It usually takes a crisis, or a tragedy, to force us to learn lessons unlearned. Metro Manila just had a near-Ondoy experience. One more day of unmitigated rain and disaster would have struck, not just in families having to evacuate, but most possibly deaths and more massive destruction.
Why? Rains and floods are part of our lives in the tropics. They have been with us before we urbanized Metro Manila, and they will be with us after we are all not here to tell the tale. If we are living within a historical pattern, what made us think we could beat nature by overcrowding ourselves? We always experienced floods when it rained before and Metro Manila was full of open spaces to absorb rainwater. Why did we decide to cement most of the earth? Now, no matter the flood control system, water will flow to Manila Bay. Did anyone ever hear of high tide?
The Metro Manila Council (MMC), comprised of all the mayors of Metro Manila, are the policymakers of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA), their implementing arm. The MMC and MMDA will celebrate their 24th year, having been established in 1994. But they were really born via Presidential Decree in 1975 as the Metro Manila Commission. In other words, the governing body and implementing arm of Metro Manila have been in control for 43 years. That’s 43 years of lessons learned and unlearned.
Mostly unlearned if we are to consider the key points of Metro Manila. First, it is the most densely populated area of the Philippines; in fact, it is reputed to be the 4th worst in the world. It is not a matter of statistics but of physics. We who live in Metro Manila are forced to be condensed almost like sardines, almost but worse, because sardines do not have to move inside the can. Yet, maybe 99% of us had no say whatsoever about the development or mis-development of the metropolis. Except for voting the mayors in – if we chose the right candidate.
There were about 5.5 million residents in Metro Manila in 1975. During the day, there are about 15 million of us today. Triple the population but zero growth in the land area. Worse, the open spaces that defined Metro Manila before are almost all gone. In their place, residential and commercial buildings have been constructed. More sadly, in the last two or three decades, the same land area hosted taller buildings, aggravating the human density of the metropolis. The population tripled, buildings must have tripled, too, but roads did not.
Of course, mass transportation systems are more than necessary, they are crucial. It is almost criminal that the Metro Manila Council and its former self, the Metro Manila Commission, did not consider growing the road system even as they were overseeing the growth of the population. The LRT and MRT systems are like a joke today considering how little they are servicing, both in the number of people and locations/routes. Yet, they were only too eager to disregard zoning proportions and approve the indiscriminate building of residential and commercial infrastructure. What for are zoning laws, then, if they only serve temporary profits and condemn people into life-long inconvenience or misery?
I began to live in Metro Manila in 1965 or 53 years ago. I have witnessed both the development and mis-development of the Metropolis. As the overall mess became obvious, I began to wonder how an ordinary citizen can contribute to making life easier for the whole – because ordinary citizens definitely did not create the mess. I gave up trying to imagine and decided to be just a law-abiding citizen while suffering through the maze and mess.
Inside me, however, is a wish that those who govern us in Metro Manila and the Philippines would take pity on us, the 15 million who are too deeply invested here and unable to simply relocate. I keep hoping that the gargantuan losses that the country suffers from the traffic and deadly human density will jolt leaders to stop more wanton development and self – destructive policies. I cannot but feel sorry for myself and the rest of the 15 million meanwhile.
But where we citizens are is less pitiful than where the MMDA is. This agency bears the brunt of the collective resentment because it is the implementor of the governing and policy body – the Metro Manila Council. When we curse the traffic, we curse the MMDA first, not any particular mayor or all the mayors comprising the Metro Manila Council. Yet, MMDA is not responsible for choking the city, nor responsible for the horrible population density, not responsible for approving wanton construction of commercial and residential structures, and definitely, not responsible for the traffic caused by 15 million residents and who knows how many more transient visitors.
What MMDA has been responsible for is providing political cover for its own governing and policy-making board, the mayors of Metro Manila. MMDA is the bulletproof vest of the Metro Manila Council and an effective one at that. For example, this MMC-initiated driver-only ban at certain hours along Edsa is punishing the innocent for a traffic mess that only it created over the last few decades. But, of course, its implementing arm, the MMDA, will be seen as the monster that is ramming an insensitive policy down the throat of people who cannot avoid driving their own cars without passengers.
Can MMDA go against what the MMC proposes? Of course, and it should if there is a good, solid reason for doing so. MMDA need not embarrass the MMC publicly but it has the right and duty to push back in their private discussions, and push back firmly. So, please push back, MMDA, because someone has to tell the MMC that a traffic system is already a science that can largely defend itself, and is indefensible without that science. As I write this today, that science is nowhere to be found.