URBAN STREETGAZER: Is Davao City heading towards “congestion trap?”

Even before Davao has virtually become the second important metropolis in the country today, next to Metro Manila, the city was already reeling with moderate to heavy road congestion especially on primary arterial roads (national highways) during peak hours. Today, congestion in the city has turned from heavy to worse; not only on urban highways but almost every city roads, including callehon. The sea of cars parked on city roadsides has become a daily spectacle! The mere sight of these awful phenomena makes one silently sigh with hopelessness.

The city government is having a good time lavishing the increasing investments that continue to pour into the city. Indeed, it is a new found economic freedom for the city and for city residents who seek employment and those from other provinces. This means more migrants to the city, thus increased urban population. Investments continue to come as evidenced by new and swanky tall buildings, condominiums, sprawling upscale residential structures, shopping malls, expansion of existing commercial buildings, numerous utility shops, etc. Most private investments are located and constructed along major urban transport roadways.

Other striking trend is some popular universities in Metro Manila are opening their branches in the city locating them along major roads where, incidentally, are proximate to malls and are prone to congestion. I am quite apprehensive as to the flow of traffic once they operate in the coming mid-year school opening.

All the factors mentioned above comprise a phenomenon which is I call “sweet agony.” On the one hand, rapid economic growth is really happening not experienced before in any city in Mindanao. These new investments would serve as the wellspring of hope for those who seek employment and find one, increase consumer choices, increasing urban population (in effect more people are transformed as pedestrians), creation of downstream industries, increase car use, among others; thus, increased local government revenues. On the other hand, there hangs a seeming unworthy occurrence in the horizon where the city would be direly en route to what I theoretically call an ‘urban congestion trap’ – and that is what I call the ‘agony’ part.

An ‘urban congestion trap’ is a static and regressive urban situation, where basic traffic management systems become dysfunctional. This is due to lack of appropriate and timely government intervention – and on extreme case, the result of other key failure factors in urban governance. This regressive condition can be traced to inefficient urban land use plan coupled with weak supervision on its implementation, unmanaged urban sprawl, the lack (or absence) of resolute traffic law enforcement, unfamiliarity on the use of technology-driven traffic control system, and the more serious contributor is the conduct of comprehensive development plans (sans TOD element) which are (usually) done through table planning approach (in the Philippines, planning agencies in some local government units do it through copy–paste approach just for compliance purposes). Thus, the confluence of these various factors mentioned could possibly lead to “congestion trap” and could potentially be the start of urban decay.

It is over simplistic and pitifully a hogwash excuse to say that congestion is caused by the increasing number of moving cars on the road. In particular, the daily recurrence of road congestion in Davao city is caused by the following: absence of efficient high occupancy mass transport service, so much roadside and on-street parking, double parking, traffic signals are out of sync (maybe on purpose or occasionally), barangay and city traffic enforcers override traffic signals, construction of center islands not in coherence with traffic principles (just the heck of constructing it), inadequate green time (ill-timed traffic signals), over-development on congestion-prone areas, too many pedestrians on roadways due to token space allotted to them, constant stop-and-go of PUJs and other PUVs lane hugging (especially trucks), and indiscriminate U-turns, to mention a few. Non-recurring events that cause congestion are merchandise displayed on sidewalks and roadsides, car wash/car repair shops do their work on roadside, road/lane closure due to utility works, road works, road narrowing down, and road accidents.

Engineering solution such road widening (increasing road capacity), opening new motorways, building bridges, flyovers, and road by-passes, are not necessarily the be-all solution to alleviate congestion. EDSA in Metro Manila is the best example where engineering solution was implemented yet failed to reduce congestion; instead worsen as more cars only replace the road space left by other cars preferring to use other roadways in the same stretch. As mentioned in my previous column, ‘when you build, they will come’.

A comprehensive blend of survey, plan, implement characterized by serious transport-oriented development planning, appropriate and implementable transport and traffic policies, resolute in traffic law enforcement, and funds availability for appropriate traffic management infrastructure, are necessary ingredients in ensuring a relatively excellent urban management.

The creeping ‘congestion trap’ is already at the doorstep of Davao. City government authorities, elected officials, and planners should not telegraph their intervention to alleviating road congestion; it is a scourge that would wreck havoc to economic growth as well as in making Davao a livable and sustainable city.

At any rate, the introduction of modern urban public transport service (high priority bus service hopefully by 2022) by Mayor Sarah Duterte-Carpio, is indeed an initial mean step to avoid the dreadful ‘congestion trap’ situation.