Metro Manila in the new normal: A call for access and mobility

As one of the world's most congested cities, Metro Manila faces increasing challenges to its urban development, highlighting issues of livability and social justice.

Life in quarantine has reshaped our standards for living, especially in cities. With the lockdowns came the suspension of mass transit, massive employee terminations, and collective anxiety from ongoing uncertainty. Businesses offloaded employees to keep afloat, with a lot of the smaller businesses closing down as the pandemic wore on. Parents adjusted to juggling homeschooling and the work from home setting in tight quarters. Residents found new ways to get around without public transport.

This experience urges cities to realign its endeavors into making sure that city life continues on the path towards improvement. Despite the cities’ push for development, however, the efforts often fail to fully address the disadvantaged public's needs, despite recognizing them as major stakeholders. Urban development, therefore, needs to be realigned to a more socially responsive design instead of being a mere beautification effort. 


Defining the COVID commute

Citizens have initiated various means to adapt to quarantined life in Metro Manila.  These include alternative multimodal transportation like biking to encourage a healthy lifestyle, less air pollution and carbon emissions. However, travel within the city (even the daily commute) remains difficult.

With the pandemic-induced economic crisis, the country has faced major losses due to businesses shutting down, stock prices plummeting, and increased unemployment rate. Workers have had no choice but to do whatever it takes to survive even if they must place themselves at risk during their daily commute. Despite quarantine measures and social distancing protocols, traffic conditions and congested PUVs still persist, placing citizens at risk of being infected by COVID due to the daily commute.

Aside from the health risks, the pandemic also magnified major issues with providing spaces for pedestrians. Most pedestrian crossings, transportation hubs and terminals, are poorly designed and inconveniently located. Overcrowding, therefore, becomes inevitable as pedestrians squeeze their way through the Metro Manila crowd.

Given the risks brought by public transportation, many people in the Philippine capital region invested in private means of transportation. Instead of cars, they chose to purchase motorcycles (usually through installment payments) to allow themselves to maneuver their way into the city. But as fuel prices rise by the moment, they opt to buy even simpler modes of transportation such as bicycles, electric bicycles, and the like.

Regardless of various efforts to ease the burdens of pedestrian travel, certain aspects remain neglected. Lighting has for so long been a major issue to pedestrians especially to those who use sidewalks, overpasses, and underpasses. The major problem that must be pointed out here is that lighting endeavors are only “reactivated” by most cities every time the election campaign draws near.

The politics of road access

Road access is a means to define who the city is for. And despite various road constructions and development projects taking place within Metro Manila, these roads seem to be a path that is exclusive only to those who could produce money, and thereby have access to cars and private roads. 

Arc. Joanne Camello of Bluprint – a Philippine authority on architectural design – explains the country’s urban development in three themes: building more, appeasing the rich, and boosting the economy. Camello primarily pointed out that for some cities, there are cases wherein corporate and large-scale conglomerates are taking up the role of “pseudo sponsors” and adopting the city’s efforts to improve its infrastructure and overall construction.

As championed by the current administration, Build Build Build infrastructure projects follow the theme of providing access to the city business centers to improve the country’s economy and provide more opportunities for further growth. In the case of the Pasig River Expressway (PAREx) – a major construction project that is aligned to the government’s road-widening endeavors – it has been criticized for compromising the Pasig River’s functional integrity given that it is Metro Manila’s major waterway to counteract floods. Moreover, it poses grave threats and negatively affects whatever greenery that is left in the area, contributing to increased air pollution within the vicinity along with it. Sustainability and economic growth should not work against each other, but rather there need to be practical solutions that take both into consideration.

The “exquisitely exclusive” city life

Cities are meant to be built in a way that is responsive to the needs and rights of those who reside in them. However, they often become inaccessibly expensive, essentially denied to marginalized sectors. Many local governments in Metro Manila have successfully established more new green infrastructure. But class divides are further magnified, leaving the urban poor and the low-income class most vulnerable, especially those that reside within disaster-prone areas.

What lies behind this facet of splendor are the unsung struggles one must pay as a toll for living in the city. In spite of calls to visit and reinvest in the city, the lack of transport access for disadvantaged citizens makes this invitation increasingly exclusive.

The point of accessing the city

The city's rehabilitation efforts need to continue down the path towards inclusivity for city life to be considered fully recovered. The plight of vulnerable communities needs to be considered as the metropolis navigates this revival. Guaranteeing the recovery of citizens along with the city is imperative to the endeavors of reviving city life.

Urban development should come with improving the lives of its constituents. At most, the goal is not to return everything back to normal; back to pre-COVID times. The goal now is to revive the city through relevant policies and development plans that sear through the social, economic, political, and cultural interests of all city inhabitants.

Pau Villanueva (he/him/his) is a queer Filipino photographer who documents the plight of society’s most vulnerable. Pau’s works are an exploration of the human condition -- the discovery of self, of others, of the mountains of differences in between, and the empathy through which we cross them. Pau is a 2020 National Geographic Explorer, 2021 Women Photograph Mentee and a member of the Photojournalists’ Center of the Philippines (PCP).

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