MANILA - If you think Metro Manila traffic is bad now, wait till you see this.
Data from Waze and collated by data science company Thinking Machines in cooperation with the Asian Development Bank show as of December 1, Metro Manila traffic is only at 80 percent of what was experienced in December 2019. Metro Manila traffic is also “recovering” toward pre-COVID-19 levels faster than Metro Cebu and Metro Davao. The good news here is, things aren’t as bad as they were a year ago, even though many are complaining as if it was.
This second chart based on data from Apple mobility shows driving activity in Metro Manila is still 43 percent below pre-pandemic patterns. That means the driving activity happening right now is roughly 60 percent of what was happening in February This is also lower compared to other major cities across ASEAN. Hanoi, in Vietnam, is already back to pre-pandemic levels.
This third chart shows public transport is 54 percent below pre-pandemic patterns, meaning public transport activity is only half what it was in February. Again, the activity is lower compared to other cities such as Bangkok and Singapore.
So why is traffic worse? Stephanie Sy, founder and CEO of Thinking Machines says “congestion can be explained by a number of factors. It's not just the number of vehicles on the road, it's about more people on the road. DOTR has imposed restrictions on public transit, limiting the number of passengers for social distancing. that has prompted more people to opt for private vehicles, if they have the option.” (TC: 4:29 or 4 minutes and 29 seconds from start of material)
Sy adds: “DOLE has also required large companies to provide shuttles for employees. So that has moved people from public transit to private transit. (TC: 4:51 or 4 minutes and 51 seconds from start of material)
“Last, you can see over time, as the number of checkpoints for COVID across Metro Manila and Mega Manila have shifted, you can see those also contribute to heightened congestion on the road. So we are in a situation where there may be fewer people moving across Metro Manila, but congestion is going up disproportionately.” (TC: 4:57 or 4 minutes and 57 seconds from start of material)
These data taken together tell us Metro Manila traffic congestion is already at 80 percent pre-pandemic levels, with public transport and driving activity only at 50 to 60 percent what they were before COVID-19 arrived. This is also all happening with a suspended color coding scheme. If public transport and driving activity were to return to pre-pandemic levels, traffic could get worse.
Sy says: “I think that is very probable. especially if we must continue social distancing on public transit. Because people have to move right, and if they can't move on public transit, they can’t move, they can’t walk, they can’t bike, they will try to get cars on the roads, which leads to a worse experience in terms of congestion for everybody.”
Woochong Um, ADB’s Director General for its Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department is a bit more optimistic. He says traffic isn’t as bad as pre-pandemic conditions.
“Based on the traffic this morning when I came into the office, it appears to be, but these are some of the chokepoints where there is traffic, on EDSA, and others. I think they started to implement the exclusive bus lanes, those created choke points for traffic. (TC: 00:13 or 13 seconds from start of material)
“I don’t think traffic is back to pre-COVID-19, certain parts, chokepoints, but I think still when you go to Ortigas in this area, traffic isn’t that bad. It used to be worse before," he says.
Um also believes the Philippine government, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic itself, has created circumstances that should reduce traffic moving forward.
He says: “The government of PH at all levels, as supported by ADB and others, is doing everything they can to establish the infra to continue to have economic growth without increasing the traffic as much as before. So when you drive around, you see on EDSA as well as on South Superhighway, you see a lot of construction to build extra capacity. Government is also working on a railway system, Malolos Clark for example is being set up. So there is continuous effort to improve. We are hoping all those things will come into place, plus the behavioral change in people for example riding bicycles on EDSA. Before how many bicycles did you see? People are seeing the benefits of riding a bicycle. So perhaps more safe bike riding space can be created which will be good for people’s health and the environment as well.”
Speaking of the economic growth, one would think all the traffic on the road should be a good sign for Philippine economic activity. But that is not the case.
Um says the activity has increased, but not in areas which would have a greater impact on the economy.
He says: “They are travelling to places like pharmacies and groceries, to some level, workplaces. But still people are not going to recreational areas, or shopping as much as they used to. So, the increased traffic basically means there are signs of life, picking up again. But at this point it is definitely not back to normal as in a pre pandemic situations.”
The ADB has in fact lowered its outlook for Philippine GDP growth this year.
From its previous forecast of -7.3 percent, the ADB now sees Philippine GDP growth sinking to -8.5 percent. That is a bit more optimistic than Nomura’s forecast of -9.8 percent, and at the low end of the Philippine government’s own forecast range of between -8.5 and -9.5 percent. However, it is still the worst forecast for major ASEAN economies.
In simple terms, economic activity is still shrinking, and yet Metro Manila traffic is already close to horrendous pre-pandemic levels. Remember, traffic related losses to the economy was estimated at $2B as early as 2009.
Will terrible traffic get in the way of the post-pandemic economic recovery? Again, Um and ADB are optimistic that it won't. He notes, another factor that should help reduce traffic while increasing economic activity is digitalization.
Um says: “I am doing probably about 50% more online transactions than I used to do. Hopefully some of the behaviors remain, even when the vaccine is available and people are going about outside without any fear. Hopefully the economic activity will continue to pick up at the same time and online transactions will pick up as well. It will balance itself out and hopefully the traffic situation will not get worse.”
There is however a problem when it comes to internet access.
“There is a bit of a divide that may be created in terms of people who have access to internet service versus none. And, I think most people in the urban areas are quite used to having this access. But still there are many many people who for example, there are about 700M people around the world with no access to digital services. In the urban setting it is better, about 32% of Metro Manila does have access to the internet. but much worse in the rural areas. We have to make sure that there is a collective effort by the government, private sector, to improve the infrastructure for the internet access, hardware and software, in a cheap, affordable way, so that everybody can connect, so they can reap the benefits of online working and economic activities. So that people will not fall behind," Um says.
These data show the digital divide between the wealthiest and poorest areas in the Philippines. The gap is substantial, with download speeds differing by about 20 mbps for fixed broadband and mobile.
Sy says: “If you think about the last mile, which we were defining, the ADB is defining as the Filipinos the 9.4M Filipinos living more than 2km away from major road networks, only 15% of them have access to internet speeds sufficient for a video call. So think about education, think about students, and if they are expected to access digital platforms , or workers who are expected to work from home, they are not going to be able to participate in education, our economy, if they don’t have connectivity. The 5 wealthiest cities in the Philippines, their average download broadband speed is about 26mbps. But the 5 poorest cities have only an average of 4.6mbps. So that is a huge difference in their ability to even participate.
This heat map shows us the striking differences in wealth and connectivity across the Philippines. The darkest regions have the slowest internet and the least wealth. The lighter patches show the opposite. The Philippines is clearly dominated by dark shades.
Traffic in Metro Manila is already terrible, and data show it has the potential to get worse. Experts note the Philippine government is doing its part to fix the problem, building transport infrastructure that focuses on moving goods and people, while pushing for the rapid development of infrastructure for connectivity.
More economic activity online, and less vehicles on the road, should allow for economic growth and less traffic. But right now the traffic choke points’ across Metro Manila are very real, and it isn’t clear when they will go away.