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I’ve talked about phantom congestion in my class lectures and training modules but have always explained it through figures and diagrams I usually draw on the board as I discuss the topic with my students or trainees. Here is a very informative, very visual explanation of what typically happens along many roads and how there is congestion when there seems to be no reason at all for these traffic jams:
Have you experienced these phantom traffic jams yourself?
I initially wanted to use “Philippines” or “Metro Manila” instead of “NCR Plus” for the title of this post. I dropped “Philippines” in order to be more specific and also because I am not so aware of the situation in other cities outside Mega Manila. I also decided vs. “Metro Manila” because transport for the metropolis is tightly woven with the surrounding areas where many people working or studying in MM actually reside. These include the towns of Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna and Cavite.
So, is there a supply problem with public transport in what is dubbed as NCR+? The photos in social media appear to describe a lack of public transport vehicles with many people lined up along major roads, queued at terminals or train stations. These photos do not lie where they were taken. Indeed there is a big problem about supply along certain corridors due to certain factors such as limited number of public utility vehicles (mainly jitneys and buses) allowed operation and health protocols that limit the passenger capacities of vehicles. The latter also applies to rail services where despite rolling stocks being back to pre-pandemic operations, are limited to the number of people they can carry. Crush loads are a no-no during these times.
Traffic congestion and its effects on PUV turnaround times, however, is another major factor for what may seem like a lack of supply. Most road-based public transport operate in mixed traffic. As such, their operations are susceptible to traffic conditions along their routes. So it is very likely that during the peak periods, PUVs get stuck along the peak direction and take much time to return despite the lighter traffic along the return trip. The problem for some routes though is that during peak periods both directions are congested. This further exacerbates the situation for public transport as vehicles would have to go through a two-way gauntlet of sorts, resulting in a lot of people taking longer to get their rides. And so for those who have access to private transport do go back to using private vehicles.
Definitely and obviously, there is a mode choice issue here because many people appear to have taken private transport as their mode of choice instead of public or active transport modes. This is mainly attributed to the perception that public transport is unsafe or less safe compared to your own vehicle in the context of the current pandemic. We qualify the current health situation here since that seems to be the main driver for people choosing to take their cars apart from that other perception of the poor quality of service provided by public transport in general. For active transport, the reality is not everyone or not a lot of people will choose to walk or cycle along roads that are generally regarded as unsafe despite efforts to put up bike lanes. Those who are having problems commuting are those dependent on public transport also because of their long commutes between the residential outside or in the outskirts of Metro Manila and the CBDs in the metropolis.
The dilemma here is determining which routes would actually require additional vehicles. While the general perception and temptation is to add vehicles everywhere, it’s the actual numbers that need to be estimated based on the information that needs to be collected (as against available data, which can be unreliable). The situation and the data for different routes varies much.
Case in point is the experience along the Antipolo-Cubao route that used to be served by jeepneys. Buses now serve that route after the government rationalized the service. Initially, there were fewer buses operating along the route that had a large catchment area for passengers. Additional buses were deployed in order to address supply issues (again many passengers were not able to get their rides for the same reasons we mentioned earlier). Now, there seems to be enough buses for the peak periods but a surplus during the off-peak. Passengers along other routes are not as lucky as those served by the Antipolo-Cubao buses.
Public transport operations will not survive such variations in demand if they continue to operate under the old “boundary” or rental scheme. So, there has to be a subsidy somewhere for them to operate under these conditions. And that’s where service contracting comes in. While I agree that this is essential for transport reform, we still have limited resources, and it will not be sustainable in the long run if we cannot make people take public transport over private vehicle options.
I read the statement of a government official about vehicle sales, and the subsequent responses it got. He cited math and seemingly joked about not being good at it while trying to make sense of the numbers. It is not as easy as he supposes. And I think that is partly why we fail to address the transport problems. For one, we think it is just about road capacities. For another, it may be about public transport supply. These are not mutually exclusive but rather intertwined along with so many other factors.
Housing, for one, (i.e., its availability, affordability and location) is among the most important factors that affect or influence how we commute. I have been asking the question about housing affordability in CBDs such as Makati, Ortigas and BGC. Lucky for those who already reside at or near those places but most people working there have to contend with expensive mortgages, leases or rents. How much is a condo unit in BGC, for example? If you have a family of 4, you certainly can’t and won’t opt for a studio unit just because its near your workplace. It’s obvious here that you also would have to consider where your children will be going to school as well as the workplace location of your partner if he or she is also working. No schools for now but imagine how it was and would be once our children go back to physical school. Such facts of life seem lost to many pundits commenting or offering opinions about transportation.
I think to be fair this should also be framed from various perspectives. For example, those vehicle purchases don’t necessarily mean additional vehicles on certain roads. like what one MMDA official claims. These will be distributed across the network of roads, and these will be operating during certain times of the day. Some of these vehicles were purchased by new car owners. Others as replacements to older or unserviceable units (e.g., upgrades). It would be nice to see, for example, the stats from 2008, 2009 & 2010. Thousands of vehicles were doomed by Ondoy in the greater Metro Manila in 2009 resulting in their replacements late that year until 2010. Then there was the boom in sales in the following years as people ventured into TNCs (Uber and Grab). The recent surge in private car use and what seems to be strong sales of these vehicles in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic is more out of necessity (why do you think people aren’t taking to cycling for their commutes as much as is desired?)
The question why people still prefer to purchase and use their own vehicles has not been answered in the most honest way because different people with their own agenda tend to paint different pictures of the car owner. In some cases, car owners are being portrayed as ‘evil’ while those taking the more environment-friendly modes as ‘good’. Again, it should be obvious that this is not a ‘good’ vs. ‘evil’ discussion nor is it something that is black and white. We should pay (a lot of) attention to the grays, which can have so many different shades when it comes to transportation. No one really wins a “holier than thou” exercise where people on opposite sides tend to take hard line stances and close their minds to constructive ideas from either side.
Traveling to the office last Monday, I could not help but notice the long lines of cars along Ortigas Avenue’s westbound lanes and Katipunan’s southbound lanes. Without adequate public transportation, people have few options for their commutes. Walking from home to workplaces is feasible only for those who live relatively near their workplace (perhaps up to 5km distance?). Cycling may be considered but not everyone can bike beyond 5km, what more for 10km+ commutes. And for both cases, there are just so many obstacles (and I’m not just fault-finding here) like a lack of sidewalks and bike paths to ensure safe walking and cycling.
Traffic congestion along Felix Avenue in Cainta towards Cainta Junction (with Ortigas Avenue Extension) – these are mostly outbound traffic likely coming from the residential subdivisions along Felix Avenue and heading to workplaces in Pasig, Mandaluyong, Makati and Taguig. They will likely take Ortigas Avenue to connect with other major roads such as C-5 and EDSA to get to their destinations.
The DOTr and the LTFRB have released guidelines for safety and the prevention of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Yet, they have moved quite so slowly to bring back public transportation to address the demand for it and to be able to discourage or restrict car usage in the “business-as-usual” or “old normal” sense. Public transportation is critical if we are to transform transportation during this transition from the lockdowns. Granted, the government probably wants to use the situation to effect its modernization plans but it is one thing to take advantage of the opportunity and another to be an opportunist considering the vulnerabilities of the transport sector after it endured 3 months of shutdown. The moral and right thing to do is to bring back public transport and give incentives for it to thrive and perhaps transform or upgrade by themselves rather than force the situation at the expense of commuters.
My colleagues and I have been developing a risk assessment table for land transport modes to be submitted to the UP COVID-19 Response Team. We did a rapid assessment using mainly concepts from road safety.
The concepts are fairly simple. Risk assessment can be based on the likelihood of contracting the virus gauged from certain exposure factors. Exposure estimation may be quantitative where metrics are applied and data collected for the analysis. Estimation may alternatively qualitative based on experiences, perceptions, expert opinions, etc. but subject to logic (e.g., careful deduction). In road safety, for example, these factors may be defined as three: time, distance and volume.
Time exposure can be determined using travel time as a metric. Longer the travel times mean higher exposures for a commuter. Higher exposure translate to a higher likelihood that a person may become involved in a road crash. Thus, a commuter traveling for 1 hour, one way, will have a higher likelihood of being involved in a crash compared to another traveling only 10 minutes even assuming that both use the same mode of transport. Applied to the risk of viral infection, longer commutes may mean people can have higher exposure to potential carriers of the virus.
Distance exposure can be determined using travel distance as a metric. Longer travel distances mean higher exposures for a commuter. Higher exposure again translate to a higher likelihood that a person may become involved in a road crash. Thus, a commuter with a travel distance of 10 kilometers will have a higher likelihood of being involved in a crash compared to someone traveling only 1 kilometer. Applying this to the risk of viral infection is similar to the previous case for time exposure even when assuming the same mode of transport.
Volume exposure can be determined using both the volume of vehicles as well as the number of passengers inside the vehicles. The more vehicles or people you have on the roads interacting, the higher the likelihood of one becoming involved in a crash. It can also be argued that riding public transport in high volume, mixed traffic makes a passenger have a higher likelihood of being involved in a crash. Again, applying this to the risk of viral infection, it should be easy to understand why physical distancing is necessary in vehicles as well as outdoors when walking or cycling. It should also extend to having less vehicles on the road to further reduce the likelihood of spreading the virus.
In the real world, we cannot isolate each factor from one another. Instead, we have to contend with all three combining to create various scenarios. Along expressways, for example, the volume of vehicles might be high and so are distances. Time exposure can be lower due to high speeds. Yet high speeds can contribute to increased likelihood of crashes. Meanwhile, traffic congestion has all the ingredients for maximizing the likelihood for crashes and, by extension, viral infection. Long commutes (by time and distance) plus high volumes of people and vehicles combine to create the worst case scenario from the perspectives of both road safety and infection, which are both public health issues.
Next – Why we should not return to the old normal…
An article came up where the author explains the similarities of the coronavirus spread to the spread of traffic congestion. It is basically about modeling (and simulating) the spread while considering factors like the characteristics of the virus that are similar to traffic. I’m posting/sharing it here for future reference/reading:
Simon, M. (2020) “Turns Out, Traffic Spreads Like the Coronavirus”, wired.com, https://www.wired.com/story/traffic-spreads-like-disease/?bxid=5bd6761b3f92a41245dde413&cndid=37243643&esrc=AUTO_OTHER&source=EDT_WIR_NEWSLETTER_0_DAILY_ZZ&utm_brand=wired&utm_campaign=aud-dev&utm_mailing=WIR_Daily_040720&utm_medium=email&utm_source=nl&utm_term=list1_p2 %5BLast accessed: 4/8/2020]
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.
There is a collage of two photos, one taken in 1975 and another in 2019, showing buses that managed to squeeze themselves into a jam. The 1975 photo was taken at the ramp of the overpass near Liwasang Bonifacio (Quiapo, Manila). There is a commentary describing the photo that attributes ‘monstrous daily traffic jams’ to the behavior of Filipino drivers. Special mention was made of public transport drivers and the photo showed proof of this. This was 1975 and motorization had not reached the levels we are at now so the arguably, traffic congestion was not as bad as the present we experience daily.
The problems pertaining to driver behavior persist today and probably even worsened along with the general conditions of traffic in Philippine roads. I say so since the volume of vehicular traffic has increased significantly from 1975 to the present and there are much more interactions among vehicles and people that have led to a deterioration of road safety as well. Traffic congestion and road crashes are asymptomatic of the root causes of most of our transport problems. And so far, it seems we have had little headway into the solutions. The photos speak for themselves in terms of how many people can easily put the blame on poor public transport services despite the fact that cars are hogging much of the road space. And what have authorities done in order to address the behavioral issues that lead to these incidents?
Someone joked that the guy in the 1975 photo who appeared to be posing in disbelief of what happened is a time traveler. The 2019 photo shows a similar guy with a similar pose though with more people around. Maybe he can tell us a thing or so about what’s wrong with transportation in the Philippines and provide insights to the solutions to the mess we have.
Here are more photos of the situation in the vicinity of Barkadahan Bridge. Photos were taken on a late Sunday morning (around 11 AM). Photos show the traffic congestion particularly along the eastbound side of Ejercito Avenue and Barkadahan Bridge.
Even before completely crossing the bridge, one can see how long the queue from C-6 is. This is a photo of the queue just past the West Bank Road. The road here is names Ejercito Avenue after former Pres. Joseph Estrada whose real family name is Ejercito.
Truck occupying an entire lane and encroaching on one of the lanes to C-6. This is due to the bottleneck caused by the wall of a residential subdivision across from the Greenwoods gate. The wall actually only contains the subdivision name and yet DPWH has been unable to expropriate the land that includes part of that subdivision’s driveway.
Long queue extending towards Tapayan Bridge along Ejercito Avenue
Queue along Tapayan Bridge or bridges considering there are two – one for each direction of traffic.
Queue crossing the bridge and the bend towards C-6 and Lupang Arenda, which is a major relocation site for Metro Manila squatters during the time of then Pres. Joseph Estrada. Vehicles turn left towards C-6 while those going straight continue along Ejercito Avenue towards Pinagbuhatan, Pasig City.
The queue reaches C-6 on a Sunday morning. It is likely worse on weekdays.
I recently wrote about the Barkadahan Bridge and its current state and compared it to the Marcos Highway Bridge that is now completed and fully opened to travelers. Unfortunately, I didn’t have photos to share but only shared my observations based on what friends have told me and what I’ve read on social media (i.e., Rizal Provincial’s and Taytay’s official Facebook pages) about the situation there. I finally had the opportunity last Sunday when I went to fetch my family at the airport. Here are photos of the Barkadahan Bride and its environs. Note that Barkadahan is actually two bridges and not one. The new one is currently being used for two way traffic (one lane each) while the second one is under rehabilitation and retrofitting. The latter had and will have 2 lanes, too.
Approach to the Barkadahan Bridge via Highway 2000 – notice the widening on the south side of the highway? That’s the ROW expropriated to align the bridge(s) with the highway. Ultimately, this should be of the same width as C-6.
Closer to the bridge, you see more of the ROW acquired to improve the geometry for the area and the intersection with the East Bank Road. Highway 2000 is now aligned with the second (newer) bridge constructed that will eventually carry only the eastbound traffic. The older bridge currently being rehabilitated and retrofitted will carry the westbound traffic.
Vehicles crowd on the two-lane bridge that is the new Barkadahan Bridge. The old one is currently being rehabbed. Notice the significant volume of trucks using the bridge? This is expected to increase due to the industrial developments in Rizal Province and along C-6, and the direct route this corridor provides towards the SLEX via Bicutan.
Big sign at the bridge – there are many of these scattered around Pasig and Rizal advising travelers against using the route and Barkadahan Bridge because for the construction work on the bridge. This ‘avoidance’ basically transferred (some say returned) much of the traffic to Ortigas Avenue Extension. Many if not most users of the bridge use this alternate route to travel from Rizal to BGC and Makati CBD.
A peek at the construction work on the old bridge – note that the contractor seems to have completed installing the steel reinforcement for the slabs for this section of the bridge. The next phase would be the concrete pouring.
Still another peek showing the extent of the work on the old bridge – my casual observation of the work areas was that there seems to be not so many workers. But then maybe it was a Sunday? Perhaps there should be more people working considering this is a very urgent project?
Tricycles, motorcycles and bicycles – there’s a lot of local traffic using the bridge and these are represented by mostly tricycles serving the residential and commercial areas along the East and West Bank Roads and the cyclists you most often see crossing the bridge. Most motorcycles are through traffic. On weekends one can observe more recreational cyclists as this route is a popular one to Rizal and particularly its mountainous areas that are popular to mountain and road cyclists.
Counterflow – many motorcyclists tend to counterflow and this adds to the friction and slows down traffic. Once the other bridge is completed and re-opened, these will likely be reduced to lane splitting or filtering as the opposite flows of traffic will be assigned to separate bridges. Counterflow traffic will then be very obvious and should be apprehended.
Here’s the resulting queue on the other side of the bridge. This is severe congestion that reaches C-6. Note that the photo was taken on a Sunday. Perhaps these travelers have no other option but to use this route so they are stuck in hellish traffic on a Sunday? I can only imagine how worse it is on weekdays.
As a parting shot, I think there are still a couple of things that need to be addressed once the bridges are both open to traffic:
- Optimizing traffic management at the intersections with the East Bank Road and West Bank Road of Manggahan Floodway – the (mis)management of traffic here also contributes to congestion in the area. Traffic enforcers on both ends of the bridge have basic knowledge of how traffic must be managed and end up with the “buhos” approach. They don’t seem to be coordinating with each other, too. Their approach also heavily favors the East and West Bank roads when traffic is heavier along the main corridor that is C-6/Highway 2000. There needs to be a more efficient way to manage traffic here and that may be in the form of a sophisticated traffic signal system at least for the two intersections. Settings need to be studied and signals have to be adaptive to the variation of traffic throughout the day.
- Resolve bottlenecks in the area including structures that tend to reduce capacities of the approaches to the bridge.
More on this topic soon!