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If you build it, will they come?

There seems to be a belief among the more zealous advocates of sustainable transport that if “you build it, they will come.” It seems cliche but this saying is not necessarily applicable to many things especially when referring to transport infrastructure. There are examples of roads, terminals and other transport facilities that have been built but sadly are underutilized mainly due to the demand just not being there and taking much time to attain. The last is usually due to the fact that certain conditions or prerequisites have not been satisfied. One such example of this is the case of the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX), whose payment for the loan that covered the construction costs was premised on a very high traffic demand forecast. It took some time for more people to use the expressway as the traffic from the major developments (Clark, Subic, Tarlac and Bataan industrial and commercial developments) just didn’t happen as immediately as assumed in the forecast. Still, there is a strategic value to such major infrastructure considering it as an investment and something that will cost a lot more in the future if not built today.

In Metro Manila, the MMDA has allocated or designated lanes for cycling along several major roads. These included the lanes they created out of painting existing pedestrian sidewalks and marking these as bikeways. One section is between Magallanes and Ayala while another is from Ortigas to White Plains. These are poorly designed, “pwede na yan” types of bikeways that people on bicycles would find very difficult to use because the course is full of obstacles. And how about the plight of pedestrians who would have to share these narrow paths with cyclists? Such mixed signals on providing for the needs of pedestrians and cyclists are not necessary unless of course the main objective of this exercise is just to get the  attention of a wider audience that is the general public, which I would strongly agree is needed to advocate for sustainable transport. Focus on the ultimate goal, however, should not be lost for what appears as small victories. Perhaps an even stronger initiative should be towards having the DPWH revise road design guidelines to incorporate walking and cycling requirement especially for national roads.

IMG10205-20150228-0947Bicycle lane along Julia Vargas Ave. in Pasig City

Cebu City enacted an ordinance essentially promoting cycling through the planning and implementation of bikeways, bike lanes or shared lanes. However, initial efforts seem to be following the MMDA’s “pwede na yan” approach. I think Cebu could do better and come up with a better plan for integrating and mainstreaming bikeways into the transport network. But of course, a lot still needs to be done for pedestrian facilities.

In conclusion, building transport infrastructure is not an assurance that it will generate its intended benefits at once. However, some infrastructure are more strategic than others as perhaps they form part of a network. Expressways in Luzon are among these strategic investments. High standard highways in Mindanao are also essential. Rail rehab and building in Luzon is strategic. The same in Mindanao perhaps is not. Mass transit systems in highly urbanized cities are required but perhaps many should start with buses rather than rail. Bridges across islands are not urgent. International-standard airports in major cities are necessary but not all provinces require such airports. Its not a simple task to determine what will work and what wouldn’t. While it is easy to attribute so many benefits in order to justify a project, such practice would usually result in white elephants that few people benefit from.

 

Narita Terminal 2 Arrival

On our most recent trip to Japan, we took Philippine Airlines instead of the usual Delta in our previous trips. For one, PAL offered full service at a competitive price (Delta and JAL were more expensive) and the new schedules meant we could fly to Narita in the morning and arrive there early afternoon, and return to Manila in the evening. This was practically Delta’s schedule. It also helped that PAL was using NAIA Terminal 2 so that meant a better terminal for us compared to the congested and dilapidated NAIA Terminal 1. Of course, there were other choices including ANA, which I would have preferred if only it wasn’t so expensive even compared to JAL. Low cost carriers were also not on our list as we had the budget for full service and we didn’t like the schedules.

We arrived at Narita after a smooth flight and our plane proceeded to Terminal 2, which most Asian airlines use. I have not used this terminal for quite some time now as I usually planed in via Delta or its predecessor Northwest. The last time I was in Terminal 2 was in 1999 when I was returning home to Manila after 3 years in Yokohama, Japan. That time, I used JAL as part of my benefits of being a Monbusho scholar.

2014-02-18 14.13.03Moving walkway or “walkalator” to the arrivals area for immigration processing.

2014-02-18 14.13.20A view of aircraft docked at the airport shows a couple of JAL planes and one of Cathay Pacific. I like JAL’s old logo compared to its new one. This retro look gives you a feeling of nostalgia.

2014-02-18 14.15.03A computer-generated, anime image of an airport staff member greeting arriving passengers to Japan.

2014-02-18 14.15.20Entry towards the immigration counters

2014-02-18 14.15.58Past immigration and proceeding towards the baggage claim area.

2014-02-18 14.21.00Descending to the baggage claim area, passengers are provided information on a huge board on which carousel their baggage will be coming out of. To be sure, ground staff hold a placard directing PAL passengers to the assigned carousel.

2014-02-18 14.21.26Narita’s expanse becomes more obvious at the baggage claim area.

2014-02-18 14.22.42Luggage coming out for passengers to pick up from the carousel.

2014-02-18 14.22.54Ground staff remind passengers to check whether they got the correct luggage from the carousel. Many bags are identical so people should have a distinctive feature on their luggage whether its a tag, sticker, strap or others.

2014-02-18 14.31.24Airport limousine bus counters – there are limousine buses bound for many destinations in the Kanto area. I usually took the limousine bus to get back to Yokohama when I was a student in Japan in the 1990s.

2014-02-18 14.31.51Keisei Skyliner train counter – the Skyliner is less expensive than the limousine buses and for those who travel light, it is a good option going to Tokyo. The last two stops are at Nippori and Ueno Stations where one can easily transfer to JR or subway lines. Other rail options are JR’s Narita Express (NEX) and JR Yokosuka-Sobu Line’s Airport Narita service. I usually take the latter from Yokohama Station.

2014-02-18 14.32.56Giant electronic boards at the arrival lobby provide information on flights arriving and departing Narita Terminal 2.

2014-02-18 14.44.13Our hosts gave instructions to take the limousine bus but part of our group were fetched by car. I was invited to join them because we were staying at the same hotel. The others stayed at another hotel. And so we walked to the upper level of the terminal to cross towards the parking building. The yellow line in the photo is a standard feature of many facilities in Japan that make them PWD-friendly. These are guides for blind people who can use their canes to “feel” the directions.

2014-02-18 14.45.26Another view of the information board from the upper level of the terminal.

2014-02-18 14.45.31Quite an unusual description of the parking building levels, which we thought were signature Japanese.

2014-02-18 14.46.02Floor information for Terminal 2

2014-02-18 14.48.05On the bridge from Terminal 2 to the parking building, we have a good view of the driveway and the slots for VIPs.

2014-02-18 14.49.26Paying for parking at one of the machines at the parking building.

2014-02-18 14.49.35We were curious about the sign that also mentioned a pet hotel. I guess travelers who didn’t have anyone to leave their pets with at home can now have the convenience of checking in their pets at the hotel to take care of the animals while they were away.

2014-02-18 14.50.35Waiting zone for vehicles – our host went to get our vehicle while we waited at the designated area.

I am already looking forward to a next trip to Japan. Perhaps I will take PAL again in a future flight? Actually, I was a bit disappointed that they used a smaller plane for our flight even if it was a new Airbus A321 Neo. I think I got used to the B747s that Delta and JAL used for their flights (I think JAL and ANA now uses the fuel efficient B777’s while Delta retained its B747s that eventually continue to the US). I think the smaller aircraft by PAL was the result of a combination of cost cutting (fuel-wise) and their increasing the frequency of flights. No matter, if you know that a nice airport like Narita is waiting on the other end of  trip, it is a flight worth looking forward to.

Transport and traffic purgatory, paradise and inferno

A lot of people have been referring to the traffic congestion and other derivative issues that will be the result of the construction of several transport projects around Metro Manila as “traffic armageddon.” Some friend have appropriately (I think) referred to it more as “car-mageddon.” This seems to be the case since it is perceived to have the most impact on car users than public transport users, cyclists or pedestrians. This is far from the truth as there are more people taking public transport, cycling or walking than those driving their own cars. In fact, estimates for Metro Manila indicate that 70-80% of travelers take public transport while 20-30% take private vehicles. These mode splits do not include bicycles or walking, which obviously will further decrease private car shares.

I would rather refer to this period of construction as a sort of “purgatory” though it has nothing to do with the cleansing that’s associated with it. There is still the suffering involved while improvements are being implemented. But, most importantly, there is hope at the end of this process. This “hope” is not necessarily the “light at the end of a dark tunnel” kind of thing as surely population and the number of vehicles will surely increase over time even as the transport projects are being implemented. By the time these are completed, there are sure to be more people, more vehicles, as well as more of other developments that will put our transport system to a stress test. We can only hope that the designs of these infrastructure we are building now are based on honest to goodness trip or traffic forecasts. Otherwise, we’ll end up with congested or saturated systems by the time they start operating.

Unfortunately, most projects mentioned and those we know have the green light and would likely be proceeding with construction in the near future are basically road projects. It’s ironic considering that what Metro Manila urgently, and maybe desperately, needs now are public transport systems including the much delayed MRT 7, LRT 2 Extension and LRT 1 Extension. The proposals for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) seem to be in a limbo, too, despite extensive studies and surveys to support BRT along corridors such as Ortigas Avenue and Circumferential Road 5. These are blamed on institutional and legal impediments including allegations of shortcomings among officials of agencies responsible for these infrastructure.

I am aware of an initiative led by an environmental lawyer seeking to effect the redistribution of road space in favor of public transport users, cyclists and pedestrians. I think such actions are useful from the perspective of getting the attention necessary to push government and private sector players to have a sense of urgency not just in words but also in actions in as far as transport infrastructure programs and projects are concerned. We are already lagging behind our ASEAN neighbors with regards to infrastructure and at this pace, it is likely that less developed countries like Cambodia and Myanmar might just overtake us in the foreseeable future. From another perspective, it is hard to push for sharing the road when people really don’t have better options for commuting. Walking and cycling are not for everyone and many people have turned to the motorcycle to solve their transport woes. In the latter case, motorcycles are perceived as a vehicle that’s fuel efficient and allows the users to zip through congested streets often at high risks of being involved in a crash or spill.

We can only achieve “paradise” in our highly urbanized cities if we build these mass transit systems along with the pedestrian and cycling facilities that will complement each other. Those for whom car travel is a necessity would also benefit from reduced road congestion so it will eventually (hopefully) play out well for most people.  Meanwhile, we would have to endure transport and traffic hell (some more and longer than others) as the government and private sector embark on this round of infrastructure projects implementation. It helps to look back at our experiences with the last major batch of projects in the latter part of the 1990’s when the number coding scheme was first implemented. At the time, it was implemented as a temporary measure to alleviate congestion while projects where being implemented. What was a temporary measure is now still being implemented along with a truck ban that has also been evolving the past years with the latest being the one implemented by the City of Manila starting last February 24. Will these vehicle restraint schemes be modified to cope with the traffic congestion expected from projects like the Skyway connector? Will these be relaxed or removed after all these projects have been completed? Your guess is as good as mine.

Traffic and flooding

Metro Manila and other cities around the country are again in the headlines because of flooding brought about by strong rains. Rains are not new to the Philippines and there are many articles (and blogs) that have been written about the history of flooding in the Philippines. Some even feature old photos or caricatures showing how life was during the Spanish and American periods when floods also occurred, probably due to similar strong rains brought about by the monsoons or by the typical typhoons that regularly visit the country during the wet season.

In those times many years ago, the subject of drainage has already been mentioned and there is evidence that certain infrastructure were constructed to address the problems of flooding. In fact, the esteros that we presently associate with informal settlers and garbage were man-made waterways that functioned as open channels that could alleviate flooding in times of heavy rains. These waterways also functioned as transport facilities as they were constructed wide enough for boats to travel along the network of esteros that also connected with the Pasig River. These were not so different as the waterways that are now being used in Bangkok that have significant commuter and even goods traffic. There are many photos of these esteros as they were back in the Spanish and American periods. There are even more recent postwar photos that allow for comparison with photos at present. Unfortunately, I cannot post these here as there may be IP issues involved. Nevertheless, one can use your preferred search engines to find and view these photos.

Through the years, however, these esteros have been neglected and, as more and more squatters came to construct their shanties above the channels and tons of garbage disposed of, they became clogged and thus resulting to flooding in many parts of Manila. The esteros, however, are not wholly to blame when the subject of floods come up every now and again. It is a fact that the drainage systems of Metro Manila and other Philippine cities are already quite antiquated and their designs cannot accommodate the amounts of rainfall experienced these days. This is the result perhaps of poor planning and even more due to the neglect of national and local governments. And so we now experience floods almost each time we have significant rainfall. In some areas, the floods do not recede until after the wet season is over. Such is the sad plight of many Filipinos who are reduced to prayers and tests of faith if only to assure themselves that things will improve – some day.

Meanwhile, other cities have engaged similar flooding problems head-on and have invested on solutions that have saved their cities from much of the costs due to damages brought about by floods. Among those cities is Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia where they constructed a tunnel that is usable as part of their drainage system as well as a highway. Kuala Lumpur’s SMART Motorway Tunnel is an example of an engineering solution that could help alleviate flooding in Metro Manila. It is quite costly, with construction amounting to about USD 514.6 million at the time of its completion in the first quarter of 2007 with construction starting about 4 years earlier in 2003. Much has been written about this infrastructure and its benefits. It has saved KL and Malaysia from potentially disastrous flooding so many times now since its opening. Was it worth it? No doubt our Malaysian friends with tell us it is and will continue to save them from more floods years from now. Thus, the cost of such projects can easily be justified and the return in investment will be quite quick given the costs of flooding that have been compiling these past years including 2009’s Ondoy (Ketsana). In fact, KL’s SMART Motorway Tunnel is part of its tollway system and was built using a public-private partnership (PPP) arrangement that is much like what the current administration is preaching.

Perhaps its not yet too late for Metro Manila and other Philippine cities? Maybe we should get our acts together in finding and contributing to solutions that also address multiple problems facing our cities in this era of climate change and extreme weather conditions.

Too late?

A friend posted her disappointment over what she regularly observed through her condominium window overlooking EDSA Guadalupe. The traffic jams along EDSA seemed to be a 24-hour thing and she lamented about whether  Metro Manila could solve this problem on congestion. She continues to be an active advocate for the environment and we have worked together on the electric jeepney that is now operating a 3rd route in the City of Makati and is also found operating elsewhere in other cities where its applications, to be fair, is still quite limited.

My response to her is something I have also mentioned in other venues including previous posts on this blog and interviews granted to major media networks that have asked me what’s wrong about transport and traffic in our country. It’s really simple – we have failed to build the necessary infrastructure when they needed to be constructed. And we continue to NOT build the infrastructure that could have saved us much in terms of fuel costs alone and perhaps contributed much more to our economy, and definitely outweighing the costs that have often been cited as if it were a deterrent to the realization of a mass transit network for Metro Manila.

Being one who has lived in both Tokyo and Singapore where they have good public transportation systems, I could not help but become excited when, returning from Japan before the turn of the century I came upon plans for Metro Manila’s rail network. I was excited because the decade before I was first exposed to similar plans for MM at a time when other capital cities in Southeast Asia like Bangkok, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur where also planning for their own mass transit systems. In fact, they were also planning expressways in their respective metropolitan areas (i.e., Bangkok Metropolitan Area or BMA and Jakarta-Bogor-Depok-Tangerang-Bekasi or Jabodetabek/Greater Jakarta). Flash forward to the present, it is frustrating, if not depressing, to see that Bangkok and Jakarta were able to implement many of their plans that were critical for the growth of these metropolitan areas and definitely contributed to the overall sustainable development in those countries. Granted, Bangkok and Jakarta still experiences congestion like the legendary jams along urban highways in Bangkok. But which city around the world does not experience congestion? The  key is to provide a viable and more efficient (also convenient and comfortable) alternative to taking one’s car. That should be in the form of a mass transport system that is comprehensive enough that it will allow for both mobility and accessibility to the traveler/commuter. The following figure from the 2005 World Transit Maps envisioned a network that is still now unrealized and, for the existing lines, have become the subject of controversy and other issues that include the absence of a single ticketing system similar to the smart and octopus cards found in other countries.

Can we imagine what could have been the experience of commuting in a Metro Manila where such a rail system would have been in place? My former students have related to me about how it was so convenient to move about in Singapore, Tokyo and Hongkong where the mass transit systems where comprehensive and integrated such that rail and bus systems could provide for the transport needs of commuters. I would like to believe that we have all the plans with us by this time and that the construction of transport infrastructure has long been delayed for our cities (not just Metro Manila but also other metros such as Cebu and Davao) so much so that we continue to suffer from the lack of critical systems that could definitely alleviate congestion and improve the plight of the general public. Perhaps people taking their cars and motorcycles will be convinced to shift to public transport if they see the benefits of doing so. For others who are still captives of our inefficient public transport systems, I am sure that the experience of having improved systems (and an expanded network) will be liberating considering their daily sacrifices just to make ends meet while losing much quality time, productive time stranded in traffic.