Reflections on Ungka Flyover

I am currently building up my experience in transportation engineering. This specialization is not as lucrative as construction, though. It does not pay much. Demand for transportation experts is quite low despite of being one of the most important for urbanizing areas. Transportation is one of the most difficult to comprehend as it requires enough background in communication, economics, land use, public policy, and urban planning.

There has been a lingering issue on the current state of Ungka Flyover. Some acquaintances and friends have asked me to weigh in on this matter and apparently, I kept silent for almost a year since the narratives went out. Guided by the Philippine Institute of Civil Engineers Code of Ethics, we civil engineers should only weigh in on matters where we have the right amount of competencies and should not go beyond this. I am not a structural engineer so I leave the issue of the flyover’s structural integrity to the experts on that. However, I want to share my perspective on how we are managing transportation issues through a different lens.

The transportation landscape of the metro is simply the embryonic stage of what we are trying to avoid becoming. We despise the traffic of Metro Manila and yet, we seem not to learn anything from it. TomTom, an international contextual mapping company, collated some information on the state of traffic and unfortunately, we are in the top 10 of something we should never be proud about – Manila is the 4th top city with the worst traffic conditions in 2020. Imagine, even during the worst days of the pandemic where mobility was restricted, we are still among the worst. In Iloilo City, we also experience the same traffic, at least not as horrible as Manila; but if things go unaddressed, we could get there in no time.

Satellite image of EDSA Magallanes Interchange (Google Maps)

How is the country, in general dealing, with this problem? We invested heavily on infrastructure, almost 6.0 percent of our gross domestic product in 2021. We build expressways which not only turned our highways into multi-level concrete jungles like the one in EDSA Magallanes interchange, but also resort to laying these expressways along the rivers like portions of NAIA Expressway and the proposed Pasig River Expressway permanently and potentially destroying the riverside skylines and impacting possibly the natural course of the waterways and the biodiversity that depends on it. As I can recall in the early days of my career, bridges alone could cost as much as PHP1 million per meter of length. These concrete elevated roadways can stretch for several kilometers.

A section of NAIA Expressway leading to NAIA Termiinal 3 passes by Estero de Gallina. (Google Maps)

In an economic perspective, these expressways come in the form of public-private partnership and will entail users to spend on tolls to pass through. While it means that these expressways will eventually pay for themselves, it only benefits those who can afford thereby creating more disparity in the mobility of Filipinos. One can argue that transport costs of goods would become cheaper and can contribute to lowering their retail costs. These are all assumptions. With the conditions we are experiencing in inflation, we are yet to reap the fruits of the seeds we sowed.

Transport enthusiasts and even experts continue to struggle in amplifying the simple principle of “move people, not cars.” The current infrastructure prioritization always aims to cut travel time. Apparently, cutting travel time here implies the travel time of cars, not people. We build bypass roads, diversion roads, flyovers, and underpasses to ensure we minimize stopping times in road intersections. Single-lane roads were upgraded to two-lane roads. We even have our Iloilo Diversion Road at four lanes on each side. What are these road enhancements built for?

In transportation, there is a concept called induced demand. This dictates that when there is enough road capacity and no road congestion, preference of driving is escalated. This means, people who chose not to use cars because of traffic congestion would return to the road. Eventually, the now-widened road becomes congested again. Another issue that does not make sense is that car ownership has been relatively easy in the Philippines. This is best illustrated with the consistent rise in motor vehicle registration as recorded by the Land Transportation Office. In Metro Manila alone, it increased by 10.1 percent in 2019. So with induced demand, plus the increased car ownership, how will we ever solve traffic?

As a commuter and someone who least prefers owning a car, I resort to public transport. The old ones are uncomfortable and beyond jam-packed. The transition towards modernized jeepneys is something that was done with the right intentions to provide comfort for the commuting public. However, certain dynamics still threaten its reliability and sustainability. In a single thought, the country should endeavor to make public transport the most preferred means of mobility. After all, I firmly believe that successful cities is where the rich use public transport – not because it is premium but because it is comfortable and at a reasonable and inclusive price point.

To wrap things up, what we really need to improve transport is not additional infrastructure such as flyovers, expressways, widened roads, etc. We need a smart use case for our roads. Its occupants should primarily be affordable, comfortable, and convenient public transportation, as well as logistics operations, disaster and emergency response vehicles, and the like. Alternative forms of transport, especially active transport, must be supported with user-centered policies protecting their rights as well as infrastructure (which are definitely less costly than the flyovers).

Widened roads, flyovers, they don’t always mean solving traffic and progress; they may also mean a failed transportation system. I stand with the unpopular opinion, “move people, not cars.”

Published by Ilonggo Engineer

Ilonggo Engineer or Ray, is a civil engineer and a writer who strongly advocates for road safety, technology literacy, and social equity.

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