December 22nd, a Friday, was prophesied by Waze to be the worst day of traffic for the entire year in Metro Manila. Before this, President Rodrigo Duterte told an audience of Kapampangans in a speech in Clark that Metro Manila will be a “dead city” by 2042.
When you think of Metro Manila, what else could have motivated that statement but its crushing traffic? Other public figures, including urban planner Felino “Jun” Palafox and Senator Grace Poe, each weighed in and concurred: It’s time to look elsewhere. Metro Manila is done. Pack your bags and move somewhere else—perhaps New Clark City or somewhere far, far away.
Some would attribute the President’s words to a disdain for Metro Manila. Part of President Duterte’s charm was that he was seen as the “anti-Manila” candidate, promising to bring wealth to the provinces and end the supremacy of “Manila oligarchs.” Despite these threats, his campaign bravado charmed Manila’s hardened folk. The promise of strong leadership won over the Manileños he swore to dethrone, and Metro Manila went for him overwhelmingly in 2016.
The President’s words were fighting words. And just like Architect Palafox and Senator Poe, I agree with him. Manila is choking to death on steel and concrete. It’s well on its way to a slow demise. It would be nice to pack up and leave. And sure, the promise of a blank slate is pretty fun. It’s exciting to imagine starting from scratch with the chance to avoid all our past mistakes. Indeed, I’ve heard many people express that our home should be nuked back to flat ground so that we can start fresh. If this city is doomed, then we might as well make the death quicker and cleaner, I guess.
Metro Manila raised me and others like me—city kids brought up on fields of concrete and rivers of metal. Really, what does it offer today beyond traffic? Can it hold a candle to the lush mountains and white beaches seen by drone in our tourism ads? What “traditional” values does Metro Manila stand for but the triumph of greed and capitalism over public good? A new web series on ABS-CBN’s iWantTV is written about how relationships in Metro Manila go “long-distance” when separated by only a few kilometers. Imagine that: Metro Manila corrupts love itself.
Today, Filipinos know what we’re missing. We travel to cities like New York, Amsterdam and Seoul, and the most we can do is laugh glumly at what we could have had if we were only a little less corrupt or a little more clever. What many of us may not realize is that few, if any, of the world’s great cities were perfect from the beginning.
Once upon a time, New York City was a crime-ridden mess, and Times Square was a hotbed of drugs and prostitution. It started to change with a move as simple as washing its subway cars. A decade ago, Janette Sadik-Khan as NYC’s traffic commissioner fought to bring shared bicycles to New York, and constructed miles of protected bike lanes. While her opponents went so far as to file a lawsuit against her at the time, Sadik-Khan’s moves were vindicated: Her projects made walking and cycling safer while also improving car travel times. Today, NYC’s bike-share program carries more than 60,000 riders a day.
Seoul used to be a chaotic battleground of private bus operators with scenes that wouldn’t look out of place on EDSA. Then-mayor Lee Myung-bak held close to a thousand meetings with bus operators, sometimes locking his officials with them in remote locations until deals were hammered out. To set an example in fighting traffic, he closed the parking lot of his City Hall once a week, which restored free flow to downtown Seoul. His reforms were so successful that Seoul’s public transport is still ranked among the best in the world. Mayor Lee went on to become president of all of South Korea.
The war against traffic will not be won with a single decisive clash, but over hundreds, if not thousands, of small victories
Many people look at their cities and lament that “we’ll never be Amsterdam.” A Dutch planner told me to always remind them that 50 years ago, Amsterdam was not the Amsterdam we know today. Cars jammed the city center during rush hour, and deadly accidents were frequent. In the 1960s, a group of Dutch mothers said they would not stand for congested or dangerous streets. Amsterdam reacted and remade itself around cycling and its waterways. Today, it is one of the world’s top tourist destinations for its picturesque planning, among other things.
Every great city has stories behind the bright cafés and clean streets you see on Instagram. In their storied past are countless battles waged by ordinary people trying to save their homes from congestion and pollution. When DOTr Secretary Arthur Tugade said that no one policy or project would save us, he was spot-on. The war against traffic will not be won with a single decisive clash, but over hundreds, if not thousands, of small victories. Guerrilla warfare was made for street fighting, and that’s what Metro Manila needs right now.
If you love Metro Manila as much as I do, you have a choice. You can accept its death as an inevitability, or you can pick up whatever weapon you have to save it. Here’s where I may as well drop a harsh truth for VISOR readers: Some of the things that have to be done are not exactly what you would call car-friendly. But we’ll have to take some bitter medicine to make life better for motorists and nonmotorists alike.
Our home’s hopes may be dim. But the hope we have doesn’t need to be empty. Metro Manila is my home, and I’m not going to watch it burn without a fight.