In the darkened back streets, it was a scene out of “Blade Runner.” A traffic cop in sunglasses was at one end of a stretch and a tattooed punk was at the other, both trying to make vehicles flow. We went around twice because we missed a turn blocked by vending carts. An elderly man fell off a jeepney by accident, and we heard his body thud to the ground.
We missed the sun from the roof deck of the Bayleaf Hotel by the colonial-era walled city. Chilled white wine was served after the light rain receded, and thank goodness that it did; if it had carried on longer and stronger, we would have been buried in the flood.
The skyline gave us a view of the capital we love and hate. We loved it now in the dark, seeing the tower clock of the city hall that we imagined to be the Big Ben of London. Our eyes scanning the bright lights of the skyscraper, we’d like to think it could pass for Manhattan. And there’s the bay, which is, well, our famous bay, for what it’s worth.
The sweetness of the wine lingered on the palette. The half moon peeped out of the shrouds, a sign so ominous as if at any time Batman would save us from the pit of doom. We had read that our city of man is on the road to perdition if traffic is not resolved in four years.
We’ve seen our city survive for years. We’ve been enduring traffic for the past decade or so, or maybe for as long as we can remember. But there it was, our phenomenon recently bared: the rhythm of the metro trains stalled and “carmaggedon” ensued. Gridlocks have ruled our daily lives.
The architect Paulo Alcazaren said we’ve been living in a state of denial, and that just because we think we’ve been brave enough to plod on, we could sort out our lives around it. But nothing will reverse it, he warned, unless war or pestilence forces us to rebuild a city from scratch, as we may yet love it again.
The American Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines has been quoted as saying that our Metro Manila, a web of 16 cities, is “at risk of becoming uninhabitable” as car growth rises in limited roads, aggravated with an inefficient public transport system. Car sales are expected to rise to 350,000 units this year, up to half a million by 2020. We need 3,000 kilometers more of roads from the 5,000 kilometers we’ve got.
The problem, too, according to Alcazaren (when I ran into him at a talk on street art), lies in three major Ps: Population, Politics and Politics. No one has got the heart to solve the problem the hard way. Our population having reached the 100 million mark, we are at the seams. Urban migration is no longer to blame. A greater Manila burdened by 12 million people simply begets more.
And even though the homeless in shantytowns are offered relocation sites in nearby provinces, they return to the vibration of the city, abandoning the loneliness out there, true to our race which fears the quiet and the solitude. As it is, the city reverberates with neighbors out-noising each other. So forget about reading in trains, or cafes, if one is stuck in the traffic.
At the other end of town, in Quezon City – a distance of about 10 kilometers but which would take more than an hour of travel in normal road traffic – a concert was swaying at a university campus for bicycle lovers. The fad is gaining ground, either as a sport or a statement to the environment; but it isn’t clear if local politicians are ready for this kind of lobbying.
Biking in the city is a risk to life. Marikina City has an enviable track; but to our biggest shock one day, a young woman was killed when a truck hit her on the bike lane she was using. Every day, workers suffer the commute, pollution and various consequences of a hellish lifestyle.
A group of active youngsters tried a peaceful protest of walking from a giant mall by the bay to the main artery EDSA, once a sacred avenue for the history of a people-power revolt 30 years ago. Showing to us that our city can be walk-able, the entire exercise wasn’t futile but it’s going to be a slow trend with tiny, tiny hope of catching fire.
My millennial friend Leilani decided to buy a car and then regretted doing so. The train ride to work, taking the length of EDSA, was getting unbearable. It would often take longer to line up than the ride itself, squeezed tight on the stairwell because elevators weren’t working. She would come out of it sweating and exhausted.
But then, with her brand new Toyota Vios, she likewise found herself getting stuck in the humongous traffic -- photos of which roll on the social media feed. A Catch-22 is almost always inevitable at every turn you make in what was once touted as our “City of Man.”
The solution is to be happy in your own ghetto. I chose Quezon City for its bucolic campus that has its last remaining acacias standing with pride. Traffic has invaded its periphery however, with streams of trucks taking the new overpass and a rush hour crowd stopping by the new strip mall that replaced the city’s outstanding high school.
I have become one of those who rely on a folding bike when going around the neighborhood, more like a palliative to the chaos. But in truth communities have now revolved in malls as cocoons from the mayhem outside, and one may identify their brand preferences: SM, Robinson’s, or Ayala.
Condominium living has sprouted like magic (the closer to the malls and trains, the more expensive it is), perhaps in similar magnitude to squatter colonies sprouting before you know it. In less then five years, two buildings are up from my window view and at the same time an poor of families nearby has shorn a bamboo grove for their habitat, bringing with them karaoke blasting on weekends.
With this frenzy I saw a map in the Manila Observatory that showed waterways deviated by force, due to housing constructions. God knows what has become of our sewers. I asked the architect Alcazaren if there is any city elsewhere in the country that might at least have a decent standard of urban planning. He shook his head.
And so I wonder if we have made our Manila get out of our hands. It is probably better if we find ourselves a place above the distortions of non-city planning, such as rooftops, from where the imperfections of the daily grind won’t matter much.
Criselda Yabes is the author of "Below the Crying Mountain" set in the rebellion of the 1970s in the south. It won the UP Centennial Literary Prize in 2008 and was nominated for the Man Asian Prize in 2010. She is currently based in Manila.
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