What An Expat Thinks Of Philippines Traffic

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Manila traffic is really bad
This is what happens when everyone wants to be first at the same time.

Slowly killing my love of drivin.

It’s not hard to guess what an Expat thinks about Philippine traffic, but unless you have some context, it doesn’t really come into full focus. For many, this traffic is what’s already been their whole lives. But what about someone from somewhere else that isn’t used to Philippine driving?

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Let’s rewind to a different life

Where I’m from, traffic isn’t really an issue. The roads and highways around New England are long, winding, and relatively free of other cars. Driving can actually be pleasant and, dare I say, rather Zen. Perhaps your worst frustration would be to get behind an 18 wheeler on a two lane road where you couldn’t pass (legally).

This is what I was used to. Getting around to such things as work or shopping would typically take less than 20 minutes. The idea of traveling by car for an hour and a half was actually something to look forward to since you could easily find yourself in a completely different kind of place. Even if you had a job as a driver, as I had on several occasions, it didn’t seem so bad. The music playing and the breeze through the window (aircon was largely not needed where I’m from) seemed an easy way to get away from the stresses of life. You could easily fall in love with the open road, as many a musician will sing to you.

Shock therapy is still, well, shocks.

Enter my first experience DRIVING in the Philippines. I remember it well. It was after purchasing my very first car in the Philippines…a 1989 Mitsubishi Singkit. It was cheap and had the gears altered so it zipped around better at lower gears. Scary on the highway? Oh yes! But around town it felt just a little meaner than the little 1.3 liter would typically put out. First mission: Drive it from SM Fairview to Sta. Mesa.

Without going into infinite details, I can tell you that it was an immediate shock to the system. You learn new things very quickly when you have to, and I had to learn so much! Flashing lights mean “I’ll mow you down”. Using a turn signal was an invitation for the next lane to speed up since they now knew you wanted to be in front of them. Cutting you off is your fault because you let them smell your fear.

The morning (or evening for some) commute
The morning (or evening for some) commute

The road rage points accumulated, and I’m sure I went hoarse yelling at every other driver around. This was NOT what I was used to! Where I was from, flashing lights meant “It’s ok, I’ll wait while you go ahead”. You’d get a ticket for NOT using a turn signal and/or not letting someone move to the lane. And cutting people off? That could get you into a full-on road rage incident. You just don’t do it.

With observation comes hypothesis

As with any new terrifying experience, you end up asking yourself many questions starting with the word “Why??” You can’t help it. It’s just part of the process for anyone. You want to find some kind of fix for it, or at least a rationalization. Perhaps it’s just the part of town you were in? Perhaps just a bad day out there? The fact is, you’ll take longer coming to the simple truth the longer you go down this road. It’s easier to just accept an honest and simple truth; this is just the way it is around here.

But I couldn’t stop there. In typical Expat mentality, I had to do comparisons in order to develop what I thought were solutions. I know I meant well. “I live here now”, I thought to myself. “There has to be some way to make this better.” So I put my brain into gear and strapped in for what would become a months long pondering on ways to improve the traffic and driving in the Philippines. Below is what I came up with.

Not enough law enforcement

Traffic enforcer along Edsa Photo by Darren Langit/Rappler

Many in the Philippines have heard at some point; “No cop, no mind.” It’s the general thought as someone speeds through that red light, cuts off another, or crosses over two lanes of traffic to do a U-Turn. This was exactly the first comparison I had.

In the US, there are cops EVERYWHERE. No lie. They hide like ninjas, and before you know it, they’re behind you with reds and blues flashing. They got you on radar, paced you, looked up every bit of your bio data, and already radioed you in for potential backup. You’re in a V6, they’re in a V12. You’re not getting out of this one.

If you’re lucky, you get a warning. Don’t even THINK of bribing them. Some of these police have a salary of $35,000 a year, but with overtime they make closer to $100,000 a year. What you have to offer them is not even close to worth them losing their jobs. You’re getting this ticket. You’re going to pay this ticket. If you’re smart, you’ll live in perpetual fear of police officers every time you turn that key.

Bad drivers can improve the economy

Of course, all those who choose not to be afraid of law enforcement in the US and drive a little…risky…do provide a benefit. Their fines pay for all kinds of public projects such as education and infrastructure. As you look around you, there’s tangible proof that justice is in effect.

However, though there is a system of traffic laws and applicable fines, there’s a few things in the way that could really help elevate local economies quite a bit. The first is a lack of trained officers on a national level. I haven’t done the math, but it seems like there are far, far more security guards at stores and hotels than there are police officers enforcing the law. With almost no visibility, there’s no real way to catch bad drivers and get them to donate to the local economy.

The second, of course, are LTO fixers that help just about any unskilled driver get a license. This results in a multitude of bad jeepney and trike drivers breaking every law imaginable. A part of me wonders if fixers and LTO personnel that allow it ever wonder about the bloodshed that results in the fast pesos they make? Nonetheless, with so many unskilled drivers out there, it forces the skilled drivers to be more aggressive as well. So, the endless cycle perpetuates, and with no enforcement to catch and fine them all, the economy suffers, as does the driving experience in the Philippines.

Size DOES matter

Another aspect of Philippines driving that has a huge impact are all of the large trucks, 14, 16, and 18 wheelers that can travel on just about any road they want. When it comes to large trucks, there’s something important to keep in mind; concrete and pavement can only handle so much weight over a period of time before it begins to break down. So one of the hidden downsides of these trucks traveling wherever they want to is that Filipinos end up paying more out of their taxes for road repairs than they should.

What an expat thinks of traffic
Manila traffic can be insanity!

But then there’s the obvious…the large, lumbering, view blocking trucks that just slow everyone down. Often they’re traveling on a literal one lane road just to get to a private residence, where they’ll take upwards of 45 minutes to back in and park. The thing that makes this particularly backwards is that it points out the flaw of a lack of zoning laws in the Philippines. A zoning law is quite simply a division of what kinds of things can be in different areas.

For example, in residential areas, you can’t have large trucks or commercial businesses. In a commercial zone, you can’t have farm animals. This is done in nearly every non-developing country in the world to keep things nice and orderly. Yes, I know the Philippines is a developing country, but we’re all here hoping to NOT be a developing country someday, right?

Alright. So how about some solutions, then?

Ah, good point! It’s one thing to ramble on about the problem, but quite another to actually give solutions. As in most of life, you can give your opinion all day long,but if you’re not a part of the solution, then you’re still a part of the problem. So let’s knuckle down and use what I’ve said to point out some solutions that I think would greatly help with the traffic problems in the Philippines.

Law enforcement

This is, perhaps the number one part of the solution. Without a police presence, it’s still the Wild, Wild East. They say that if you want to get someone to change, you speak to their wallet. Imagine a police presence speaking to millions of wallets through fines? Schools, roads, and other public projects would get a huge boost in budgets, or you could re-invest the money into more equipment and training for the officers to be even more efficient at their jobs.

Corruption in the LTO

Now I get it. Cracking down seems like the obvious solution, doesn’t it? Make a few examples, and the rest will follow. But this doesn’t address the core of the problem. WHY do these people bend and break the rules for money? I would hazard a guess that it’s because, though they like the job, they don’t LOVE the job. It’s another job with low pay and a lot of work. If you could find a way to make people love the job more than the risk of losing the job, you’d definitely be onto something there. Perhaps working with improved benefits could be an answer? Giving people a way to medically insure their kids and/or grandchildren is a huge plus that people would not want to throw away so easily. And should someone be foolish enough to still risk those benefits, you can expect their former co-workers to shake their heads and mutter “what an idiot”.

Let’s get after these fixers. Blood is on their hands.

Also, give the LTO the task to require regular testing of public transportation drivers, with hard fines for companies and drivers that don’t comply with this. And, though not related to the LTO per se, make companies both civilly and criminally liable for incidents with their drivers that resulted after lapses of recertification.

Cleaning up who goes where and why

And then we come to the zoning and large trucks issue. In my Expat brain, it seems like a simple solution. Start zoning. Put the commercial businesses on the outer rim of the city, with a roadway that circles the city that’s for large trucks only to provide easy access from the ports and northern and southern highways to these businesses on the rim. Forbid all of these trucks from entering the city during the day. Yes, I know this already happens in some parts of the metro, but it needs to be expanded and enforced better. Truck drivers should have the same fears of daylight in the city that a vampire would have.

To be continued…

This article is part of a new addition to TheRealPinas.com called “Growing Articles”, which means to say that this article will be updated quite a bit, and more frequently than other articles. Please check back often to see new editions as they appear.

Also, don’t forget to comment below! Do you agree with me? Disagree? I’d love to have a conversation about these things, so don’t be shy…speak your mind! And as always…be awesome.