Sustainable mobility as climate action
IN the transport sector, there is a clear alignment of what needs to happen in terms of climate action and what the vast majority of Filipinos need: low emission, efficient, convenient and reliable public transport and infrastructure that will enable them to walk and cycle safely and conveniently around their cities. Outdated mindsets and obsolete policies that encourage private motor vehicle use are some factors preventing the attainment of these desired outcomes.
Sad to say, there are government agencies and local government units that continue to prioritize roads for private motor vehicles rather than for use by the majority without cars. These government institutions rate their success in terms of how fast private motor vehicles are able to travel. If travel time by car is reduced, they consider this an accomplishment (“Ortigas to Bonifacio Global City in 12 minutes” or “Cubao to Makati in five minutes”). Unfortunately, they are serving the wrong clients and pursuing the wrong outcomes.
Today, less than 10 percent of Filipino households own a private car; about a quarter of households own a motorcycle. The majority rely on public transport, walking and cycling. For the convenience of the minority in private motor vehicles, most Filipinos have to endure a more difficult journey.
When roads are widened to add more lanes for cars, sidewalks and trees are removed. New bridges are built over the Pasig River but there are no accessible walkways and no bike lanes. To enable cars to move without interruption, ground-level pedestrian crossings are removed. This forces pedestrians to climb stairs and use footbridges; those unable to climb stairs have reduced mobility. Bike lanes are foregone or kept very narrow in order to preserve road space for cars. All are examples of misplaced decisions. The message that comes across is that you need to have a private car in order to move efficiently around our urban areas. In a national survey a few years ago called “Ambisyon 2040,” the National Economic and Development Authority found that 77 percent of Filipinos see car ownership in their aspiration for a decent life. Private car ownership, for many, is a necessity because public transportation is inadequate, unreliable or inconvenient and because walking and cycling infrastructure is unsafe or unavailable. Most Filipinos want other options to own a private motor vehicle. Today’s young Filipinos want “greener” travel alternatives, recognizing that car use in cities is not only costly and stressful but also damaging for the environment.
A national survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations in November 2020 found that 85 percent of respondents wanted their localities to become great places for walking and cycling; the same sentiment dominated all income groups even among the wealthiest. In the same survey, 87 percent wanted road space to be prioritized for public transport, walking and cycling over private motor vehicles. This tells me that many Filipinos who own cars and motorcycles would readily leave their vehicles at home if efficient and accessible public transport were available.
The ongoing United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) discussions in Glasgow remind us that the climate crisis should be one of our most important concerns, arguably the paramount one. We already know that the Philippines is one of the countries most affected by climate change. Although the Philippines today contributes a relatively small share of global greenhouse gas emissions, it has the potential to generate a lot more in the coming years, especially in the transportation sector. According to the Philippines’ Climate Change Commission, the domestic transportation sector is already the third-largest contributor of greenhouse gases (following the energy and agricultural sectors). Emissions from private motor vehicles are rising fast. With our demographics and the pressure to shift to motor vehicle use, these numbers could grow quickly.
Reversing the current priority given to cars on our roads is crucial for improving the livability of our urban environments and for addressing climate change. All transport agencies at national and local level need to see their main client as the Filipino without a car — people who walk, cycle or use public transport. Once this principle is recognized by all, many good things follow naturally.
Roads and bridges need to be reorganized so that public transport and active transport modes have sufficient road space, with provision for greenery and tree cover. Good walking paths, accessible for persons of all abilities, should exist on every street. There needs to be a network of safe and convenient bike lanes connecting different parts of every city. In many neighborhoods, streets could be repurposed so they offer not only a safe corridor for walking and cycling but also a nearby green public space for play, exercise and social activities.
Public transport should have priority on roads of all kinds. Investment in public transport infrastructure should receive at least as large a budget as the spending on roads and bridges for motor vehicles. Traffic management should mean moving people rather than moving cars. Sustainable mobility is one of the most cost-effective and impactful forms of climate action. There is no better time than now to pursue the required policy reforms and mindset change in the transportation sector. As a species, we may not get another chance.
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