Caught (up) in traffic

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Told ya so! And more irony

I was watching the news on TV after having dinner at home and caught one segment where the report featured an assessment of traffic schemes along Commonwealth Avenue. Prominently shown was an interview of the DPWH secretary where he is quoted relating the assessment of Australian and Korean experts about their assessment of safety along Commonwealth Avenue. What struck me about the assessment by foreign experts was that they were practically the same things pointed out by local experts from the NCTS and TSSP back in the day when Bayani Fernando was Chair of the MMDA. At the time, that agency was embarking on what the Chairman called the “Grand Rotunda Scheme” more popularly known as the U-turn Scheme that was to replace most of Metro Manila’s traffic signals with U-turn slots that were supposed to function much the same as roundabouts. This obsession with the U-turn as the ultimate solution to Metro Manila traffic culminated with the construction of the twin U-turn flyovers along C5-Kalayaan that was the subject of a protracted argument between the MMDA and the DPWH. From what I gathered in the news report, the DPWH and MMDA are currently discussing how to come up with an effective scheme for Commonwealth, showing that the two agencies are now quite receptive to alternatives and are keeping their options open, a flexibility that was absent in the past decade.

The Australian and Korean experts mentioned in the report are consultants for the International Road Assessment Program (iRAP) that is to be implemented through the DPWH and is supported by the road safety program of the World Bank. I have mixed feelings about the reception of their assessment particularly because I have seen the same thing happen where the so-called neutral or objective assessment of foreign experts seem to weigh more than those of local experts.

Don’t get me wrong about this feeling as I am also truly happy that their assessment is the same as those made by local experts early last decade and repeated to whomever had the time to listen or pay attention to their assessments. In fact, I am on the Steering Committee of this iRAP project and would be eager to see how the souped-up van that will run through more than 3,000 kilometers of Philippine roads will assess these infrastructure according to the star rating system iRAP has developed and calibrated to become an international standard for road safety assessment. Perhaps the outcomes of this project will allow us to compare with other countries’ roads including those in Malaysia, which the DPWH secretary mentioned earlier this year would be the benchmark for the Philippines. I am hopeful that the outcomes of iRAP Philippines will allow the DPWH and other agencies concerned including the tollway operators to improve the safety features of our highways. After all, the bottomline is not really who made the assessments or the recommendations but whether these would be implemented at all, and if we are able to save lives in the end.

Some issues on walkability in the Philippines

I have written about walking in the past (No Car? No Problem!), and it was mainly about a personal experience I had commuting home one evening. At the time, I had already made the observation that we are generally lacking for pedestrian facilities. We do have sidewalks but most are too narrow for the typically high volume of pedestrian traffic. In cases where there are sufficient width or space, sidewalks are often occupied by vendors. In commercial areas, establishments also have a tendency to encroach on pedestrian space thereby constricting the walkways. This is the predicament in most, if not all, Philippine cities and the result is often that pedestrians are forced to walk along the carriageway, using space that is supposed to be for motor vehicles and effectively causing congestion due to the reduced road capacity. Such are issues pertaining to walkability that touches mainly on the safety, mobility and accessibility aspects of walking.

In rural areas and particularly along national highways, there are practically no pedestrian facilities unless one considers highway shoulders as appropriate for walking. As such, one will most likely find people walking along the shoulders or, should it be the wet season and these shoulders happen to be muddy, along the carriageway. It is not uncommon also to see children walking along the highways since many schools are located along the roads. Such situations often put children at risk, thereby magnifying their vulnerability to becoming victims of road crashes.

Another vulnerable group are senior citizens, who, despite their age, can still be very active and are entitled to mobility just like any person. They, too, deserve facilities that will keep them safe from risks such as wayward public transportation or reckless drivers and riders. Then there are also those who are physically-challenged, people with disabilities who, despite their physical limitations, also have the right to move about. In fact, there are laws with provisions requiring public facilities to be designed according to the needs of persons with disabilities (PWDs). Sadly, pedestrian facilities in Philippine cities generally do not incorporate ramps, guides and other devices that would allow for efficient movement of PWDs.

Crossings are also a big issue considering the statistics of pedestrian involvement in road crashes. Of course, there are two sides of the coin here where, on one hand, hard-headed people still cross at inappropriate locations or say at street-level when there is an overpass or underpass nearby. Such incidences of jaywalking are quite prevalent in urban areas, betraying a lack of discipline that is often in combination with weak traffic enforcement. On the other hand, there are pedestrians crossing along designated locations like zebra crossings but are placed in harm’s way as motorists do not give way.

Heading to the airport last Maundy Thursday to fetch my wife, I took Marcos Highway and saw the many people walking to Antipolo Church, a popular pilgrimage site for Filipino Roman Catholics during the Holy Week as well as the month of May when the feast of Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage is celebrated. They came from all over Metro Manila but mostly from Pasig, Cainta, Marikina and Quezon City.  It was around 10:00 PM and due to the Holy Week, there were very few public transport (and vehicles in general) along the highway, which is a major corridor to the east. Most of them had to walk along the carriageway considering the ongoing construction work along Marcos Highway for a major drainage and pavement project. Considering the volume of people, they has practically occupied one lane (the outermost) of the highway. Fortunately, because there were few vehicles, the people didn’t have to worry much about being sideswiped as they walked.

I could imagine a similar case along Ortigas Avenue, which is along the original way to Antipolo Church. Perhaps there were even more people walking along that road considering that it passes through densely populated areas of Mandaluyong, Pasig, Cainta and Antipolo as well as the avenue being most accessible to people coming from Taguig, Makati, San Juan and Manila. The Way of the Cross along Ortigas Avenue has been enhanced with the construction of stations along the route that can be used as guides, especially by those who are unfamiliar with the pilgrimage. That way is also wanting for pedestrian facilities and often sidewalks are ill-designed and may even have electric posts impeding the flow of traffic.

To me, the solution to such issues on walkability is quite clear and does not require more than common sense. Obstacles along walkways, for example, need to be removed to ensure that there will be space for walking and ensuring smooth traffic flow. The MMDA deserves a lot of credit for waging an aggressive campaign during the time of Bayani Fernando, when he implemented a “sidewalk clearing” program that effectively returned space to pedestrians that were taken from them by vendors and establishments. The latter mostly did so in violation of the building code that is quite common in most downtown areas. Electric posts also need to be relocated and such may be coordinated with power/utility companies who are responsible for their installation.

On the technical side, there is a need to revisit design guidelines, if any, pertaining to pedestrian facilities. The National Building Code actually has provisions for designing sidewalks but there are none, to my knowledge, about designing overpasses and underpasses. There are no criteria currently being used to determine, for example, the suitable locations for overpasses and to estimate their capacities based on the principles of traffic flow. This, considering that there are actually level of service (LOS) criteria for walkways and other facilities catering to pedestrians. These design guidelines should clearly incorporate safety and accessibility so that the resulting facilities will be for the inclusive use of all.

On the enforcement side, there is nothing new and no surprises that the recommendation would be to have firm, consistent and aggressive enforcement of traffic rules and regulations. For this I may sound like a broken record but it only goes to show that we have not progressed much in this aspect of traffic management. The ningas cogon approach must go and programs should also be directed against those impeding pedestrian flow (e.g., vendors setting up on overpasses) as well as those whose behavior endanger pedestrians (e.g., reckless, undisciplined drivers).

I am optimistic, though, that with the combined efforts of many advocates for road safety, we may eventually be able to improve walkability in most cities in this country. For one, there are already several LGUs who have programs with a vision for them to be a walkable city. Among these are Marikina and Makati in Metro Manila, and San Fernando in La Union. More will hopefully follow the examples of these cities and, who knows, one day perhaps we can walk safely wherever and whenever we wish to do so.

Discipline along a killer highway

Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City was given a tag as a killer highway due to the frequent occurrence of road crashes along the road, many of them resulting in fatalities. Only last December, a retired judge was about to cross the highway on his vehicle, his wife (a retired teacher from a prestigious science high school) with him as they were heading to church. It was very early in the morning since they were going to the Simbang Gabi or night mass – a tradition in the Philippines during the Advent Season leading up to Christmas Day. Despite probably signalling and their being cautious enough, their vehicle was hit by a speeding bus. The driver of the bus was to claim later that he used his lights and horns to warn the judge against crossing. There was no mention if the bus driver attempted to slow down, the safest thing to do when driving at night and knowing that there are many crossings along the road he is traversing. In fact, this should be the first thing on the mind of anyone aware and conscious about safe driving.

There are many incidents like the one above and not just along Commonwealth or other Metro Manila road. Road crashes occur along many of our national and local roads everyday and the casualties just pile up, and many are often just treated as statistics especially when nothing is done to address the issue. Such road crashes occur due to many factors that are usually categorized into human, vehicle or environment-related. Most often, as findings in the Philippines indicate, it is the human factor that results in a road crash.

Driver error, poor maintenance of vehicles, and ill-designed roads can all be traced to human shortcomings. Environmental factors are also ultimately rooted on the human element. Speeding is one thing and aggressive driving is probably another but altogether general driver behavior along Philippine roads are clearly a manifestation of a lack of discipline and not necessarily the lack of skill, although the latter is also a significant factor if one is to focus on public transport and trucks.

There are few exceptions and it seems “few” is a relative term often leading to the example of Subic. At Subic, we always wonder how and why drivers seem to be disciplined. Some say it is because of the fines or penalties for traffic violations. Others say it is psychological and a legacy of the base being previously under the US military. I would say it is more of the traffic rules and regulations being enforced firmly and fairly in the free port area. I would add that motorists and pedestrians have embedded this in their consciousness such that there is something like an invisible switch turning on when they drive in Subic and turning off once they are out of the free port.

For a corridor like Commonwealth, perhaps the best example to emulate would be the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX). Along that highway, its operators the Tollways Management Corporation (TMC) have established a strict regimen of enforcement and have applied state of the art tools for both monitoring and apprehension. These tools include high speed cameras equipped with speed radars that detect speeds and capture on photo cases of overspeeding. Photos are used as evidence upon the apprehension of the guilty party at the exit of the expressway.

The current campaign along Commonwealth is premised on the strict enforcement of a 60 kph speed limit along the arterial and the designation of PUV lanes (e.g., yellow lanes) along the length of the corridor. The initiative would be manpower intensive and features novel tools such as the use of placards,  loudspeakers and public relations in order to encourage motorists and pedestrians to follow traffic rules and regulations. The results as of today look promising and there has been a significant reduction in speeds and general compliance for PUVs serving the corridor. The numbers might be misleading if we attempt to conclude about the success of the program now. Perhaps the more reliable statistics would come out after the campaign has been implemented and the effort sustained over a month’s time. Nevertheless, it gives us a nice feeling to see less speeding and less weaving among vehicles that were once observed as though they were driven along a race track. It would be nice to once and for all kill the “killer highway” tag and make Commonwealth an example of how traffic management should be implemented. We are always searching for examples of good if not best practices that can be replicated elsewhere. If we succeed in the “Battle of Commonwealth” then perhaps we could eventually win the “War Against Irresponsible Driving and Jaywalking.”

From Odd-Even to UVVRP… and back

Picking up from where I left off in the last post, I reproduce another part of the paper I co-authored with a good friend who now happens to be the Director of the Center for Policy and Executive Development (CPED) of the National College of Public Administration and Governance (NCPAG) of UP Diliman.

“The UVVRP or the “number coding” scheme, as it is commonly called, is a travel demand management measure that has evolved since its first implementation in 1995. The original intent was to use this measure to address congestion brought about in part by the many road and rail infrastructure projects being implemented throughout Metro Manila in the 1990’s. However, due to its perceived success in decreasing traffic along Metro Manila arterials, the scheme’s implementation was extended and even expanded to include public transport vehicles like buses, jeepneys and taxis.

The original programs involved only the main arterials of Metro Manila including its five circumferential and ten radial roads. These included the three expressways that connected the region to surrounding provinces in the north and south. All these are classified as national roads. The current program includes essentially all roads, with traffic enforcement units of cities and municipalities implementing the scheme for city and municipal roads. The MMDA enforces the scheme along most major roads.

The chronology of the development of UVVRP starts in 1995 when the MMDA Regulation No. 95-001 otherwise known as the “Odd-Even Scheme” was issued. The scheme bans private vehicles with less than three (3) occupants from plying restricted thoroughfares during AM and PM peak periods on particular days. Specifically, low occupancy private vehicles with license plates ending in odd numbers are banned on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, while those with license plates ending in even numbers are banned on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Peak period is defined to be between 7:00 AM to 9:00 AM and 5:00 PM to 7:00 PM. The penalty was set at P 300 per offense. Exempted from this regulation are public transport vehicles, emergency vehicles, police and military vehicles, school buses, diplomatic vehicles and official media vehicles.

In 1996, the MMDA issued Regulation 96-004 otherwise known as the “Modified Odd-Even Scheme” in addition to the existing Odd-Even Scheme. The Modified Odd-Even scheme applied to public utility vehicles such as taxis, buses, public utility jeepneys, etc., which are banned from all streets of Metro Manila on particular days of the week from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM based on the plate number ending of each vehicle, as follows: 1 and 2 on Mondays, 3 and 4 on Tuesdays, 5 and 6 on Wednesdays, 7 and 8 on Thursdays, 9 and 0 on Fridays. This regulation took effect February 19, 1996 and covered all roads in Metropolitan Manila.

Also, in 1996 the Metro Manila Council, MMDA, adopted and promulgated MMDA Regulation 96-005 entitled the “Unified Vehicular Volume Reduction Program” regulating the operation of certain motor vehicles on all national, city and municipal roads in Metropolitan Manila and repealed MMDA Regulation Nos. 95-001 and 96-004. The UVVRP, commonly referred to as “color-coding”, was adopted from the previous “Odd-Even” scheme which was first implemented in December 1, 1995 by the MMDA together with the Philippine National Police.  Under this scheme both public and private vehicles are banned for longer hours (i.e., between 7:00 AM and 7:00 PM).  This regulation was first implemented last June 1, 1996 and is still in effect.

In early 2003, the MMDA temporarily suspended the UVVRP. The resulting mayhem, probably due to the abrupt reaction of car-users, forced the MMDA to restore the scheme. A variant of the scheme was later introduced with a window from 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM (i.e., the off-peak period within the day) when banned vehicles may travel. Not all cities and municipalities in Metro Manila, however, adopted the scheme due to its perceived detrimental effects on traffic in their respective areas. The prime central business districts of Makati and Mandaluyong prompted these cities to implement the UVVRP from 7:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. This created problems as many roads run through different cities and municipalities, especially the circumferential and radial roads. Thus, it is possible for a motorist to use his vehicle in a city adopting the off-peak period window and get apprehended in another city that enforced the UVVRP during the daytime.”

[Source: Regidor, J.R.F. and Tiglao, N.C.C. (2007) “Alternative Solutions to Traffic Problems: Metro Manila in Retrospect,” Proceedings of the 11th World Conference on Transport Research (WCTR 2007), 24-28 June 2007, University of California Transportation Center, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA, DVD.]

I am aware of certain stories circulating among those in the transportation and traffic circle(s) claiming an even earlier concept of the Odd-Even scheme. All stories seem to eventually lead to Oscar Orbos who had a brief stint as Secretary of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) in the Cabinet of Cory Aquino in 1990. He is, of course, credited with the conceptualization and implementation of the “yellow lane” scheme, as lanes alloted for exclusive use of public utility vehicles have come to be known. An earlier version of the Odd-Even scheme has been attributed to him and, perhaps subject to verification, was claimed as among the reasons he was eventually relieved and transferred to another post. I say subject to verification because I do remember but faintly that there was a lot of talk about how to drastically lessen the number of vehicles along Metro Manila roads at the time. I was quite naive to such being a college junior at the time and was quite indifferent to policies that years later I would be evaluating and writing about. Moreover, it has been established that certain stories if allowed to circulate long enough gains the appearance of being true.

At this point, I am already tempted to provide a brief conclusion on the lessons and experience of vehicle restraint policies as implemented in Metro Manila. However, I would have to defer until after another post where the topic will be another vehicle restraint scheme, this time one that is even older than the UVVRP and its various incarnations. It is a scheme that has been subject to probably even more discussions and scrutiny given that it is a scheme other cities have implemented in various forms and had its share of successes and failures. I am talking about the “truck ban.”

Traffic schemes in Metro Manila

I interrupt my writing on the U-turn Scheme to write about other schemes first and particularly about vehicle restraint measures that have been implemented in Metro Manila (and probably elsewhere in the country).

I was researching on papers that we could attach to our letter to the mayor of Quezon City prior to his attending a Metro Manila Council (MMC) meeting where the mayors of the 15 local government units comprising Metropolitan Manila would be discussing the proposed implementation of an Odd-Even Scheme along EDSA. The proposal would be presented by the Chair of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) for decision of the MMC. Earlier, the MMDA Chair gave interviews to the media and mentioned a study made by the NCTS pertaining to congestion along what is regarded as the busiest thoroughfare in Metro Manila and perhaps the entire country. The MMDA Chair did not say the title of the study nor were there specifics on the authors of the study. And so it piqued my interest enough to search for the paper that the MMDA Chair used in his statement. The search led to two papers I co-authored with two very good friends. The material I was able to dig up had enough for several blogs but rather than re-invent the wheel, I will just reproduce what has already been written, reviewed, published and presented back in 2006 and 2007. Since the following text will a verbatim reproduction of parts of the paper, I have italicized the material and cite the paper from where it came from.

“Traffic management refers to a wide range of measures and programs designed to improve traffic flow and enhance traffic environment without substantial capital investment that may include ROW acquisition. Traffic management is necessary due to the significant imbalance between demand and supply in traffic that results in chronic congestion and its derivatives – environmental degradation and decline in traffic safety.

Measures formulated to address Metro Manila’s traffic problems are based on established, conventional travel demand management (TDM) and transport systems management (TSM) schemes. However, the schemes have been adapted to local conditions and are still being modified to better address the requirements of Metro Manila travelers. The MMUTIS Technical Report No. 8 (1999) presents a comprehensive review of traffic management schemes implemented in Metro Manila from the 1970’s to the present. Among the schemes formulated and applied in various forms and extent are the following:

• Traffic signal control system (TEAM, SCATS)

• Flow management schemes (one-way systems, reversible lanes),

• Toll discounts (for the North and South Luzon Expressways),

• Bus management schemes (bus segregation, provincial bus restrictions, designated bus lanes), and

• Pedestrian-focused programs (overpasses, underpasses, discipline zones)

The UVVRP and the Truck Ban are TDM measures that have evolved since their introduction in 1995 and 1980, respectively. The U-turn Scheme is a TSM solution introduced in 2003 that was intended to promote uninterrupted flow in Metro Manila by reducing delay incurred at intersections (i.e., through intersection closure).”

 

Source:

Regidor, J.R.F. and Tiglao, N.C.C. (2007) “Alternative Solutions to Traffic Problems: Metro Manila in Retrospect,” Proceedings of the 11th World Conference on Transport Research (WCTR 2007), 24-28 June 2007, University of California Transportation Center, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA, DVD.

Next: UVVRP

Full circle with the U-turns: Traffic Signals in Metro Manila

Since last week, it seemed as if a ghost of Christmas past has come to haunt me and my colleagues at the NCTS. We had some unexpected visitors from the Traffic Engineering and Management (TEAM) group of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH). They were at the Center to consult about a project being formulated by the group together with the MMDA for new traffic signals for Metro Manila. DPWH-TEAM has a long history with NCTS starting when that unit was created when the Philippines invested on its first coordinated traffic signals in the 1970s.

At that time, the NCTS was still the Transport Training Center (TTC), and was the site of the first traffic control center for signals that were installed along Quezon Avenue. The package was funded by a loan from the Japanese government and hence involved traffic signals manufactured by Mitsubishi. Years and many TEAM project phases later, most of Metro Manila’s major intersections would be signalized and traffic signal control would be under the Traffic Engineering Center, which until 2003, was under the DPWH. In the 1990’s, the TEC and TEAM worked together to acquire the Sydney Coordinated Adaptive Traffic System (SCATS), which at the time was already installed and running in most major intersections in Cebu City.

SCATS was supposed to usher in a new era in traffic control in Metro Manila until some major problems eventually plagued its operation. One of these problems was power. However, this was something everybody else was concerned with because of the power crisis of the early 1990s. It was also something that seemed to be easily solvable with the acquisition and installation of uninterrupted power systems (UPS) and generators that allowed the facility to operate even during blackouts.

Another technical problem cropped up just about the same time when the TEC and TEAM people were trying to solve the power issue. This time, it was something much more complicated and perhaps, what led to the system losing its credibility in Metro Manila and a chain reaction of sorts in as far as reactions go. The communications problem was a critical one and rendered the system practically unreliable for what it was supposed to solve – congestion. SCATS required a reliable network for its controllers and computers to communicate with each other. This communication allowed its software to assess network-wide traffic demand measured by means of detectors embedded in the pavement at each approach lane of an intersection. Data from these detectors are transmitted to computers in the control center, which then compute for  the optimum cycle times for each signalized intersection. The computers determine which intersections need to be coordinated and how (i.e., alternating or simultaneous), and this process allows SCATS to adapt to variations in traffic. Hence, its name which seemed only appropriate given its performance in what is now the expanded network in metropolitan Cebu.

The failure of SCATS in Metro Manila was further hastened by traffic enforcers who were only too eager to intervene. This intervention was more of interference as enforcers started switching the traffic signal controllers to manual mode at the slightest indication that the signals would appear to be non-responsive to changes in the traffic situation. In truth, it takes a few minutes for the detectors to collect data and send it to the computers that will compute for the appropriate cycles and signal settings as well as determine which intersections to “marry” and “divorce” – to borrow terms used by traffic engineers in Cebu City for the process of coordinating intersections throughout the day. Due to this rampant practice by enforcers in Metro Manila, it was only a matter of time before SCATS was declared a failure and claims were made that Metro Manila traffic is so much more complicated than Cebu’s, where SCATS was a success (it still is today).