Duterte and Panelo
President Rodrigo Roa Duterte shows the ring worn by Presidential Chief Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo during the meeting with the Filipino community at the Grand Hilton Convention Center Seoul in South Korea on June 3, 2018. (Toto Lozano/Presidential Photo)

It took him nearly four hours to make it to Malacanang from New Manila, Quezon City. He lives in Marikina, and if he had started from there it would have taken him an additional hour for a total commute time of five hours. But Duterte Spokesperson Salvador Panelo still refused to admit that there’s a transportation and traffic crisis in the National Capital Region (NCR).

Both the government and the average citizen agree that there’s a traffic problem in the NCR. Then candidate Rodrigo Duterte acknowledged its existence, promised in 2016 to work on it, and only a few months ago claimed that it would soon take only five minutes to commute from Cubao, Quezon City to Makati via Epifanio de Los Santos Avenue (EDSA). 

Neither has happened. The traffic problem has instead become worse, and has morphed into a crisis of monumental dimensions. What used to take two hours from the Marcos Highway subdivisions of Antipolo City to Makati now takes four or more, for example. Metro Manila trains are breaking down even more frequently, and thousands of commuters end up hours late for work, home or school even if they wake up at cockcrow.

Panelo’s venture into commuting via public transportation should have impressed upon him how hundreds of thousands cope daily with a crisis not only in the traffic and transportation system, but even more acutely and as a consequence, in their very lives as well. Commuters are being moved by the transportation system at the same speed as, or even slower than, the three hours and 45 minutes it took him to negotiate the 12 kilometers from New Manila to his office by the Pasig. That was about three kilometers per hour. He might as well have walked.

If the present situation continues, much of Metro Manila will soon come to a standstill not only during the morning and afternoon rush hours but before and even after. This is already happening in many areas, and traffic’s coming to a standstill during the rest of the day and into midnight is already the stuff of urban legend.

But while its allies are using the traffic situation as an excuse for giving their boss of bosses emergency powers, the Duterte regime still looks at it as a problem that can yield to band-aid solutions, while citizens rage at the sheer torture of going from one place to another in what has been described as the most congested city in Asia. Hence the debate on whether there’s already a transportation and traffic crisis between Panelo and the legal left wing groups to which the Duterte regime has been attributing all sorts of evil motives.  

One member of an international human rights group agrees with the Duterte regime as far as those motives are concerned, and what’s more said over social media that those groups’ daring Panelo to commute was “dumb,” was driven solely by the intent to generate anti-government propaganda, and contributed nothing to finding a solution to the traffic problem. 

But the Panelo commute nevertheless demonstrated how fact-resistant he, and quite possibly the rest of the regime he serves, is. He is after all President Rodrigo Duterte’s alter ego, and may safely be assumed to be speaking for him when it comes to public issues. There’s also the fact that only government has the power and the mandate to look for and implement solutions to the problems that affect the lives of millions.

Denying its existence doesn’t augur well for the search for solutions to a crisis that’s costing the country tens of thousands of man and woman hours, as well as billions of pesos in productivity losses daily. That’s not to mention the additional costs in fuels that vehicles creeping their way across the metropolis incur, its environmental impact and contribution to global warming, and the increase in the health hazards people have to endure in one of the most polluted cities on the planet.

Meanwhile, the impact of the crisis on the quality of life of residents as well as of those others who have to work, study or do business in it is immeasurable. Manila now ranks third among the cities that no one who has a choice wants to live in.   It’s clear enough why. Spending eight to ten hours commuting to and from work or school daily — leaving the house at four a.m. to make it to the office by eight o’ clock, and then leaving for home at five p.m. for supper at nine p.m. — doesn’t leave much room for doing anything else in terms of rest, recreation, bonding with one’s family, or addressing its problems.

Because it’s man-made and the result of years of myopic indifference, the solution to the crisis shouldn’t be as impossible to find as it seems. But the search for it has to begin with identifying its causes. Among them are the sheer number of private vehicles on the road; the unreliability of the public transport system which makes buying a car the priority for many people; the fact that schools, offices and factories are concentrated in the NCR area; and the lure of Manila as a place of employment and other opportunities that are missing in most of the country’s provinces. There’s also the suspicion that the funds for the maintenance of the commuter trains are too small, or worse, are being misspent, hence the frequent breakdown of their services.  Overall, however, is the absence of any planning on the transportation sector that takes all the above into account.

The long-term solution is the development of the rest of the country as places of employment, education and recreation opportunities. The unplanned sprawl of metro Manila and the concentration in it of industries, offices and schools

contrasts sharply with much of the provinces, hence the resulting internal migration of huge numbers of the Philippine population to its poorest communities. 

The solution, in short, requires a radical reorientation to a holistic approach, away from the search for piece-meal solutions that even while being proposed are already doomed to failure. But without understanding that there’s a crisis in the transportation and traffic system not only of metro Manila but also that of many other Philippine cities, no solution whether long- or short- term can be found. Panelo’s and the administration’s refusal to accept that there’s a crisis because people still get to their destinations anyway is almost certain guarantee that the crisis will eventually be so unmanageable the country’s capital will be at a standstill.

The traffic and transportation crisis is only one of the urgent problems that the regime Panelo serves is unwilling to address, focused as it is on its spurious “war on drugs;” bloating the budget with pork for itself, its minions, collaborators and allies; harassing the independent press and regime critics; and purchasing two billion-dollar jets so its bureaucrats can have the run of the archipelago while the people who paid for them with their taxes elbow each other daily for space in  jeepneys crammed to the roof with passengers that are inching their way through Manila’s mean streets.

Like the other administrations that preceded it, it’s fiddling while the country burns. And that’s despite the promise to solve a problem that has grown into critical proportions over the last three years of its rule.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Cropped photo from PCOO.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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