Sunday, July 27, 2008



Getting Around

Last week my wife (asawa ko in Tagalog) and I decided to play tourists in the city where we’ve lived for years now, Metro Manila. We do this from time-to-time, although not recently. In a metropolitan area of twelve contiguous cities and something like fifteen million people, there are a few things we haven’t seen yet!

About a year and a half ago passenger ferry service was inaugurated taking people down the Pasig River. This is the great waterway that winds its way from the uplands down through the city and finally washes into Manila Bay. The ferry begins on the outskirts of Metro Manila in Pasig City and ends at the walled city of Intramuros in the heart of the City of Manila and takes about an hour from one end to the other. There are fourteen stations along the way.

On the weekends there are only four trips each way and it is almost entirely local tourists with a few foreigners. With some 150 seats available everyone can have one but a lot of people hang out in a railed observation area at the front of the boat. On working days there are probably as many commuters standing as sitting. Some nice photos and more detail are available at:

When I first arrived in the Philippines in 1983 I of course passed through Metro Manila before heading to Mindanao. The person orienting me, a Canadian, observed that, “about half the people in Metro Manila are employed driving the other half around.”

Transportation in Metro Manila has changed much in twenty-five years, but a lot of people are still employed moving the rest of the people around.

Much has been written about the ubiquitous jeepneys. These contraptions came into use shortly after World War II. American military jeeps were purchased for a song with the rear extended to carry passengers. Sixty years on, this is probably still how most Filipinos – rural and urban – get around. Today’s jeepney carries the driver and two passengers in the front, and about eighteen passengers in the rear, facing each other. Getting in and out means bending way down; the older and taller you are, the more painful it is. The vehicle is decorated with aluminum horses and adorned with religious slogans and murals – some quite good – painted on the side depicting a saint, a showgirl, or the city where the owner earned the money to buy the thing. Usually the jeepney carries a name as well: Jesus the Lord, Saudi, Maria Clara, Virgin Mary, or some such thing.

Buses ply the main streets of Metro Manila, and connect the major cities. These are with aircon and without, and include used buses imported from wealthier Asian countries as well as comfortable new ones.

The main thoroughfare in Metro Manila, Epifanio de Los Santos Avenue, or EDSA, is now off-limit to jeepneys. In fact, the main jeepney-making company, Sarao, closed down a few years ago. For fifty years Sarao imported engines from Japan and built the chassis here. At the end, they were still turning out one a day. It was a cottage industry.

I feel no nostalgia regarding the eventual passing of the jeepney. The late Filipino historian, Renato Constantino, once referred to them as “an appropriate but unfortunate symbol of our nation, flashy, pretentious, and totally inefficient.” Only a Filipino with strong nationalist credentials could get away with a statement like that!

The jeepneys compete for passengers with the FXs, enclosed vehicles that are air conditioned. They carry ten passengers but are much more crowded than jeepneys and on cool, dry, winter days I’ll take a jeepney over an FX any day.

Finally, there are the Light Rail Transit trains. The first LRT was established running a strait north-south route from just south of the City of Manila to Quezon City in 1984. It is probably the best infrastructure built during the Marcos dictatorship.

In 1999 a newer train was established running down the center of most of EDSA. A few years ago a third line was established from Marikina on the far side of Quezon City and going down to Central Manila. It crosses the EDSA line, and meets the original train at the south side. Plans are for the old line to meet the EDSA line on the north side in a few years.

Were it not for the trains, ground transportation would be totally gridlocked.

Until a few months ago, one sat or stood on the EDSA train and looked down at the much slower moving buses, cars, and taxis below.

One could safely say – even though more infrequent visitors to the Philippines might deny it – that for nearly ten years there has been a steady improvement in transportation in the Philippines. There has been less gridlock, more comfortable and efficient trains, and fewer jeepneys.

Then came the energy crisis.

For over a year asawa ko has been commuting to her job in the Ortigas business district. Typically she takes a short taxi ride the beginning of the EDSA train at North Avenue Station. The train takes about fifteen or twenty minutes and the entrance way to her office right below the Ortigas Station. She takes the train on the return then transfers to a taxi or jeepney.

Already, for over a year the train has filled up completely from the first station where asawa ko boards. She’s learned how to maneuver quickly so she usually gets a seat, but it is crowded to the extreme from the moment the trip begins.

Two months ago, before the fuel crisis, the EDSA train was at capacity with 350,000 passenger trips per day. Today it is carrying 450,000 and rising every day. Bus and jeepney fairs have gone up, but the train is subsidized so as of yet there is no fair increase planned for the train. Buses have more stops, so depending on the destination the bus can be more convenient, but it’s now more expensive than the train. A huge number of former bus passengers are now taking the train, as well as motorists who park their cars near the train stations. The social demographics of the train have changed with more people in business attire pushing in along with the secretaries and working class folk.

Meanwhile, look down to the street below, and it’s empty, the buses and the few remaining cars moving fast down the road.

The government has put in more orders for the Belgian-made train cars. This will increase capacity by 25 percent. In addition, heavy commute hours, when more trains are operating, have been extended by an hour. It is estimated that by year’s end capacity and use will double.

While life in Metro Manila has been improving over the last several years, in recent months it has become much more stressful, mainly due to the transportation issue, and the food crisis, with the cost of groceries increasing more rapidly than even fuel.

Today the president will give her annual State of the Nation Address. As with every SONA, she will tell lies, and thousands of protesters will gather outside the congress hall. She will talk about how she is not responsible for the current economic stress, and about the success of her handout programs. She will, of course, take credit for improvements in life, including the Ferry Service or the smoother traffic. My protest, however, will be to neither watch her on TV, nor read about it in tomorrow’s newspaper.

As for the Pasig Ferry, I’m not sure if it is the most efficient way to get from the outer edge of the city to old down town, but it is decidedly more pleasant, especially at this point, then taking the train!

Moving swiftly down the middle of the river I see parts of the city I’ve been to before, but I see them from a completely different side and angle, as if it’s not Metro Manila, not even the Philippines. Bridges cross the river here and there, and there are also small boats ferrying people back and forth across the river, connecting neighborhoods. I didn’t even know these boats existed. For most of the way the river front development is shabby to the extreme, lots of abandoned warehouses and empty factories. For long stretches it seems as if it is a rural river trip in, say, Laos or Thailand. Then we turn a corner on this winding river and get a view of urban high rise. For a short stretch there is river side condo development, and a few towns have established small river front parks. But for most of the way it is either rather bleak or rural seeming.

The Pasig River is not as dirty today as ten years ago. It is a little less toxic, and rarely smells like a sewer, as it used to. Again, some things have improved. Still, the urban poor kids swimming at the sides of the river are undoubtedly damaging their health and exposing themselves to all sorts of skin disorders.

I was surprised, passing through the City of Makati, near the financial district, that there weren’t any river front restaurants to speak of. With the right lighting it could actually be very romantic. Well, maybe some day when I inherit a million dollars…

1 comment:

Cyra said...

I think my favorite jeepney sign is "Katas ng Saudi" and "Basta jeepney driver, sweet lover"... hehehe.

I, on the other hand, would like to hear what GMA's going to say. At least I know what she should be accountable for.