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When did we decide that cars should dominate our lives?

We shouldn’t be so dependent on automobiles

What was once a novelty for the rich is now commonplace in cities. PHOTO FROM THESUPERMAT

Dr. Juan Miciano may not be as well-known as other historical figures, but he still deserves a special place in Philippine history. Actually, he deserves two. One for his achievements as a pioneering surgeon in the medical field of urology, and one for something he did one day in the early 1900s.

Having become wealthy from his work, he walked into the famous La Estrella del Norte department store, and bought himself a French-made Richard-Brasier roadster, making him the first Filipino on record to ever buy and operate a private automobile in the country.

Little did he know that this 9hp, two-cylinder machine would be the first of millions, and that the motor car would come to dominate our lives in ways that are becoming increasingly unacceptable.

Traffic enforcers aren't compensated nor appreciated enough for the dangers they constantly expose themselves to. PHOTO BY SAM SURLA

If you’re in Metro Manila while reading this, chances are you’ll see a car when you look up from your screen. Even if you’re inside a building, you will almost certainly be breathing in some of the nasty things that come out of the exhausts of the vehicles that fill the world around you right at this moment.

Carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, hydrocarbons, benzene, and particulates are just some of the things hitting your lungs and causing God-knows-what damage in the long term. Yet, we’re strangely okay with having millions of machines that spew out toxic fumes surrounding us.

We’re not just okay with itwe even love those things and put them on a pedestal.

It's crazy that people have to go underground to cross the street, only for the cars above to get stuck behind the stoplight. PHOTO BY LEANDRO MANGUBAT

Just think of all the space we give to cars in this city. Thousands of hectares and countless building floors are reserved for the storage of our four-wheeled metal boxes. Highways are topped by Skyways, and if that’s not enough, then we even concrete over rivers to make more space for even more roads.

EDSA on a payday Friday is one huge, air-polluting car park, but it’s nothing compared to the grotesque 10-lane metal avalanche that is Commonwealth Avenue. That’s 10 lanes in each direction, and more if you’re a daring driver.

Wherever you look and whatever you do, private cars are omnipresent in our world. They are still the preferred way to move around for many commuters, even if they often do little actual moving.

The driver of the black SUV steps out to check why traffic hasn't moved for 30 minutes at NAIA. PHOTO BY SAM SURLA

Where other countries have gradually evolved from walking to bicycles, motorbikes, and then at some point cars, the Philippines seemingly jumped straight from walking to owning and driving cars. As a result, all the political thinking and the policies that help run this megacity were focused on automobiles way more than what is healthy.

In the eyes of politicians, it made sense at the time, but these days, we know that the best cities are those with few or no private cars. That’s impossible in Metro Manila, I hear you say, but I would respectfully disagree and cite Amsterdam as an example of how a city can change. The famous Dutch city may be thousands of miles away, but it’s actually more similar to Metro Manila in some respects than you think.

The Dutch economy started to boom in the postwar years, and suddenly more and more people could afford cars. In the same way, this happened around here in recent years when a new middle class emerged that sees owning a car as a convenience and a status symbol.

You'd have to fly to the beach to go through a day without seeing a car. PHOTO BY LEANDRO MANGUBAT

Back in Amsterdam, politicians also focused primarily on private cars for many years, and dedicated ungodly amounts of resources and space to them. These days, we think of Amsterdam as the cycling capital of the world, but back then there was a real risk that cycling as a mode of transportation would die out almost completely. So, how did this city turn itself around? The answer is two words: its people.

It wasn’t the government or the members of parliament who took the initiative. It was Dutch citizens who started to realize what was happening, and began to protest. They approached members of parliament, blocked accident black spots, closed off dangerous roads so kids could play safely, and did all sorts of other things that showed everyone how a world with fewer cars is better for everyone.

With standstill traffic, cycling is just as efficient as (if not quicker than) driving in the city. PHOTO BY LEANDRO MANGUBAT

It may seem strange to read an article calling for the near-abolition of the private car on a website dedicated to the very same thing, but let’s be honest here: What we do in Metro Manila every day isn’t driving. It’s moving around in various stages of misery and at speeds that often make walking look fast.

Driving should be fun. Enjoyable. Thrilling. And I don’t mean the thrill of trying to avoid enforcers lingering around the many junctions across the city for no logical reason at all.

Driving should be a pleasurable experience, and it can be one again if we do what people in the Netherlands did: Start having a good hard look at the negative impacts of cars on the world around us, and then ask the politicians to change things for the better. Just how hard could it be?

Frank Schuengel

Frank is a German e-commerce executive who loves his wife, a Filipina, so much he decided to base himself in Manila. He has interesting thoughts on Philippine motoring. He writes the aptly named ‘Frankly’ column.