How Can We Blaze New Trails If We Are Stuck In Traffic?

I miss those days when everything in Davao City was only five minutes away. I grew up in Pardo de Tavera Street, which is practically in the center of things. It’s walking distance to schools, to the hospital, to People’s Park (it was still PTA then), to Central Bank. It’s one AC jeep ride away to the city center and I can just walk to San Pedro, the city’s main street, in case there’s a transport strike.

So the concept of driving my own car — in fact, the whole idea of having a car in the first place — never appealed to me. And that is why I never learned how to drive.

When I lived and worked in Metro Manila during the 1990s, I took public transportation. In my early days as a working girl I lived in Parañaque and worked in Padre Faura, Manila. So my morning commute took a short jeepney ride, then a bus ride, then the LRT (yes, the old line from Baclaran that goes through Taft Avenue), then walked several blocks to the Justice Department. As I was also going to graduate school then at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, after office hours I would take two jeepney rides all the way to UP. After my classes in the evenings, I would take a short jeepney ride to Quezon Avenue-EDSA, where I would take a long bus ride all the way to the old Manila International Airport, where I lived nearby. Traffic was not as congested then as it is now in Metro Manila so it was bearable for even a spoiled Davaoeña like me who’s used to a five-minute travel time to go anywhere. In fact, I viewed the long commute as an exciting adventure. Well, I was in my early 20s, everything then was an adventure!

When they started constructing all those flyovers during the Ramos administration, I was living in Batasan Hills, Quezon City and worked at PICC in Roxas Boulevard, Pasay City. Since I had the good fortune of having my boss as a neighbor, we carpooled. He would pick me up and have our morning meetings while in the car on our way to work. Our daily morning commute to the office took two to three hours. That was where we got most of our work done — while stuck in EDSA traffic.

Later as my work became more toxic with more responsibilities, I was provided my own car and a driver so I can get to more meetings and do more work. In those days, as traffic congestion in Metro Manila worsened, I spent most of my time inside my car conducting my meetings and work via my mobile phone. Come to think of it, that’s probably why they invented the mobile phone. And the laptop computer. And the tablet. So you cannot use being stuck in traffic as an excuse for not doing more work.

When I moved to San Francisco, California in 2000, I loved their public transportation system. I took the muni, the cable car, the BART. Since I lived right in the heart of the city’s financial district, I mostly walked and San Francisco’s rolling hills and cool climate were good for my heart. Even when I later moved to the East Bay, I used the BART to go to the city and walked the rest of the way. I used my commute time as a time to reflect and dream and create.

As I got older and wiser, I craved for a slower pace and lesser travel time. I now want more convenience and more comfort. Less excitement, more stability. Less moving around, more rootedness.

After ten years in Metro Manila and five years in Northern California, I came home to a different Davao City. I can no longer assure a person I am meeting with that I will “be there in five minutes.” Now it takes me at least half an hour to an hour to go anywhere. And this bothers me. A lot. Because this is not how I imagine the most livable city in the country would be.

I cannot believe there would come a time when Davaoeños will complain about the traffic but it looks like that time has come. There was a time when I would just shrug it off as being “overacting” because for someone who has experienced being stranded in EDSA during a heavy downpour until the wee hours of the morning, Davao traffic was nothing to whine about. But now Davao traffic has become almost as bad as Manila traffic.

The state of Davao’s traffic is a reflection of the state of the city’s development. There has been a steady rise in construction of shopping malls, high-rise condominium buildings, housing subdivisions, business parks. More private vehicles and public utility vehicles are using our limited road network. There are no sidewalks and pedestrian walkways. No clear bicycle lanes. No mass transit system. Less green spaces. And less landmark pieces of legislation and less new trailblazing, innovative programs.

Perhaps, we need to pause and think about imposing speed limits on other areas of our city’s life, not just on our roads. How many more shopping malls do we really need? What about parks and public recreation spaces? Walking and biking lanes? We need spaces to breathe in this largest city in the world. This congestion is not good for our health.

One of the things I noticed while living in Metro Manila was how people there curse a lot and often. I attributed the cursing to their congested streets and polluted spaces. And that is what I am most afraid of to happen in my beloved Davao City. That we will lose our gentle, warm and kindhearted Davaoeño spirit because of traffic congestion. That’s probably why we come up with less new and exciting stuff these days. Because how can we blaze more trails and be our pioneering selves if we are all stuck in traffic?

First appeared on Mindanao Times, August 13, 2015