The new normal is here

Published December 6, 2021, 6:50 AM

by Vince Socco

The number coding scheme for vehicles has been reinstated in Metro Manila, effective December 1. Although it is modified to cover only the rush hours of 5:00-8:00 p.m., it is clearly an indication that traffic along EDSA and other thoroughfares of the metropolis has climbed to an alarming level. At least, alarming enough for the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) to pull the trigger on number coding.

The coding scheme was suspended during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in order to allow the use of private vehicles. This was in light of the reduced carrying capacity of public utility vehicles to accommodate physical distancing among commuters. This underscores the essential nature of mobility to get people through the pandemic and out of it, as the economy is starting to reopen.

Recently, the number of vehicles plying EDSA was monitored at 401,000 compared to pre-pandemic levels of 405,000.This shows that traffic is, indeed, back to peak levels. With the reduction of COVID alert levels and the advent of the holiday season, the number of vehicles on the road has probably even risen more. The MMDA also reported that northbound travel speed along EDSA is now at 9.66 kph during the afternoon rush hours. So, yes, congestion on roads is returning gradually. The move of the MMDA to reinstitute the number coding scheme, therefore, can be seen as a proactive measure to get ahead of the rise in traffic. In fact, a three-week trial period was declared and, subject to results, may be further modified to include the morning rush hours or, finally, put into effect for the whole day.

The return to number coding is in tandem with the relaxation in public transport restrictions. Public utility vehicles have been allowed to increase capacity to 70 percent. Speeds of the light railway trains have also been increased to improve turnaround time, thus creating more capacity. The carousel bus lanes have also improved traffic management. In addition, more toll roads have been opened to decongest EDSA. It is a calibrated move to balance public commuting needs with road-use efficiency. The policy seems to have shifted from one of compensating for the impairment of mobility to managing congestion and the adverse impact to economic productivity and recovery.

The renewed focus on traffic management is a timely one. Secretary Karl Chua of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) expressed his view that the COVID-19 virus is endemic and is, therefore, expected to be around for a long while. Accordingly, mobility restrictions should not be used to address it. The key – as is the expressed stand of government – is in achieving better protection through vaccination.

As economic activity resumes, Filipinos need to get to work and back home. Otherwise, businesses cannot function. Consumers will need to be able to transport themselves to commercial centers. If not, store or restaurant reopenings will have no meaning without patrons. People need to get on with their lives, slowly returning to their community. Else, society will stagnate. In all this, mobility plays a central role.

One thing that should not be allowed to happen, though, is a simple return to the “normal” that we used to know. This would be fatal in terms of being able to live with the virus. There must be a sense of the “new normal”, where minimum health protocols remain in place. As such, the pre-pandemic transportation capacity will continue to be handicapped. To make up for it, added strains will be placed on our roads and public transport sector.

Alternative modes of transport need to be integrated into the equation. The use of bicycles, for example, exploded during the pandemic. Not only as another way of moving from point A to point B but also for well-being purposes. Scooters have likewise increased in numbers.As well, we can often spota good number of modified trikes and other innovative creations. All these are welcome in our pursuit of mobility for all. After all, the aim of traffic management is to move people and not cars.

As the Philippines continues its journey of motorization – some might argue it’s now a journey of electrification! We need to consider an expanded view of what it takes to move the nation forward. Electrified vehicles – whether hybrid electric, plug-in hybrids, battery electric, fuel cell or whatever new technologies automakers are still to introduce – will surely figure in all that. Connected vehicles will also rise in order to make road trips safer and more convenient. Personal mobility devices will increase in numbers to better serve short-distance trips. Plus, pedestrian traffic must be nurtured as part of building smart and sustainable cities for the future.

The resumption of the number coding scheme is significant not only in and of itself. It signals the start of building a better and new normal with mobility for all.

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