Going over Baguio’s traffic woes

Architect Daniel Burnham planned the 57.4-square kilometre city on a hill for only 25,000 inhabitants in the early 1900s to serve as a rest and recreation area for top American government and military officials. It served as the seat of government during the summer months when the American colonial officials could not bear the heat of tropical Manila, thus its moniker as the Summer Capital of the Philippines. Traffic then involved horses and carts during key events and market days as shown in pictures. Horses were a common mode of transportation for many. It is safe to assume though that the majority traveled on foot.

Since its establishment as a Chartered City by the Philippine Commission in September 1909, Baguio grew in terms of population, infrastructure, business, and trade, educational and health facilities, with the attendant increase in the number and types of vehicles traversing its increasing number of roads to and within the city. People from the highlands (there was no Cordillera entity yet) and the lowlands migrated to the city for various reasons. Many indigenous youth from the different provinces arrived in Baguio to study in its educational institutions  and in nearby La Trinidad, many of them hiking on days to reach Baguio. The opening of mines in nearby Lepanto, Itogon and Tuba attracted both business and workers to the city. Slowly, population, business, and other opportunities grew, but also needs, like roads and transportation.

The city’s traffic management is governed under Ordinance No/ 07, series of 1984, a 32-year old document, thus, its provisions relative to effective and efficient traffic management may no longer apply to current times. For a few years after the July 16, 1990, killer earthquake, Baguio seemed to have gone back to its more sedate days with fewer people, less business, less traffic. However, time cannot stop development, and Baguio now is more congested than ever, with more people visiting or settling in, more lots being built up, more vehicles running in the streets, and worse, more programs being churned out to aggressively attract more visitors to the city. As a matter of fact, even local legislation like those calling for the improvement of services are framed in tourism language but the City Council has failed to update the antiquated ordinance.

The rapid urbanization of the city has brought about the serious problem of massive traffic congestions not only in the central business district but also in other exterior roadlines leading to the city proper.  The city tried to venture on a pay-parking scheme to help regulate parking along major streets but this was vehemently opposed by some groups. The government also embarked on road widening but these spaces have been allowed to become parking spaces for some businesses and individuals.

The city’s worsening traffic problem elicited proposals from experts and ordinary citizens. These include the put up of multi-level parking structures within the central business district area, the strict implementation of traffic rules and regulations, the identification of common parking spaces in the barangays to avoid wayward parking along narrow roads, and the strict implementation of laws, rules and regulations. The LTO was also requested to strictly implement the no garage, no registration policy for public utility vehicles. However, all these have fallen on deaf ears.

Citizens are wondering though if the government has actually studied the costs illegal street parking is contributing to traffic congestion, including the opportunity costs to road users. For non-vehicle users, we are taxpayers who also contributed to the costs of these streets, including their widening. By using these public streets as free parking spaces, vehicle owners are given privileges and advantages over non-vehicle owners. That is discrimination. If the sidewalk vendors are arrested for illegal peddling because they use the public space for their trade, why are vehicle owners allowed to occupy roads for their own purposes, causing inconvenience and even threats to lives? Vendors should also be allowed then to do their business in the sidewalks without interference from government. There should be a stiff per-hour fine for those parking on any street in the jurisdiction of the city, whether or not these are national roads. On-street pay parking must compliment this measure. Since local government units are always looking for internally generated funds, the stiff fines and on-street parking fees should be a high incentive for local officials to use their iron hand to discipline erring businessmen and motorists using the roads as their parking areas.

The costs of traffic jams in the city have not been studied but one can imagine the time lost for workers and students, transactions lost due to delays, lives lost due to delayed access to medical care, the health impacts caused by stress and the pollution one is exposed to, among other things.

Fundamental to the issue is the Baguio we want. Our Baguio offers a lifestyle that promotes pedestrian mobility. Urban planning should give utmost consideration for a healthy lifestyle that promotes clean air, green spaces, exercise, physical accessibility for persons with disability, among other matters. Our propensity for having our ride deliver us to the doorstep of our destination is one cause why we, including urban planners and officials, do not seem to look at the bigger picture and want parking spaces as near as possible to the city even if we park illegally.

Change starts with ourselves through self-discipline coupled with the respect for existing laws, rules and regulations. Concerned agencies must start designing the appropriate engineering interventions that support and promote a healthy lifestyle to help address our traffic woes. Law enforcers should take charge of the enforcement and education of the people on the laws, rules, and regulations. The city government must ensure the enabling environment for all these to prosper.