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On the planning and design dilemmas for traffic and highway engineers

It’s the Holy Week so I had some time for some musings. Quite some time ago, I commented on a post a prominent architect made on his social media page that practically blamed traffic and highway engineers for problems for what he considers as flawed designs. He even singled out the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) for being responsible. The reality though is that not all architects are a progressive, innovative and responsible as him. In many if not most projects that civil engineers have engaged in, they are usually provided with what are supposed to be preliminary plans drawn up mainly by architects. Many of these plans though are not really preliminary but in an advanced stage in the design process that often do not involve civil engineers much less transportation engineers or planners.

Granted, the traffic and highway engineers involved in many projects seem to proceed with their work blindly and mechanically, they should also be responsible for being aware of the interdisciplinary nature of these projects. These are civil engineers by profession and many seem to have been indoctrinated with the notion that local guidelines such as those issued by the DPWH are basically the only authoritative references for design. For many, there is no need to be proactive and look for more progressive references such as those on complete streets or people-friendly infrastructure, many of which are now more easily available online than before. There is a National Building Code (NBC) but the provisions, often referred to as minimum standards, are often not followed as one can plainly see in many developments in cities and towns around the country. Parking and driveway provisions, for example, are among those that many buildings do not comply with. Then, of course, there is the case of pedestrian sidewalks; particularly their absence along many streets.

Perhaps there is a need to revisit the education of civil engineers? There have been observations (criticisms?) that most undergraduate programs in the Philippines are “board-oriented”, meaning that the end result for programs are for graduates to pass the CE licensure exam. Memorization of formulas is encouraged. At UP though, early on in civil engineering courses, we already make it clear to our students that infrastructure engineering and planning involves a host of a lot of disciplines including architecture, economics, social and behavioral sciences, and, of course, other engineering fields as well. Maybe CE’s would have benefited from a stronger liberal arts program as what critics of UP’s proposed reduction of GE courses claim? But then you already have a lot of general education subjects in most BSCE curricula especially those offered in sectarian schools. Perhaps the lack of connection with the humanities is not a concern that is entirely to be attributed to one’s education in college but instead is one traceable to more fundamental issues that can be traced to one’s formation from as early as grade school if not high school? But then that’s another topic that deserves its own article…

Article on housing affordability and sprawl

There is a new article from Todd Litman that discusses the state of housing in the context of affordability and sprawl. While this is mainly based on the experiences in the US and Canada, there are many other cities from other countries involved. I noticed an interesting comment on his Facebook post about the elephant in the room being culture. I would tend to agree with this view and in the case of the Philippines is perhaps also heavily influenced by our being under a repressive Spanish regime that was succeeded by an American-style. I say repressive because although there was a semblance of planning during the Spanish period, the urban form revolved around the plaza where church, government, market and schools were located. Social class defined residential ‘development’ also followed this with the wealthier families having homes closer to the center while those in the lower income classes where farther and perhaps even beyond the reach of the sound of church bells. The Americans changed much of that and introduced a larger middle class and the incentive of becoming home and land owners, which during the Spanish period was practically non-existent except perhaps to the buena familias and ilustrados. Fast forward to the present, being a land owner is still very much a status symbol along with being a car owner. Homes in the urban centers (e.g., Makati CBD, Ortigas CBD, BGC, etc.) are very expensive and people would rather reside in the periphery (thus the sprawl) and do their long commutes.

Here is a  link to the article:

Unaffordability is a Problem but Sprawl is a Terrible Solution

[Litman, T. (2017) Unaffordability is a problem but sprawl is a terrible solution, Planetizen, Retrieved from, February 17.]

What do you think?

Mobilizing sustainable transport for development

The United Nations (UN) has recently published a new report on “Mobilizing sustainable transport for development” authored by a High Level Advisory Group on Sustainable Transport formed by the UN. The report and other resources may be found at the following website:

Secretary General’s High Level Advisory Group on Sustainable Transport

This is under the UN’s Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform. You can check out the other materials at the website. The UN has many initiatives on sustainable transport and has been very active in promoting or advocating for sustainable transport for a long time now. It is through the UN Centre for Regional Development (UNCRD), for example, that the Philippines and other ASEAN countries were able to formulate their national EST strategies. The new report continues on the UN’s commitment to promote sustainable transport to improve people’s lives around the world.

Standards for integrated railways in the Philippines

With the recent pronouncements about railway projects in Metro Manila including the ongoing Line 2 Extension to Masinag, the impending construction of Line 7 (i.e., along Commonwealth and Regalado Avenues and Quirino Highway) and the proposal for a Line 4 (Diliman, Quezon City to Lerma, Manila), it becomes more imperative to have integrated railway infrastructure including and especially common stations where lines intersect and common specifications guided by standards or guidelines. Do we have such or has there been work towards their formulation in the past? The simple answer to that question is yes. But then we have to qualify that affirmative response because while there was a study a decade and a half ago, the outcomes of that study, which is a comprehensive take on all aspects of railway systems was never formally adopted (again?) by the Philippines.

The following link is for the Executive Summary of the “Study on Integrated Railway Network for Metro Manila (SIRNMM) completed in 2001.

2001 – SIRNMM – Summary

Perhaps there is a need to revisit the outcomes of this study? This can serve as a good platform from which updated guidelines and standards can be developed for a more harmonious development of railways systems not just for Metro Manila but for other cities as well.

Transport Planning in the Philippines (WB, 1976)

I know its been a long while since the posts on UTSMMA (1973), MMETROPLAN (1978) and other studies – past studies and plans concerning transport in  Metro Manila. It seems apt that I finally was able to finish this piece in time for the Philippines Independence Day. Sinasadya talaga. I left a question hanging about what caused the changes in mindset reflected in MMETROPLAN that practically did away with the proposed mass transit network in UTSMMA. Browsing other materials at the NCTS Library, I came upon a report that I thought would have likely influenced the MMETROPLAN study team as well as government officials at the time. This is the report that I think would be the vital link between UTSMMA and MMETROPLAN – for what happened between these two studies and why the “about face” when feasibility studies were already underway for what could have been the country’s first subway line. The World Bank published a report entitled “Transport Planning in the Philippines” in 1976. The report had recommendations that were not favorable to rail transport whether for long distance or urban applications. Some excerpts are shown in the succeeding photos of pages of the document:

IMG09229-20140905-0938Cover of the report indicating some disclaimers and restrictions to circulation. I assume that since a copy is found in a public library then it is already declassified. It is definitely a historical document and a valuable one if we are to understand transport in the Philippines and Metro Manila.

IMG09230-20140905-0943Scan of page 36 showing the WB’s assessment of UTSMMA

IMG09231-20140905-0943Page 37 states the conclusion of the WB report regarding UTSMMA.

I leave it up to the reader how he/she will interpret this but I think it is also important to contextualize this contents of this report to the situation of the Philippines at the time. In my opinion, too, it is basically one consultant’s word against another. From what I’ve learned, the recommended plan in UTSMMA came from a team led by a very senior and well-respected professor of the University of Tokyo’s Department of Urban Engineering. Looking back now, it seems that their work was visionary and its refuting by this WB report was a critical point in the (non)development of Metro Manila’s transport.

IMG09232-20140905-0944A reference to LRT systems, which to some will seem like a counter-recommendation to UTSMMA

The same report suggested taking a look at LRT instead of the heavy rail recommendations of UTSMMA. This eventually led to subsequent studies seemingly having bias towards LRTs and distancing from much needed resources to improve the plight of the PNR.

IMG09233-20140905-0945Recommendations for the long term were explicit about the importance of having a sound spatial strategy for Philippine cities.

One could only speculate what went on in the background that were off the record or not documented. Did the WB exert its influence and ‘convince’ the Philippines to shelve ambitious plans for a heavy rail network in favor of what we now know as ill-planned light rail lines? It is this same WB report that recommended for the reorganization of the then DPWTC and DPH into the DOTC and DPWH that we know today. Thus, it is not only transport policy and infrastructure influenced by this report but also institutions dealing with transport. One person’s guess is as good as another in terms of the thinking back then as there are very few people who were directly involved in planning and decision-making then who survive now and are likely willing to divulge anything that will lead us to the truth and some closure regarding what went wrong at this critical time for transport development in the Philippines.

The data and evidence points to something Marcos loyalists would cringe to admit, that the former President ultimately failed in bringing a modern public transport system to this country and its capital. [No, the LRT wasn’t as modern and progressive as they thought it to be back then. We know now that Lee Kwan Yew got it right by investing in heavy rail urban transit at that same time.] We can only speculate that perhaps the WB and those behind the scenes knew Marcos and his ilk would probably steal much of the funds that could have been allocated for the rail rapid transit system and so did their best to come up with the conclusion that it was too expensive and the Philippines couldn’t afford it. I hope my economist friends would correct me but I am leaning towards thinking that “Uutang ka na din lang, umutang ka na para sa imprastraktura na magagamit di lamang ng mga anak mo kundi pati na rin ng mga apo mo at nila.” This seems to be the basic philosophy applied by other nations that have invested much on their transportation infrastructure. Such infrastructure has already paid off many times more and are part of the backbone of strong and resilient economies.

One colleague offered the analogy that the new JICA Dream Plan for Mega Manila is actually an updated version of UTSMMA. I also believe so and it is an updated and much more validated version of what we had back in the 1970s that was at best only partly realized (the recommendations for roads were mostly implemented). However, the price for such infrastructure will not be cheap and it will only become more expensive while we procrastinate in building them. Perhaps this should be an election issue come 2016 and something that we should strongly advocate for from our leaders.

Metro Manila Urban Transport Development Plan (1990-2000) Project (UTDP)

I stumbled upon an unfinished draft I have on a study or series of studies conducted back in the 1990’s. These studies were conducted by several agencies over a decade. I think I have been procrastinating on finishing this brief post on a project that has had a major impact on Metro Manila transport and traffic since that time and prior to the completion of the JICA-funded Metro Manila Urban Transportation Integration Study (MMUTIS) in 1999. The project actually overlapped with MMUTIS’ implementation from 1996-1999 and probably influenced MMUTIS in terms of what government agencies provided as inputs to the study.

The Metro Manila Urban Transport Development Plan (UTDP) is an inter-agency collaboration among the DOTC, DPWH, MMA (precursor of the MMDA), NEDA, CHPG (Constabulary Highway Patrol Group of the Philippine National Police) and MTPC. This consists of various studies undertaken from the year 1990 to 2000 aimed to determine what projects can be implemented to improve urban transport in Metro Manila towards the turn of the century. Sounds familiar?

Among the most relevant studies conducted was the comparison of proposals for a mass transit system along EDSA. The two proposals compared were the Philtrak bus system and Street-level LRT. The Philtrak option is quite intriguing because its description is very much like the current bus rapid transit (BRT) systems in many cities around the world. However, there is no reference to bus systems already operating abroad at the time (e.g., Curitiba in Brazil already had an extensive BRT network at the time).

The study concluded that the Philtrak was preferable to the LRT along EDSA. Of course, we now know what got built along EDSA – a light rail system (EDSA MRT) that is now carrying more than twice the number of passengers it was estimated to carry. This is despite the conclusion from collaborating government agencies including the DOTC favoring the bus system with an exclusive ROW. It is also now obvious that neither the LRT nor Philtrak is most suitable as a mass transit system along EDSA. What is most appropriate is a heavy rail system that would be able to carry more passengers along the corridor.

[Reference: UTDP reports, 1999-2000, NCTS Library, UP Diliman]

Transport wish list for 2015

Last year, I opened with a very hopeful post on opportunities with certain mass transit projects that were hyped to be starting construction in 2014. The year 2014 went by and practically nothing really concrete happened (Yes, there were soil tests conducted for the LRT 2 extension but after that nothing else happened with the project.) with respect to these very critical mass transit projects that were already much delayed. It’s the same thing again this year so that same blog post from Jan. 1, 2014 applies this year.

I will not write down a list of New Year’s resolutions for the transport-related government agencies to adopt this 2015 though that stuff is quite tempting to do. Instead, I will just rattle of a wish list that includes very general and very specific programs and projects I would like to see realized or implemented (e.g., start construction) within the year; preferably from the first quarter and not the last. For brevity, I came up only with a list of 10 items. It is not necessarily a Top Ten list as it was difficult for me to rank these projects.

1. LRT Line 2 Extension from Santolan to Masinag

2. LRT Line 1 Extension to Cavite

3. MRT Line 7 from Quezon City to San Jose del Monte, Bulacan

4. Cebu BRT

5. People-friendly road designs

6. Integrated fare collection system for Metro Manila trains

7. Bikeways in major cities

8. Any mass transit project for Davao City or any other major city outside of Metro Manila or Cebu

9. Northrail or whatever it is that will connect Metro Manila with Clark

10. Protection of heritage homes and sites along highways and streets

The reader is free to agree or disagree with the list or to add to the list. I’m sure there are a lot of other projects out there that are also quite urgent that are not on my list but are likely to be equally important.