Traffic then as now

By: Ambeth R. Ocampo - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | May 05,2023 - 08:00 AM

The past, I was taught in graduate school, is a foreign country. Things are supposed to be different then, but my recent reading of prewar Filipiniana at the University of Michigan shows that the past is not so foreign, it actually reads a lot like the present. Traffic, for example, is not new. I guess we have had that long before cars were invented. Photos of the various watercraft on the Pasig River, in the late 19th century, shows that in some constricted waterways traffic was a problem.

In 1937, there were 18,308 cars registered in Manila. In addition, there were 13,327 passenger vehicles, 4,678 “camiones” or trucks, 303 motorcycles, more than 7,000 carromatas and “carretelas” (light, two-wheeled carriages pulled by a single horse), and 400 “tranvias electricas” (electric vehicles that ran on a track, an improvement on the previous horse-drawn vehicles that ran on a track.) At the time, there were more vehicles “de motor y sangre” (motor and animal drawn) in Manila than in Tokyo that was then considered the third most populous cities next to London and New York. The main difference between Manila and Tokyo were the people. Japanese then as now were exporting cards, but in the city they preferred to walk than ride.

In 1938, a committee was formed to study traffic that in Spanish read as “aglomeraciones embrolladas de vehiculos.” It was noted that one of the busiest routes was the road that connected Santa Cruz with Intramuros. In the prewar period, Manila was the area within the walls (intra-muros) and everything outside the walls (extra-muros) were considered “arrabales” or suburbs. The commercial and business districts were then on Escolta street and Binondo across the Pasig River from Intramuros. So getting to and from Intramuros required a driver who not only knew the route but also the times when certain areas were congested to save on gas, horsepower, and the rider’s patience. Then as now they had “rush hour,” actually a misnomer because one cannot really rush during this time, when one crawls in traffic.

Another choke point was the intersection of Carriedo and Avenida Rizal. The police solution was to cut off the traffic flow from Avenida Rizal to Plaza Goiti. If you needed to go someplace in the closed area of Carriedo, you took a detour and passed by Quiapo by Estero Cegado or P. Gomez to reach Avenida Rizal. Surely, all these detours and one-way streets have been tried and tested before.

The committee realized that one of the solutions was dealing with the high numbers of horse-drawn vehicles. Many were unauthorized either without a license or if they did so, they were not registered from Manila but came from somewhere else—we know these today as “colorum.” There were 49,194 registered vehicles in the entire Philippines, but 36 percent were in traffic-choked Manila. When out of town vehicles came to the city, it increased congestion. One can see this at work even today in a small city like Baguio that probably has more vehicles from out of town than those owned by residents.

Police were lenient with “cocheros,” I would think through pity or bribes, or plain negligence, because many were mere boys of 12 to 15 years of age. They did not follow rules, and would load and unload passengers at whim, anywhere they wanted. People in cars complained that cocheros who stopped in the middle of the street caused an undue waste of gas. Then as now, carretela buses would park anywhere, including the vital roads, to wait for passengers. They blocked Azcarraga (now Recto) and Avenida Rizal instead of moving further down to Doroteo Jose and improve traffic flow.It would have been great to read about traffic in prewar Manila as a thing of the past, but knowing what traffic is like in Metro Manila today, we can only scratch our heads and blame it on the volume of vehicles and lack of roads. Vehicles may have changed from bancas to horse-drawn carriages to our gas, diesel, and electric cars. So technology has improved but human nature remains the same: Nobody wants to be inconvenienced by traffic rules and regulations, everyone is in a hurry, no one wants to give way at intersections, pedestrians and cyclists are seen as a nuisance, etc. History shows that solving traffic means changing mindsets.


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TAGS: Manila, Tokyo, traffic

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