Can Metro Manila become a pedestrian-friendly place?

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With our surroundings and rules, it’s almost as if we see pedestrians as less important than private car users. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Editor’s note: Pat Mariano has a master’s degree from the Institute of Transport Studies in the University of Leeds. She currently works in the development sector, focusing on urban mobility. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Walking in Metro Manila is not a pleasant experience.

You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagrees with this, it may as well be fact. (It isn’t; it’s an opinion, no matter how popular it may be). There may be some exceptions within the posh central business districts of Makati, Ortigas, or BGC, but the overwhelming trend is hardly positive. Walking means having to deal with lack of sidewalks, engulfing pollution, sweltering heat or heavy rains. It means endangering your safety by mingling with cars and opening yourself up to the risk of getting mugged or worse.

And yet people continue to walk.

In fact, according to the latest urban transportation survey conducted on Metro Manila and its adjacent provinces, walking accounts for 31 percent of all trips in the area. These are trips made solely on foot — not counting ones that could involve walking to or from a stop or driveway — thus excluding the 49 percent of trips made on public transport and the mere 20 percent made on private modes.

This means that around 80 percent of our mobile population travel on cracked sidewalks and barely-working jeepneys, buses, and trains. That’s four times as much as those in the private vehicles that take up some 70 percent of the road.

Why is it, then, that our debates about transport solutions continue to include the idea that we cannot decrease — and should even increase — the space allocated for private vehicles? Why have we not done more for pedestrians?

And why, despite the many deterrents, do people still walk so much?

***

The most common response I got was reliability.

Metro Manila has become so incredibly congested and immobile that people move into expensive flats in the CBDs so they can live two kilometers away from work instead of eight.

Someone shared that they spent half a year walking over six kilometers to their office and then back the same way every night because it was much faster than dealing with traffic. They eventually got so tired of this setup that they moved out of the region.

We walk the couple of kilometers between Makati and BGC, Tiendesitas and Greenhills, or even Ortigas and BGC if the alternative is to spend hours waiting for a bus or sitting in a non-moving car. We walk when the lines for public transport are too long, when there is no public transport option at all, when we cannot book a ride.

These are far from ideal reasons because they corroborate the idea that Filipinos wouldn’t walk if there were any other way. While this isn’t completely true, who can blame us?

When we walk, whether out of choice or necessity, we have to prepare ourselves for the weather, the absence of pedestrian spaces, the possibility of getting assaulted.

A friend who tried walking through Makati got so frustrated with the lack of proper walkways and the harassing catcalls that she felt foolish for even attempting to get around on foot. Another friend has had to deal not just with getting hit on, but also with getting hit by a car. A regular walker fractured their foot on a cracked sidewalk.

These external threats to our personal safety and health make the unpleasant heat or pouring rain feel manageable in comparison.

Improving sidewalks will cost less and benefit more than road expansions. Adding proper lighting alone will help people feel safer at night, and using bollards or plants instead of fences can provide protection against vehicles without necessarily keeping them locked in.

Yes, there are pockets of walkways that are more than a couple of feet wide and are not blocked by lamp posts, trees, and trash. Even these pockets, however, can be engulfed in polluted air and can be completely different places at night, when there are hardly any street lamps. This lack of proper infrastructure can make even a quick walk outside our own homes scary, threatening, and downright dangerous.

Perhaps worse, the little infrastructure we have sometimes comes in the form of a fence. Presumably stopping vehicles from loading and unloading in certain areas, but actually forcing pedestrians into a narrow space or requiring them to go to a marked crossing, wherever that may be.

***

With our surroundings and rules, it’s almost as if we see pedestrians as less important than private car users. It’s almost as if walking were a substandard choice and not our primary means for mobility, as if people who cannot afford a vehicle deserve less.

We make pedestrians go up or down, and they are happy for it because on these dedicated walkways they can walk freely and safely. We sometimes forget, however, that those with small children, the elderly, and the PWDs — approximately one and a half million Filipinos, as of 2010 — may have difficulty using stairs or escalators.

We value vehicles more than people when, in fact, cars are mere tools built to make our lives simpler. Roads were not invented for cars, and people were definitely not made to drive them. Maybe it’s time we remember that and start planning our cities and roads with that in mind instead of vehicle speed.

Dr. Dayo Montalbo from the University of the Philippines’ National Center for Transportation Studies coined a term to summarize this idea: dignity of travel.

According to him, dignity of travel is “the ability to travel efficiently, safely, affordably, and sustainably.” We need to be able to get around without fearing for our lives and personal belongings, without waking up before we’ve barely slept because every additional five minutes at home translates to an extra 20 minutes on the road.

More than this, Montalbo says that dignity of travel is “the ability to choose travel modes without being judged for it.” In more concrete terms, this means that we should be able to walk, cycle, or take mass transit without being perceived as unable to afford our own car or a Grab. It should be about preference and choice instead of last resorts.

It’s almost as if walking were a substandard choice and not our primary means for mobility, as if people who cannot afford a vehicle deserve less.

Earlier this year, a friend shared a presentation on sustainable cities by one of the world’s most famous urban planners, Enrique Peñalosa. He may have presented his slides to the Asian Development Bank in 2008, but he might as well be shaking us into attention today.

Peñalosa spoke about transport and fundamental issues that are still very much present in our everyday lives: social equity, high quality of life, and low energy consumption.

He said, “Quality sidewalks and protected bicycle paths are not cute architectural features: they are a right. Unless we believe that only those with access to a car have a right to safe individual mobility.”

Looking around now, I see people hesitating to use clearly marked pedestrian lanes even when there are Pedestrian Priority signs. I see that they have good reason to stand at the curb for minutes, because cars hardly ever slow down and sometimes even honk at them for being by the crossing. My road, the cars seem to say, I get to pass first. More often than not, I see pedestrians accept this treatment instead of enforcing their own right to cross.

Unless we truly value the 20 percent over everybody else, this mindset has to change.

***

This is not to say that we should ban cars.

Not all trips can be made on foot, especially for the less able or when we need to transport a lot of things or, obviously, for those who live far away from their schools or offices or cannot afford to be so close to where they study or work.

Cars themselves are not the problem. We only want walking to be a viable choice and for pedestrians to have an equitable share of the road.

Our national and local government agencies now have a greater awareness of the need for non-motorized transport. There are several different projects for this, and the Department of Transportation is working to tie these initiatives together under one clear urban mobility program. These require time, right-of-way acquisition, and political will.

Nevertheless, improving sidewalks will cost less and benefit more than road expansions. Adding proper lighting alone will help people feel safer at night, and using bollards or plants instead of fences can provide protection against vehicles without necessarily keeping them locked in.

If you have one crossing on each end of the street, 300 meters apart, and your pedestrians cross in between them because of the location of shops and office buildings, then maybe those pedestrian lanes aren’t enough. If people haphazardly walk on roads, then maybe it’s because we built parking slots instead of sidewalks just to meet parking minimums.

We need to put people back at the center of how we design, build, and talk about our cities. Our sidewalks and pedestrian lanes are just as important as our cars and our roads — they all get people where they need to be.

It’s a lot of work, to be sure, but nothing less than what over 31 percent of Filipinos deserve.

Metro Manila could be walkable. We only have to decide that we value each person equally, no matter how they get around.