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POV Philippines by Jon Joaquin

Transport, traffic, and toxic politics

by Jon Joaquin

One of the things I never got used to when I worked for a year in Metro Manila in 2017 and 2018 was the daily grind of commuting to and from the office. My first job there was in Malacañang, a mere 10 kilometers from our home in Malabon, but the trip would take me at least one-and-a-half hours using public transport – two jeepneys and one Light Rail Transit (LRT) ride. On many days I would resort to using ride-sharing services like Uber and Grab, but I couldn’t do that too often because it was very expensive. Besides, sometimes the traffic would be so bad that it would take just as long in the Uber as on public transport.

What I noticed – and what broke my heart – was the look on the faces of other people who were with me in the jeepney and LRT. Most had that resigned, weary look that said they were also having a rough time on the road and would rather have spent the hour or so with family and loved ones. In the morning none of us would have had the luxury of spending a nice breakfast with family because we all had to rush out to be able to make it to work on time. In the late afternoon or night we were resigned to the fact that it would be well past a decent dinnertime when we would get home.

For me it was the minimum three hours spent on the road that made me decide to move back to Davao City when the first opportunity came. It wasn’t the loss of productivity that bothered me but the fact that I could have spent those hours in activities that I loved. Even going out on weekends was stressful because traffic was still heavy on Saturdays, and on Sundays the thought of having to commute to work the following day lay heavy in my head.

I haven’t been back to Manila for a few months now but I understand from friends and from the news that the traffic situation is getting worse. Some call it a transport crisis, to include not just the traffic jams but the overall difficulty in getting a ride at almost all hours of the day. Malacañang balks at calling it a crisis, saying if people can still get a ride then that means it’s only a “problem.” A transport crisis, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said, is when vehicles do not move and people can no longer get a ride on public transport.

It’s all semantics, of course. The reality is that Panelo, accepting a dare from critics, took four hours to get to Malacañang from his home in New Manila on Friday morning. That may have been because he wasn’t used to being a commuter anymore, but even if you halve that time, it would still have taken him two hours to get to work. If that’s not a crisis, I don’t know what is.

But I also think it is not fair to blame Malacañang solely for the current situation. After all, President Duterte had said during the campaign in 2016 that it would take emergency powers for a sitting President to solve the transport and traffic problem in Metro Manila. And in fact, he did ask Congress for such powers when he won – only to be rebuffed by some whose only thought was that he would misuse it for his own gain. Say what you want about Duterte, but the one true thing about him is that he hates corruption to the core and would not have allowed any misuse of public funds to solve the Metro’s problem.

And indeed, Senator Grace Poe has of late hinted that emergency powers are needed and said it would be approved by the Senate on certain conditions. Duterte, however, has already given up because there are less than three years in his term. It was difficult enough to solve the problem in a full six-year term; three years would be impossible even with emergency powers. He would only end up being blamed for not being able to make traffic bearable for everyone.

Meanwhile, the people must continue bearing the burden of a gruelling daily commute – all because of toxic politics.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the original author, and do not necessarily represent those of the Pilipino Express publishers.

Jon Joaquin is the Editor-In-Chief of the Davao City-based Mindanao Daily Mirror. E-mail Jon at

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