TraffIc Woes: The enemy is us

By Orlando Roncesvalles

Almost gridlock

Just about everyone complains these days about traffic in Dumaguete that I often wonder whether we’re fast approaching the gridlock of Los Angeles, Washington (DC), or even Manhattan. The common culprits are easily all over the place. The local economy has grown, and car dealers sell cars like pancakes on easy financing terms. This has added to the more traditional problem of big trucks and buses competing with motorcycles and tricycles. The owners of new Wigos, Eons, and Picantos are left to scratch their heads at their mix of newly acquired mobility amidst near gridlock conditions around 8am and 5pm.

What to do then? Though not immediately obvious, it’s not simply a case of too many cars and trucks using the limited roads. That much we ought to know from the infamous Law of TraffIc formulated by one Anthony Downs. He said that when we widen the road, we just get more vehicles and only a little improvement. It would be better to look at traffic problems from other angles. (For the curious, I sketch a proof of Downs’ Law at the end of this column.)

The status quo

The city officials cannot be faulted for lack of trying. Today, we have a complicated one-way system for the central business district; this seems to work well enough even as car owners complain that they have to drive more. The advent of private parking garages is reportedly at hand, which should reduce the “parking-space hunter” problem downtown. The cap on the number of public motorized tricycles has also limited the well-known traffic-generating disparity between these vehicles’ slowness (maximum 30kph) and the speed of private cars. So far so good? Not quite. We are still some way from traffic sanity.

More than a decade ago, a halfway solution emerged from recognizing that certain places generated unnecessary traffic in their midst. This is particularly true of schools, hospitals, and churches. The full solution was to enact laws ensuring that such institutions wouldn’t be the source of traffic problems. The analogy with environmental pollution is apt. The trick is to require a Traffic Compliance certificate, of the same nature as the Environmental Compliance certificate now required to protect the environment. But it seems that these institutions are so politically powerful that city officials were reduced to “begging” them to convert real estate into service roads. The Silliman Grade School actually responded positively. Others appear to just ignore the problem they’ve created. Why?

A good long-term solution includes the bypass road concept. Cut-through traffic from outside the city needs to be shunted away from downtown. The coastal road and Rizal Boulevard are now unable to function well as bypass routes because of the new restaurants and tourism growth. I once asked city officials about the by-pass, and it seems that the answer is something out of eminent-domain hell. The city has to acquire the roadway, but landowners play the cat-and-mouse game of guessing where this road might be, thereby almost interminably delaying the solution.


For the meantime, the literature on traffic problems gives some nuggets of folk and science-based wisdom. The following is a limited list:

One is obvious. Walk or bicycle. Here, city officials have to get better at giving pedestrians and cyclists a fairer shake at the benefits of city-hood. These folks pay taxes too; they deserve sidewalks and bicycle lanes. I once asked my students to study the idea of making half of Perdices Street downtown as a pedestrian zone (combined with availability of parking spaces at both ends). That idea should be kept alive and kicking.

Two, legislate and enforce no-parking rules. Some streets are not so bad if only “lawless” parking were controlled.

Three, traffic enforcers and stop lights are band-aid solutions for problem intersections. For example, near schools, it is probably more productive to get the schools to give solutions that get students to school without adding to traffic problems. Relocating the school may be a better alternative. As to stop lights, they work in the first world but probably not in Dumaguete. We thrive on the idea of traffic in scooter-crazy Rome, where almost anything goes!

Four, drive smart. Waze helps the car driver avoid peak-hour congestion. A few minutes earlier or later can reduce trip times albeit by not much. Another form of smart driving is to take the straight route or to avoid left turns. At times, even three right turns can beat waiting for a left.

Five, for the spoiled rotten, get a driver. Parking is hard work, time is scarce, and good drivers can give you the latest gossip, or tune the radio to sad and funny radio-seryes.

Finally, consider Stoicism. Maybe staying home is best. Living well is a form of revenge. That’s how Netflix makes its money. Now, if only we could speed up that internet!


Note on Downs’ Law: The basic model is one of getting from one place to another using two roads, the main road and a next-best alternative. Typically, the main road is already congested (it’s not the main road for nothing). The city decides to widen the main road. What happens? Traffic that used to use the next-best road then shifts to the widened main road. The traffic problem then remains unsolved. The shifting traffic is called induced demand, and this explains why the widening of the road doesn’t solve the problem. 

Recognizing Downs’ Law means that city officials should concentrate their limited resources on next-best routes, not on the main roads. It means the opening or speeding up of such parallel routes.

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