What Singapore’s involvement could mean for Filipino motorists

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In its final report for “The Road Map for Transport Infrastructure Development for Metro Manila and Its Surrounding Areas,” dated March 2014, the National Economic Development Authority officially confirmed what we had known all along: that we were fast running out of usable roads for motor vehicles.

According to said report, there was a national road inventory of 1,032 kilometers in the National Capital Region (NCR) at the time. Serving what was then a total of 2.1 million registered cars in Metro Manila, these national roads could technically only provide a measly kilometer of asphalt for every 2,000 cars. Sure, there was an additional 3,723 kilometers of local roads throughout NCR, but most vehicles were plying main thoroughfares to bring their humans to and from work.

These numbers were from almost four years ago. Just to help you grasp the outdatedness of these figures, consider that in 2013 — the year immediately preceding the above report — the Philippine automotive industry sold more than 210,000 brand-new cars. Last year, in 2016, Filipinos purchased more than 400,000 new vehicles — almost double the tally just three years prior.

Here’s the truly alarming part: If you check the records of the Land Transportation Office, you will find that there were 260,706 new vehicle registrations in 2013, and 471,341 new vehicle registrations in 2016. This means that apart from the brand-new units being sold by formal car dealers, parallel imports and imported used vehicles continue to flood the gray market.

Now, with about 25% of these units ending up in NCR and without older cars being deregistered or phased out, the only way Metro Manila could avoid screeching to a grinding halt is if its road network would expand at the same rate. Unfortunately, save for some new flyovers constructed around airport terminals and a few recently annexed arteries, there’s not much new pavement to match skyrocketing car sales.

Take note that we haven’t even factored in motorcycles, which last year alone sold more than 1.4 million new units in the country. Pause and let that sink in for a second.

Also, there’s the matter of “ride-sharing” companies like Grab and Uber deploying thousands upon thousands of new cars on the road (and often refusing to submit themselves to government regulation). Their gullible (or paid) apologists think these firms are the answer to traffic hell, not realizing these app-based services are equally to blame for the Carmageddon we now endure on a daily basis.

What to do now? Surely, we can’t just force people to stop selling and buying new cars (we who like acquiring automobiles even if we can’t really afford the monthly payments). And surely, we can’t trust our clueless government officials to come up with a meaningful solution (they who can’t even police their own traffic marshals).

Enter Singapore, our Southeast Asian neighbor whose vehicular traffic situation 30 years ago was almost an exact mirror image of what Metro Manila is going through right now. The city state’s National Library Board explains that “as Singapore developed with increasing affluence, car ownership grew. By the 1980s, there was a need to manage the rapid growth in the number of vehicles in relation to road capacity.” Sound familiar? That Singapore and Metro Manila also have comparable territorial dimensions (about 700 square kilometers for Singapore and about 615 square kilometers for Metro Manila) makes the correlation even more compelling.

Indeed, last week, our Department of Transportation signed a memorandum of agreement with the Singapore Cooperation Enterprise (SCE) for the development of an “intelligent transport system.” The SCE, its official profile states, “was set up by the Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore in 2006 to respond effectively to the multitude of foreign requests interested in Singapore’s development experience.”

In other words, our transport authorities have hit the panic button and approached Singapore for the answer to this question: What the hell do you do when the influx of new cars far outstrips the availability of open roads?

Singapore, in essence, will be our consultant in attacking our traffic problem, and it will naturally draw from its wealth of experience in tackling a similar quandary. So it pays to know what the Lion City has done so far to ensure automotive use is kept in check, because its motoring practices and laws could soon be implemented here.

The general idea is to discourage the unnecessary use of cars. To this end, Singapore introduced two main measures within its domain: vehicle quota system and road usage charge.

In Singapore, annual car sales are capped by a number commensurate with the sum of vehicles being retired (10 years and older). And in order for people to buy a car, they need to first secure a Certificate of Entitlement, which could sometimes cost more than the car itself. Yes, Singaporeans pay just for the right to purchase a vehicle. By contrast, car ownership in the Philippines is made too easy, the usual come-on being a low down payment or affordable monthly amortization. As a result, even those without a long-term capability to maintain a car are lured into getting one, only to have it repossessed by the bank after their household budget gives way to reality.

Also in Singapore, an Electronic Road Pricing system is in place, charging every motorist who dares contribute to traffic congestion. You want the convenience of driving your car, you pay for it. The more peak the time of day is, the higher the fee. All vehicles are equipped with a mandatory device that makes remote and non-contact payment possible. In the Philippines, car owners use precious road space indiscriminately, because why not? It’s free, and the alternative (public transportation) sucks.

It remains to be seen what specific measures Singapore will ultimately recommend to our transportation officials, but know that the end goal is to curb car use whether we like it or not. The Singaporeans will likely put emphasis on the strict enforcement of traffic rules, a particular weakness in our motoring culture.

“New laws aren’t the issue — enforcement is,” says Filipino expatriate Vicente S. Socco, who has lived in Singapore for nearly 13 years. “And Singapore does an excellent job of that. Traffic enforcement is a well-oiled machine in Singapore. If you look around, you wouldn’t think so because you hardly see any police. They use technology as a reliable and irrefutable partner. Take the bus lane, for instance. Any private car that uses the lane is surely fined. How? Buses are equipped with rear-mounted cameras to capture violators. Simple enough.”

Mr. Socco recognizes that reform is easier said than done in a country that lags behind in terms of technological development. “Obviously, digital infrastructure is still nascent in the Philippines, and the tampering of technology and public devices is rampant,” he concedes. “The point is that it can be done. We need to stop making excuses about why we cannot make it happen, and start making sure that the steps we take are not flushed down the drain by a sheer lack of enforcement.”

Metro Manila has become a hopeless mess of harrowing gridlock, and it will implode if we keep taking road clogging for granted. A study conducted by the Japan International Cooperation Agency has already pegged traffic-related economic losses at P2.4 billion a day. Singapore has offered to help. It might work. But only if we make sacrifices the same way Singaporeans did when their government asked them to.

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