antipolo but it turned out that it would be faster via the tollways route. Both Google and Waze recommend our route via C-6, SLEX and STAR to get to our destination. It could have been longer via the Manila East Road but which is a more scenic route. While it took us only 2.5 hours to get to our destination, it took an additional hour on the way back. Part of it was the congestion along the national highway between Tiaong and Sto. Tomas, Batangas but I was also a bit surprised about the congestion along SLEX on the way back (photo below) but saw that this was mainly due to vehicles filing towards the Skyway ramp in Alabang.

There was the expected congestion at the toll plazas as vehicles still need to slow down. It is not like the seamless, structure-less system in Singapore where their sensors can detect vehicles running at high speeds. The toll barriers are still there and the channels for one are relatively narrow. Then, there are travelers that seem hard in understanding that there are specific booths for cash payments. Also, there were occasions when the barriers did not lift immediately for one reason or another. That tends to slow down the processing of queued vehicles – a problem that my undergraduate students could probably take on after their lessons in queuing theory.

On the RFID fiasco

Early December 2020, Metro Pacific Corporation suddenly had to deal with jam-packed toll plazas and queues that affected roads connecting to the North Luzon Expressways. Fast-forward and Valenzuela City apparently had enough of it and revoked the tollway corporation’s business permit. Later, matters were resolved with the tollways reverting to mixed toll collection to manage the queues at the toll plazas.

Prior to this, tollways corporation scrambled to meet the deadline set and re-set by the Department of Transportation (DOTr) through the Toll Regulatory Board (TRB) for contactless, cashless toll payments. The question is if there was enough time for tollway operators to acquire the best (not just the minimum required) system for this endeavor. There are some opinions that this was basically required on short notice and for the government to get some brownie points for this.

Were there issues about technology and the corresponding costs to the acquisition and deployment of the necessary devices for seamless, contactless, delay-free (in relative terms) transactions for tollways? Probably so. Those RFIDs and the readers installed at strategic locations along tollways (i.e., entries and exits) were certainly not state of the art or the best available out there. Singapore, for example, uses a more sophisticated system for their expressways where you no longer have toll plazas and you won’t have to slow down to be detected by the system. That system has corresponding costs but is perfect for the city state given that most roads are tolled anyway because of their road pricing policy. In the case of our tollways, not all travelers are actually going to utilize the tollways as frequently as it would necessitate them having to get either the Easy Trip or Auto Sweep tags. That is obvious from the relatively low penetration rates for electronic toll collection (ETC). So it still makes sense to have hybrid booths for those not availing the ETC option. Anyway, travelers will have to exercise disinfection protocols to ensure infections are prevented.

SLEX congestion

En route to Batangas the other day, we had to endure severe traffic congestion along C5 and SLEX. C5 was at its worst as it took us about 2 hours from Blue Ridge until SLEX. Descending from the flyover to SLEX, we were greeted by crawling traffic along the tollway, which was to us a slight surprise for the southbound direction. Normally, traffic would already be lighter compared with the northbound side that carried peak hour travelers inbound for Metro Manila.

Much of the ‘additional’ congestion along SLEX is attributed to the ongoing construction of the Skyway extension. Traffic management is particularly criticized and congestion very atrocious at Alabang on ground level beneath the viaduct. Buses are prohibited from using the viaduct and the traffic schemes have contributed to severe congestion. Through traffic along both sides of the tollway have been affected, too, with queues reaching Laguna.

Preview: Passing the Alabang area, we observed that the queue from Alabang already stretched beyond what is visible to the eye.

No end in sight: this is what we usually describe as a traffic jam condition with the density reaching its maximum value and speed at its lowest. Volume approaches zero for this case.

Horizon: The queue that morning reached the Southwoods exit of the SLEX. Approaching northbound travelers would have to endure severe congestion until Alabang.

On hindsight, I thought that we should probably have opted to fly between Quezon City and Lipa City. My colleague said that the contact person offered that option to us but that he turned it down because he gets dizzy riding helicopters. I wouldn’t know as I’ve never ridden on one. However, we also thought it wouldn’t be prudent for us to ride a helicopter from the university. It would seem to be the transport of VIPs and easily attracts unwanted attention. Yet, it would have been the more practical and speedy if not the less expensive option for the trip that day.

Cavitex

I had wanted to post about the Manila-Cavite Expressway (Cavitex) but kept putting it off as I had few photos of the tollway. Formerly known as the Coastal Road, it is now operated by the Metro Pacific group, which also operates the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX), the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX) and the Subic Freeport Expressway (SFX). Here are photos I took last February this year when we went to Bacoor with our Japanese research lead. Most of the photos show sections towards Cavite (southbound).

The tollways has 3 lanes along each direction.

On one side is the bay where reclamation projects are proposed or currently under way.

Lane markings in an attempt to position vehicles towards the toll plaza, which is visible from afar in the photo

Vehicles queuing at the toll plaza – it can get very congested here during the peak periods and seasons.

Cavitex toll plaza

There is basically one toll plaza for the tollway for either direction.

Free-flowing traffic during an off-peak period

Approaching the interchange where vehicles bound for Bacoor, Imus and Las Pinas take the right side of the road to exit via the trumpet ramp shown ahead at right. Other vehicles bound for Kawit and Cavite City go straight.

Climbing the ramp to exit towards Bacoor, Cavite

Off-ramp to Bacoor, Imus and Las Pinas

Where expressway meets the national highway

Overpass towards the tollway

Toll plaza for the northbound (to Manila) direction

NAIA Expressway – T3 to T2/T1

Last Friday was our first time to use the NAIA Expressway. This was one of the major projects under the last administration and under the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) program and became operational last year after being delayed (It was not operational during the APEC summit in 2015.) for some time. I also commented on the need for NAIA X in one post before as I preferred to have a transit system instead. NAIA X is basically and mostly beneficial to cars and not necessarily for public transport. It also practically limits if not eliminates the possibility of having elevated transit (e.g., monorail or AGT) to connect the 4 terminals among them as well as to areas outside the airport zone (BGC, Makati, etc.).

I thought this post would be a useful one for travelers especially those coming in and out of the airports at this time of the year. A lot of people are departing or arriving at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), which is a main gateway to Metro Manila and adjacent regions. It can get congested along the roads between the four terminals of the airport and since there is not internal transport system linking them, travelers would need to travel along public roads. It cost 45 pesos (less than 1 USD) for the stretch from Terminal 3 to Terminal 2 (same if you’re headed for Terminal 1), and I thought it was well worth it considering it can really be quite congested between the 4 terminals. That congestion has already victimized a lot of people before with many missing their flights. But then perhaps one major cause of that congestion was the construction of the NAIA Expressway?

Entry ramp across from Terminal 3 and before the Sta. Clara church at Newport City

Toll plaza where travelers pay upon entry to the tollway

Just before the toll plaza where most booths are for mixed ETC/cash transactions

Upon exiting the toll plaza, travelers have to deal with multiple lanes merging into two

Two-lane section with neither shoulders nor “elbow room”

  Directional sign providing guidance especially for vehicles headed to Terminals 1 &2

Directional signs for vehicles bound for Cavite and Macapagal Blvd (left) and Terminals 1 or 2 (right)

The tollway section goes underneath the section headed towards Macapagal Boulevard and the Coastal Road

The lane from Terminal 3 merges with another from the Coastal Road

Signs showing which side to stay along towards either Terminal 2 or 1

Fork in the road – the tollway branches our to either Terminal 2 or Terminal 1

Off ramp towards Terminal 2

Next: Terminal 2 to Terminal 3

Readings for the new year

I wrote late last year about how the Christmas and New Year holidays allow me to catch up on some readings. These are mostly contemporary articles on transport and other topics rather than whole books (though I just finished one by George RR Martin during the semester). That post with three articles may be found in this link:

Some interesting readings on traffic engineering

I open the year with another post with a couple of interesting articles. One article reports on the newly opened bicycle ‘autobahns’ in Germany. ‘Autobahns’ basically refer to expressways or freeways. The new facilities for cycling represents what many will term as a paradigm shift for a country well known for its excellent automobiles. The concept of an expressway for bicycles actually makes sense in terms of safety and as a way to eliminate many if not all the factors that tend to discourage people from using bicycles for longer distance commutes. These do have the potential to reduce car usage (and traffic congestion) and ultimately also reduce pollution and fuel consumption. I am interested about the designs of these structures as the designs are also key to the development of similar infrastructure elsewhere including, hopefully, the Philippines.

Germany opens first stretch of bicycle ‘autobahn’

Another article is more thought provoking in the sense that it delves into labor and legal issues surrounding Uber and other ride sharing companies. These issues are valid and need to be discussed thoroughly not just in the US but elsewhere where ride sharing services have proliferated and profited. Many of the points pertaining to labor and compensation are valid, and I would like to think that these extend to the franchising issues that have been raised against ride sharing, which ultimately have implications on their business model. The legalese may be a turn-off to many who would argue that companies like Uber and Grab provide them with a good quality of service. But then that begs the question of whether they would have the same view if taxis were better than what they are now.

Road warrior: Is Uber ripping off its drivers?

Happy New Year and happy readings!