Dear Santa: This one isn’t for you, because there is nothing you can do about Metro Manila traffic. Not only would your sleigh get stuck in it if you tried to help, but it would also very likely get clamped, towed or confiscated for being a “colorum” delivery vehicle. No, old man, you’d better stay out of this and concentrate on delivering gifts in the middle of the night. This one’s for the normal humans. The mere mortals that drive, ride, cycle and walk on the streets of one of the world’s biggest and most densely populated megacities.
If thousands of people still buy into the idea that an obese old man in a red suit comes down their chimney while they live in high-rise buildings without fireplaces, then I want to cling to the idea that maybe one or two people will read and share this, and that collectively, as the suffering human mass that fills the streets of Metro Manila every day, we can work together to make the place just that little bit more bearable during this holiday period and beyond. I did say this was a highly naive and unrealistic endeavor, so once you’re done laughing and shaking your head, I invite you to read my wish list, because that’s all I want for Christmas.
Dear car drivers: I wish you would be a little more polite and courteous while driving. I wish you would at least try and respect pedestrian crossings occasionally, and I wish you wouldn’t honk your horn 0.0023 millisecond after the light has turned green and the car in front of you hasn’t moved yet. I wish you would see the bigger picture more. We are all in this together. Traffic will get much worse before it will get better, that much is certain. Relief in the form of the much-talked-about subway is years, if not decades, away. There’s no cavalry coming, soldier. We’re on our own in this daily million-wagon struggle.
Dear pedestrians: I wish the thousands of smartphone zombies walking up and down the road would look up from their fascinating little devices once in a while, instead of blindly walking into traffic and giving drivers a free reflex test.
Dear tricycle drivers: I wish you would be a little less suicidal and maybe even consider installing lights on your vehicles, novel and daring as that idea may be.
Dear bus drivers: I wish you would stop stopping in the middle of the road, and I definitely wish you would swap the horns on your vehicles for something less heart-attack-inducing.
Dear cyclists: I wish there would be more of you, because the future of this city doesn’t ride on four wheels, regardless of how desperately ride-sharing app providers are trying to convince us otherwise with their glossy campaigns and paid influencers.
Dear traffic enforcers: No matter what uniform you are wearing or what city you do your duty in, I think you know that most people think of you as corrupt highway robbers who often make traffic worse rather than better, and I think you also know that this is at least partially true. You probably also know that your job is actually obsolete. There are no enforcers standing on every junction in Munich, New York or Singapore, because in an ideal city, the job is automated as part of an integrated traffic management system. Metro Manila isn’t an ideal place, though, and so you get to act as the protectors of the fragile balance between free-flowing traffic and ginormous gridlock for now. I wish you would be more coordinated while you do this. I wish you would be more Santa and less Grinch. And I wish your bosses would buy you proper anti-pollution masks because standing in traffic all day is taking years of your lives and nobody deserves that.
Having traveled thousands of kilometers across the megalopolis on my trusty bicycle over the years—including to work and back every day—I got to see a raw, unfiltered and close-up image of Manila traffic, and I made it a habit to pay close attention to it. I look at the people in their cars and on their bikes, and I try to study the dynamics of this complex and incredibly vulnerable interconnected system of roads, cars and people that is barely held together by a wild mixture of written and unwritten rules.
Every day, I see many smiles shining through lovingly cleaned windshields, but I also see an increasing number of stressed and angry eyes of motorists staring into the distance from behind the wheel of their pride and joy. Aggression levels on the road seem to be rising in line with the worsening congestion. The vibe on the streets is changing, and not in a good way. Yes, the guy pulling a stupid maneuver in front of you might annoy you, but try to be the better man. You never know what battle he or she might be fighting right now, and this is a city where daily battles are a fact of life. Nothing around here ever comes easy, and we’re all just trying to get somewhere.
You know what happens when you do good? You get to go home with that warm and fuzzy feeling that, today, you were the better man
At the risk of disagreeing with my esteemed editor, no, I don’t think that the people around here are bad drivers. Unlike law-abiding OFWs driving abroad, people around here just haven’t found a reason to bring out their good side while on the road, because the system we all move around in is so bad from the top down that we often understandably ask: Why bother? There is one reason you should bother, and that reason is you.
Imagine yourself driving to work, and instead of speeding over that pedestrian crossing or cutting off that car trying to get in front of you as you would normally do, you instead stop and wave the terrified pedestrians across the road, and you gesture the other driver that he’s welcome to pull in front of you because the delay he causes you is so small it can’t even be measured. You know what happens when you do that? You get to go home with the warm and fuzzy feeling in your stomach that today—today, my friend—you were the better man. You made Metro Manila a better place. Maybe only for a split second, but you did it. You were nice to someone on the road, your smile or polite gesture made someone’s day, and you did your part in creating a better place to drive in.
Think about this: Metro Manila’s daytime road population is 14 million, meaning if everyone did just one nice thing—one polite gesture or one good deed—then those 14 million tiny traffic improvements would add up to one gigantic step in the right direction. Not even Santa Claus has that kind of power.