As my car crawls along the highway, inching forward at an interminably slow pace in bumper-to-bumper traffic, my mood vacillates between impatience and sheer annoyance, like when the motorist in the adjacent lane swerves sharply to block my path and gain a mere few inches in the process. Ultimately he also realizes that this is a lost cause – we are all stuck miserably in traffic.
The above is a familiar scene from our daily experience, for if there is one thing that is now as sure as death and taxes, it’s traffic congestion. Now perhaps the most challenging problem confronting Asian cities, experts have computed the costs, which run into billions of dollars – a real drain on the economy. This is a result of wasted fuel from all those idling engines, air pollution that threatens to choke our cities, CO2 emissions, and, most importantly, a waste of everyone’s time. For the average person, the real cost is in terms of quality of life – several precious hours wasted every day battling the never-ending traffic.
Clearly the problem is huge, but what’s the solution? Just in case you jump to the obvious response—build more roads and widen existing ones—let me dispel that myth straight away. Plenty of research has confirmed that more city roads just tend to encourage more cars on to the roads. More innovative solutions need to be explored and here is my list of the top 3, or what I call ’ACT’:
1. Avoid travel
At first this may sound ridiculous, as we consider all our travel as essential. But this one is really striking at the heart of the problem. Transport experts believe that transport is a ‘derived demand’; in plain speak, we travel because we need to accomplish some other objective. There is of course some leisure travel—sometimes we travel just for the pleasure of travel—but that’s still rather limited in the overall scheme of things. So if we eliminate the reasons for travel, then we automatically eliminate a certain number of trips. This could include more working from home – eliminating the daily grinding trip to the office and back. Information and communication technologies certainly allow this to be done fairly efficiently, but mindsets are slow to change and physical presence at the workplace is still the norm rather than the exception. Likewise online shopping could eliminate the need for the frequent trips to the mall, and the dreaded chore of finding those elusive parking spaces. I am sure there are a number of more trips that could be eliminated if we really set our minds to it.
2. Curb travel
This was earlier imagined to be politically untenable. How could one even think of curbing demand, and expect to remain popular. Times have changed; I guess desperate times call for desperate measures, and people are accepting this. The latest example is Delhi’s experiment with the odd-even plate scheme, which allows only cars with odd-numbered license plates on half the days of the week and even-numbered plates on the rest. The first experiment conducted for two weeks this January was a success, and emboldened the municipal government to have another go at it in April. The merits of such draconian schemes can certainly be debated, but one thing is for sure – they compel and provoke people into innovating and adopting new solutions. For instance, the odd-even experiment in Delhi spawned a series of carpooling apps and transformed this practice from a mere idea to a popular option that was extensively adopted.
3. Transit travel
I am a firm believer that a good mass transit system should form the backbone of any city’s transport system, and particularly in Asia where the cities tend to be highly and densely populated. Increasing and improving the options for public transport and encouraging more and more people to opt for it is crucial. Unfortunately, the options currently available rarely meet the demand, and are never attractive enough to encourage large numbers of commuters to switch to public transport.
So here is a neat little acronym for you to consider and remember: avoid, curb and transit, or ACT. Why not make a start by working one day a week from home or perhaps start riding the MRT, Manila’s Metro Rail Transit. As the train picks up speed and rolls past the endless sea of cars lined up on EDSA, the city’s main thoroughfare, I am sure you will rejoice for a decision well made.
I do wonder, however, when we will be able to get our cities moving again. It’s time to ACT.