By Ted Lerner
When it comes to discussing the ultra-hellish Manila traffic, there is no shortage of opinions. That’s why I’m not going to spend the next ten minutes of your life giving you my laundry list of solutions. Solutions are like opinions which are like, well, you know what. Everyone’s got one and, anyway, nobody really gives a rip.
What I can regale you with, however, is a perspective that those of you who have experienced the nightmare that is Manila’s roads may not exactly have considered, as you wallow away your life moving mere inches every few minutes in a vehicle designed to take you kilometers in the same short time span.
First of all, let me just say that we need to get away from calling the current state of Manila traffic a “crisis.” Manila traffic was a crisis 20 years ago, and it was pretty darn bad back then too. But now, with the economy roaring along and Filipinos addiction to new cars leading to thousands upon thousands of brand new vehicles being put upon the road every month, and traffic on the very same old roads at or near lockdown proportions, calling the current state of affairs a crisis is like a calling Donald Trump’s hair an abomination. It just doesn’t do reality justice.
No, what’s going on out on those ugly, decrepit streets is actually something much more sinister, more dark and depraved than a crisis. It’s more like apocalyptic. As in an “end of the world as we know it” type of scenario.
I came upon this nightmarish epiphany several weeks back doing exactly what most of you spend a good portion of your days doing; I was stuck in a monstrous conflagration of metal, plastic, rubber, concrete and steel on EDSA going nowhere fast.
Thankfully I wasn’t behind the wheel and the air con was on full blast. But that didn’t do anything to ease my irritation at knowing that our destination in Makati two kilometers away was probably going to take 90 more minutes, at least. I tried wasting time online but, of course the internet being what it is in the Philippines, the data connection was so weak on my smartphone that it was simply making my headache and my irritation worse. So I spent my time looking out the window pondering the absurdity of it all.
I think it was around the 18th minute of my staring at the giant billboard where a perfectly white Filipina with a not-so-Filipino nose was showing off her “Body by Belo,” that it hit me like a ton of bricks.
I started thinking about the car I was in, and the cars that everyone else was in. Yes automobiles, invented by humans using centuries of combined knowledge in order to free us from the shackles of earthly antiquity, amazing contraptions representing the ultimate human expression of the longing for freedom. And yet as we race to have the nicest, the latest, the trendiest vehicle to show everyone how fashionable we are, we have awoken to an ugly reality. And that is that the very vehicles we created to give us this ultimate freedom, have actually turned on us, their masters, and enslaved us all.
And there’s absolutely nothing any of us can do about it.
“This is a future gone mad scenario happening right now,” I said to myself, the giant catalogue of plastic surgery by Belo still hovering over me. “What has the human race wrought upon itself? How exactly did the situation get to this point? What is the point of all this so-called prosperity we claim to want when all it leads to is a four and half hour trip to the store just to buy a kilo of rice and a 5-pack of Yakult?”
It was just about then that the blue and white MRT train rumbled past above, rousing me from my biblical-like musings. I could see that the train was bursting at its riveted seams with a good portion of sweaty and tired humanity.
Ahh yes, the MRT, I thought. I remembered when it came online in 2000. I love brilliantly thought out infrastructure and mass transit so I made sure I was one of the first to ride it. It was fantastic. It was new, the air condition worked, it flew up and down EDSA while everyone down below on the road sat in the world’s biggest parking lot. And hardly anyone was riding it. It opened up an entirely different way of living and getting around Manila. They surely need to cover the metro with these, I thought at the time.
But, of course, all that good stuff didn’t last long. The powers that be made sure of that. The public vociferously complained that the MRT was too expensive. The masses didn’t want to take it because a ride on the MRT was P25 when they could ride a bus for P12 or P15.
But wasn’t that the point of any shiny new infrastructure? It shouldn’t cost the same as a decrepit old bus, should it? It should be slightly more expensive. That way the people stuck in traffic below can look up and think about how taking this new train might just upgrade their life. Yes they would spend a bit more, but they would also be more productive, less tired. That’s how progress happens.
The government, though, caved into populist pressures and ordered the prices to be slashed in half. Naturally the masses flocked to the train and the waiting lines became as bad as EDSA traffic itself. Eventually, after years of way too much use and not enough revenue, the MRT became exactly what you would expect: a utilitarian nightmare piece of machinery.
I occasionally ride the MRT, and the LRT, when I’m in Manila and the traffic is at its usual standstill. Yes, it does move you from here to there. But it is no picnic. It’s way over crowded, hot, some cars have lousy or no air condition, the signage is atrocious. There is no way executives, or coat and tie or business types would ever make this a part of their daily traveling routines, the way they do in more enlightened cities like Hong Kong, Bangkok or Singapore.
And so no matter what the government comes up with in the way of emergency powers to try and fix the EDSA conundrum, it simply won’t work, at least not in yours and my lifetime. Any proper infrastructure to alleviate this hellish mess would take decades to complete.
For now we must face the brutal, cold facts. It’s too late to turn back. Our barometer of success in this modern culture are the very toys that have turned on us and made us their slaves. We are addicts of our own making.
It is said by some that the burgeoning world of artificial intelligence(AI) could pose a threat to humanity by one day turning on us all and taking over. For anyone living and passing through Manila, though, there is no need to wait for AI’s rise.
The automobile has gotten there and done the job first.
*Ted Lerner is the author of the classic book “Hey, Joe—a slice of the city, an American in Manila,” as well as the book of Asian travel essays, “The Traveler and the Gate Checkers.” Both books are available in hard cover and e-book on Amazon.com. He also works in professional boxing as a writer and ring announcer, and professional billiards as a writer and TV commentator. He has lived in the Philippines for 21 years. Visit his website at tedlerner.com