Metro Manila traffic is a riddle that’s tough to solve. Just ask anyone who has spent a few hours mired in gridlock. Heavy vehicular volume and chaotic pedestrian activity merely scratch the surface of the problem both undoubtedly complex and deep.

In the middle of metropolitan thoroughfares are the men and women of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA). They enforce the rules, act as scarecrows to would-be violators, and decisively deal with motorists who disregard the law. It’s a headache like no other but Jose Arturo “Jojo” Garcia Jr. took on the challenge. Just as MMDA Chairman Danilo Lim did not turn President Duterte down when he was offered the agency’s post, Garcia could not say no Lim.

“He has a very good stature and is very well respected,” the MMDA general manager says of Lim. “He was incarcerated for seven years just to fight corruption. How can you say no when a person with that kind of dignity tells you he needs your help?” Lim is a retired brigadier general of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) who faced rebellion and attempted coup d’état charges during the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo presidency. He and other comrades staged a standoff to oust the former president and call attention to corrupt activities in the AFP.

Garcia left the private sector and was appointed assistant general manager for planning before President Rodrigo Duterte assigned him as general manager of the MMDA on February 2017. His marching orders: Do public service and take care of the people.

LOOKING FOR ROUTES
Traffic is the MMDA’s most pressing concern in its mandate that includes development planning, solid waste disposal, flood control, health and sanitation, and public safety. “It’s a daily concern of the public,” the San Beda College alumnus declares. “It did not happen overnight. It did not start last month, last week, or last year. It started decades ago because of a lack of proper planning. So, the solution will also not happen overnight.”

According to the general manager, Chairman Lim is implementing short-, mid-, and long-term solutions to address the metro’s road challenges. And to be able to find a solution, the problem-solver has to know what lies behind the surface of our road woes.

What causes these difficulties? Garcia identifies two key things: the volume of vehicles and the limited infrastructure in place. “Every year, the number of vehicles increases, but the roads we have do not,” he explains.

According to Chairman Lim, the metro’s infrastructure is lagging behind by 30 years. To illustrate, there were 450,000 brand new vehicles in the country last year. Sixty percent of these traverse the streets of Metro Manila. This year, the MMDA expects 500,000 new automobiles adding to the volume. Garcia predicts that around 300,000 of these will travel in the city.

Adding to our misery are the misutilization of roads. Garcia avers that illegal parking and illegal vendors obstruct pedestrian walkways. If they occupy these, people will walk on roads, thereby taking another lane away from traffic.

The bottom line is, no matter how good the policy of the government is, if the citizens do not want to follow, we will have a hard time. The government can’t do this alone. We really need the cooperation of the people

 

“These (vendors) will dare to sell in these areas if they are paying off someone to enable them to,” he adds in the vernacular. “Buses will not have illegal terminals, or load or unload passengers in prohibited areas if they are not giving money to someone. These are activities we really need to stop.” Garcia reports that under Chairman Lim, around 1,000 enforcers charged with alleged corruption have either been fired, placed on floating status, resigned, or have on their own volition been absent without leave.

Is there a way out of our current traffic situation? Anyone who has seen Garcia on television or read about him in the media will have a good premise of what he envisions. He has also probably explained it a million times.

“Let me explain so I can convince you,” he begins. “First is the infrastructure which the government is addressing right now through the Build, Build, Build infrastructure program,” he says. “But projects like the Skyway connector, C-6, and other new roads will take years to be completed. We have to do something in the meantime.”

Another is improving mass transportation so our kababayans (fellow citizens) will use these instead of driving their own vehicles. “But again, it will take years to do,” he continues. “That’s why we have short-term solutions such as carpooling—and I don’t mean getting passengers and charging them for a ride. Carpooling is when four co-workers or classmates schedule to ride together in one car every day of the week, for example.

“There are drastic measures like the odd-even scheme where 50 percent of vehicles will be removed from the streets. Two-day coding will remove 40 percent of vehicles. The problem is that even with short-term solutions like these, after many years, the problems increase.” Many motorists purchase another car to comply with the odd-even scheme. It means having more automobiles on the road—the total opposite of what the scheme aims to accomplish.

Garcia is aware that carpooling will merely transfer traffic volume to alternate routes. “That’s why these alternate routes are meant to be used by drivers who do not have anyone to carpool with,” he maintains. “We are not saying the entirety of Metro Manila should do it or that it should be done 24/7. We’ve just identified three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening to address the volume of vehicles. We need to schedule when they can traverse our roads.”

Ridding the metro’s main roads of provincial buses is also targeted—a move seen by some as “anti-commuter.” Garcia insisted it’s otherwise. Once these buses pass by the outskirts of the metro, travel time will be faster because the yellow-lane occupancy will be lighter.

“When commuters get off the provincial buses, they transfer to a city bus. It’s not their final destination. They transfer vehicles when they reach the terminals. We will remove the 46 terminals that become choke points. Because for every bus, 40 to 50 passengers get off and wait for their next ride. The front of the terminal becomes a terminal for jeepneys, taxis, and buses. We will remove these so traffic can flow better,” he explains. Daily, Metro Manila’s daytime population increases from around 15 million to 20 million because residents of nearby provinces like Rizal, Laguna, Bulacan, and Cavite travel here for work.

“If we fix this, we can lift coding for the city buses because they provide public service. But now we can’t lift it because nobody is complying with the expanded High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) traffic scheme lane policy,” he adds, pertaining to the traffic mitigating measure proposed by the MMDA that requires vehicles to have at least two passengers to traverse EDSA during certain hours. As of this writing, the dry run of the scheme is ongoing while dialogues between the agency and different branches of the government are done.

LANE CHANGE
The agency is also trying to change the mindset of citizens to increase compliance. Residents who park on streets in front of their homes are being told to find private slots. “They have benefited from the public area already, it’s time for the government utilize it. It’s not our responsibility to look for a garage for your cars. It’s the car owners’. We need all roads that can be alternative routes for motorists,” he said.

Garcia’s office applies the same principles to vendors who have used public roads or sidewalks for income without having to pay. “It’s time the roads are used for motorists because these were made for them in the first place. The vendors tell us they have families to support. We are not against vendors. For us, we are just correcting the way roads are used. Let’s say there are 100 vendors, 100 families will be affected. But think of how many people will benefit if we clear the roads—hundreds of thousands pass there.

“The bottom line is, no matter how good the policy of the government is, if the citizens do not want to follow, we will have a hard time. The government can’t do this alone. We really need the cooperation of the people. The number one (requirement) is really discipline. That’s why Chairman Lim and I say that you cannot complain if you do not follow the rules. You have no right to complain because you yourself violate the law,” he stresses.

Internally, the MMDA leadership is also implementing “drastic” changes in the organization. Garcia reports that the agency is trying to change its image through numerous efforts, including encouraging good grooming among its enforcers. “How can you respect an enforcer when he looks like a holdupper? They should look proper and wear ironed uniforms. If we want to get the attention or respect of the motorists, the enforcers implementing the law should be respectable. We cannot impose respect; we should earn that.”

It’s an initiative that the agency is probably thankful for when some of their enforcers are seen in viral videos on social media. The work of its Task Force Special Operations led by commander Edison “Bong” Nebrija to clear sidewalks and tow illegally parked vehicles is frequently viewed online.

“The perception of the MMDA has changed since we’ve assumed office. At least, there’s respect in some way. If before we became viral because of kotong (extortion), now we go viral because we’re doing good,” he says. “When a post becomes viral, it can reach 16 to 18 million views. That makes our information drive through social media easier. But, of course, the negative side of it is if you just commit one mistake, and you get bashed for it. But if you do good, people show their appreciation. Of course, there are still some who have a radical view and do not see any good in whatever we do.”

Garcia’s office is also looking into some tow truck operators suspected of extortion, too. He says nuances like these put the efforts of enforcers to waste. “Early in the day, they are involved in confrontations, are bashed, get punched, have guns pointed at them. And then one (corrupt) tow truck operator ruins our image? I always say, if (our enforcers are) doing good, we are behind them. We will defend our personnel. But if they do wrong, I’m sorry, they will be put in their right place.”

He credits Lim’s leadership for the organizational changes, sharing that people like Nebrija who have been with the agency even before the current chairman assumed office reflect the transformations that have taken place. Under Lim’s leadership, the general manager is also proud of the good relations the MMDA has with the mayors of Metro Manila and government agencies such as the Department of Public Works and Highways and the Department of Transportation.

“My work is easier because of my chairman,” he says. “People see him as someone with no agenda. We are just doing this for the common good. Every policy has a negative and positive impact on the citizens. It’s impossible to implement a policy that everyone can be happy with. You just have to think of who will benefit more.”

Weekends are not off days for the general manager, who drives himself around to see what is happening on the ground. “When they ask me if I have (background in) traffic studies, I say no. I did not study traffic or what. To make solutions for traffic, you should experience the roads.

“It’s common sense. You don’t need to be a genius to see why there’s heavy traffic. If you know the problem, you can find a solution. The problem is not knowing what the problem is.”

Garcia stresses there is hope for Filipinos when it comes to enforcing the laws to help mitigate traffic-related problems. Proof is when they are able to abide by laws when they are in Subic or travel to countries like Singapore. “We just need enforcement,” he closes. “The MMDA cannot do this alone. We need the help of the LGUs (local government units). And we really need the participation of the public.” — JOYCE REYES-AGUILA 

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