The recent closure of the Estrella-Pantaleon Bridge has made our lives additionally miserable. The government’s justification for the bridge’s early replacement, just years after completion, has raised questions as to the efficacy of its infrastructure planning and the competency of those charged with building these key elements of transport connectivity.
Bridges are essential in a metropolis bisected by a major river system such as the Pasig and its tributaries. Metro Manila is essentially separated into north and south sections, much like Paris. Unlike Paris however, or other global cities like Singapore, London, or Chicago, Metro Manila’s river crossings and riverbanks leave much to be desired in terms of function, as well as aesthetic value.
Postcard views of those other cities feature elegant bridges, riversides with urban vibrancy, and a perceptible pride of place that identify these places with the rivers that historically contributed to their progress and prosperity. The Pasig has done much for Manila’s economy and growth, yet it continues to be treated as a sewer and a site less favored, with few exceptions, for valuable development.
In terms of functionality, all modern cities rely on connectivity to make them livable for its residents. Bridges are key links in their complex transport networks, which by the way, includes pedestrian and bike systems that are essential for sustainability.
Paris has 37 bridges crossing the Seine. Five are pedestrian and two are rail crossings. Chicago has 38 bridges, eight of which are pedestrian. London has 33 bridges, with three of them pedestrian. It is important to note that most of these cities’ vehicular bridges are also pedestrian-friendly.
Our close neighbor Singapore, whose river is only two kilometers long, has 14 bridges. Three of these bridges are dedicated pedestrian and bike bridges. The Pasig River is 27 kilometers long. It is 10 times the length of the Singapore River, but it has only 16 bridges, none of which are pedestrian or bicycle bridges.
This deficiency is being corrected by the DPWH, which has planned or are in the middle of constructing seven more. This is well and good, but the perception is that many of these are projects fast tracked without enough stakeholder consultation, much less integration into a longer-term master plan for the metropolis’ transport network; hence, all the public opprobrium.
Not one of the existing or planned bridges is a dedicated pedestrian bridge. These, and bike-friendly ones, are essential in any sustainable transport network. All progressive cities worldwide are building them or retrofitting existing bridges to cater better to pedestrians and bikers. These types of bridges allow pedestrians to bypass vehicular or rail transport to reach districts right across the water.
Clearly our government—and the various departments concerned with transport—needs a change in mindset; one that puts value in a more comprehensive and sustainable transport system that does not focus only on street and bridge widening for vehicles. It has to be remembered that all commutes start and end with walking. With Pedestrian bridges this commute can be shortened and made healthier with mid-commute crossings.
Before moving forward on an enlightened strategy like this, it pays also to look back. Bridges are also links to history and we should take care not to compromise our cultural heritage with new infrastructure.
The planned new bridge crossing from Binondo to Intramuros is a case in point. The DPWH has been questioned about the need for this bridge as well as its planned alignment. Sections of the Intramuros walls, the ruins of the Intendencia on Aduana Street, and San Agustin Complex would be affected by this bridge. Thankfully, despite work already started, a compromise is in the works for an adjustment that moves the span upriver. It’s not the best solution, but Build, Build, Build has a momentum difficult to stop.
The actual improvements to traffic flow in Binondo, as well as the impact on Intramuros’ already choked streets are questioned. Other historic cities, with functional cores, have benefitted by pedestrianizing whole districts. Unfortunately, the DPWH and the DOTR frame their well-intentioned projects within tight frames, ones that do not take a larger context of urban development in mind when making decisions.
It is the context for these bridge projects that is really lacking. Metropolitan development has been addled by decentralization of planning functions to individual cities. Add to this fractured frame, that of government’s line agencies, then you get too many cooks who do not really know what the whole meal is supposed to be, or who it should feed.
The MMDA has been neutered to garbage collection and traffic management, at the other end of public service, when comprehensive metropolitan planning and development would be their best mandate.
The context and reality then of Metro Manila is that of a fractured metropolis of 17 local government units plus several layers of national government—all with little linking them in a concerted effort to address our urban needs. What we need then is more than just physical bridges we can see across the Pasig. What is needed is to build bridges of collaboration, in a transparent process, that makes us all accountable for the fate of our beloved by flawed metropolis.
About the writer: Paulo Alcazaren is an urban planner and landscape architect. He and his firm are responsible for the enhanced pedestrian systems of the Makati CBD, Ortigas CBD and the Iloilo Esplanade.