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The transformation of Metro Manila’s transportation

In the 1930s, the Philippines used to have 1,140 kilometers of railroad track, but the acceleration of urbanization, population growth, and modernization resulted in a shift to a car-centric culture, which eventually caused the decline of rail lines.

In recent years, however, the Philippine government started the push to revive an intermodal transportation network through the Build, Build, Build, and subsequently, the Build, Better More program.

This transformation of Metro Manila’s transportation infrastructure, focusing on the resurgence of pedestrian and railway systems, is the highlight of my study, titled “Retracing the Routes: The Renaissance of Pedestrian and Railway Systems in Metro Manila’s Intermodal Future,” published in the LSE International Development Review.


Railroad-focused to car-centric

As early as 1875, the 150-mile Manila and Dagupan Railroad was completed. Later on, the Insular Government of the Philippines expanded the railway network to include the Luzon Island Lines, spanning 430 miles, and the Visayan Island Line, spanning 300 miles. In the 1930s, the Manila Railroad Company owned 1,140 kilometers of track.

Today, only 77 kilometers of these tracks remain operational.

The rapid urbanization, population growth, and modernization—along with the perception of cars as symbols of progress and success—caused this significant shift from a railroad-focused transportation system to a car-centric approach, resulting in a drastic reduction in the prominence of rail networks.

This transition cost Metro Manila ₱3.5 billion a day because of traffic jams, and about 27,000 premature deaths annually due to air pollution.

In recent years, the government realized the need to prioritize intermodal transportation systems. In the study, I outlined the “Avoid-Shift-Improve” Mobility Approach.


Avoiding Road Dependency. While there were significant investments in improving road infrastructure, the commitment of Build, Build, Build, and its subsequent evolution to Build Better More, to an intermodal transportation network is evident.

In recent years, the Philippines has witnessed a significant resurgence in the construction of alternative transportation options. For instance, from 2016 to 2022, 214 airport projects and 451 commercial and social/tourism seaport projects have been completed. 

The Department of Transportation (DOTr) has also taken the lead in spearheading various railway projects, such as the LRT 1 Cavite Extension, MRT Line 7, MRT 4, and the construction of the country’s first subway system after a 40-year hiatus and six different administrations.

The Philippine government has also partnered with Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) for the creation of a 30-year Master Rail Plan for the Greater Capital Region (GCR), which aims to increase rail density and rail share of trips in GCR at par with major Asian Cities Tokyo, Shanghai, and Seoul.


Shift: Metro Manila’s transition to diverse transportation options

The absence of appropriate pedestrian infrastructure is the main culprit behind more citizens still choosing to use paratransit vehicles such as jeepneys or tricycles, as well as cars, even if approximately 35 percent of locations can be reached within a 15-minute walk or bike ride, according to a JICA study.

In 2019, the Build, Build, Build completed the Laguna Lake Highway, the first expressway in the country to incorporate dedicated bicycle lanes. The project set a significant precedent and sparked a cultural shift in transportation. 

This led to the enactment of Department of Public Works Highways (DPWH) Department Order 88, which was signed in 2020 by former Secretary Mark Villar. It is now mandatory for the government to include bicycle facilities at the planning stages of all government-initiated road and bridge projects. Other bike lane networks that have been completed include the 29-kilometer Metro Cebu Bike Lane and the 54.7-kilometer Metro Davao Bike Lanes.

Improve: Enhancing mobility in Metro Manila. While the government has been actively investing in the expansion and development of public transportation infrastructure in Metro Manila, it is equally vital to adopt medium-term strategies that will immediately address the transportation challenges, encourage behavior change, and promote sustainable transportation practices.

One way is by expanding its current Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) System and look at potential BRT corridors in Metro Manila identified in a 2014 Research Study, particularly the routes of Quezon Avenue and Commonwealth Avenue, as well as Alabang Zapote Road and Sucat Road. Another strategy is to implement an integrated fare system that allows for seamless transfers between different modes of public transportation.

It is also important to educate the public on the benefits of public transportation and the importance of sustainable travel choices. After all, the shift towards diverse transportation options will only be successful if citizens also acknowledge the benefits of this transition.

This transformation will truly be challenging, but through the promotion of diverse transportation options and the necessary behavior change, Metro Manila can enhance mobility, reduce congestion, and create a more efficient, sustainable, and livable urban environment for its citizens.

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