"Deal with the present and build, build, build for tomorrow."
The year was 1986. It was my first visit to Bangkok. As postmaster-general, I also was secretary-general of the Asia-Pacific Postal Union, which was one of the regions under the Universal Postal Union.
We had a conference in that city which aside from its marvelous Buddhist temples and the grand royal palace, was a shopping mecca. It was even then bustling with foreign tourists.
The city had many similarities with Manila: the hot and humid weather, though with occasional afternoon rains that I had ceased to experience in Metro Manila; the Chao Phrya river which reminds one of our very own Pasig; the hustle and bustle of a true metropolis.
But something that jots out in an occasional visitor’s senses about Bangkok was its traffic. Being a so-called VIP, my companions and I were assigned a van by the post office of the country, so we could move from one place to another.
One afternoon during the four-day conference, we asked to be brought to their “cheap” shopping centers at Indra from our hotel somewhere in the Sukhumvit area. What looked like a short distance in the city map however took us almost an hour to navigate.
“Grabe pala ang trapik dito,” a Filipino postal official remarked.
An oldtimer from our post office, who had been to Thailand several times in the past for training stints, said casually, “pasama ng pasama; dati hindi naman ganito.”
Bangkok hosted the Asia-Pacific Postal Training Center, of which I was a trustee, and as such, I had to visit the city for annual conferences, among others. But the next year, 1987, saw me with my wife experiencing an even worse traffic experience.
Which is not so different from what we note in Metro Manila: the traffic gets worse and worse, not by the year, but by the month. Times there have been that coming from Makati or BGC at past ten at night, one still gets to experience hour-long traffic traversing to Manila.
Each morning, I eat up at least 40 minutes by car from my house near the boundary of Manila and Makati to Salcedo Village where I hold office, and that’s just about four kilometers apart.
But in 1998, for a tourism conference this time as head of the Philippine Tourism Authority, I was amazed at Bangkok’s management of their daily traffic situation. This time billeted at a hotel farther from the downtown area, the traffic was no longer snail-paced.
Even going to the airport was faster with new flyovers zooming above Bangkok’s narrow streets. A light rail transport system was about to be completed, while in Manila, our LRT traversing Baclaran to Monumento was finished in the last years of Ferdinand Marcos, and if I am not mistaken, that was a first among Asean countries!
Of course Thailand’s government is quite different from our rambunctious style of democracy. Theirs is a constitutional monarchy more often than not run by the military, despite a very healthy respect for individual rights and freedoms, and an economy grown through free enterprise.
But the monarchy under then reigning King Bhumibol who was revered almost as a god was able to impose a sense of nationhood and discipline quite unlike our country where everybody has something to say about everything. And being a parliamentary system where executive and legislative functions were fused, policy and program implementation, especially funding appropriations, came more efficiently.
Now I will not write about Singapore then and Singapore now, ow we would all weep.
What went wrong?
To begin with, people. And more and more people. People coming from the poverty-stricken countryside seeking better opportunities in the center, only to live in worse warrens of congested habitat, kept in the metropolis only by the fact that “isang kain, isang tuka” was at least assured provided one had a menial job.
But nowadays, even the daily meal is out-budgeted by the cost of transporting oneself from hovel to work in a hopelessly congested city, not to mention the toll on one’s body by the daily grind of man hours lost and nerves frayed.
Our legislators have always talked about decongesting the metropolis, but never got around to being first to move out. Lead by example.
And only the Duterte administration has now taken the first step, which is to begin moving the central government to a new “green” city in the foothills of the Caraballo.
We all knew that efficient mass transport was needed to move people, but it has taken us ages to add to Marcos’ LRT 1. MRT began with FVR, and Erap inaugurated LRT 2. It has taken us more than a decade to start LRT 3 which will start operations only after another two years. We ogled at Hong Kong’s efficient subways, but only Duterte (and Makati’s Abigail Binay) started implementing the same.
All these will take years to bear fruit. Meanwhile, the agony of daily traffic continues to sap our personal energy and our collective wits.
We need more draconian steps in the meantime.
Get all the colorum buses out of the streets, regardless of who owns them, no matter how influential they may be or have been. Rationalize the number of buses plying the major thoroughfares, and instill discipline among the drivers. On medium-term, study and finally do away with the onerous “boundary” system. Medium-term because instant shift can be disruptive, and disruptions our public transport cannot take. (Just look at what happens every time the MRT bogs down).
Be very strict about the addition of more vehicles being registered. No parking place, no registration. This will give business to owners of idle lots, aside from clearing narrow streets of parked vehicles which can be used as alternative through passages.
Where possible, remove center islands, and use movable barriers which can be re-positioned when traffic is clogged in one direction but light in the other.
And start following Singapore’s COE restriction. Before anyone can buy a new car, he needs a certificate of entitlement, the cost of which is prohibitive as engine displacement and luxury class rises. Sure, that will bother those who have no cars yet but who aspire to own one. But we simply cannot willy-nilly increase the number of vehicles plying our streets.
And as leveling measure, the LTO can submit an inventory of registered vehicles belonging to one person or family, cross-reference the same through LGUs, and then compel the car-owners to retroactively get a COE for cars in excess of two. Mas maraming sasakyan, mas tatamaan.
Some will say the rich will not mind, just as they bought more and more cars to beat the odd-even scheme. So be it; at least they will bleed. And eventually, since most live in ritzy condos and exclusive gated villages, peer pressure will set forth.
There are so many ways and means, big and small, draconian or less, but altogether we must do something. Stop the blame game; stop looking back at the years of neglect. Just deal with the present and build, build, build for the future.