Traffic > Gridlock

Is it now time to pay people not to drive their cars?

Can a mostly European concept work in the Philippines?

Aren’t you sick and tired of this picture by now? PHOTO BY FRANK SCHUENGEL

Much has been said and tried to get Metro Manila traffic under control, but so far this beast with a million wheels refuses to be tamed. From number-coding schemes to high-occupancy lanes, nothing seems to really work when it comes to effectively reducing the volume of cars on our roads. According to the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the economic cost of traffic in Metro Manila now stands at P3.5 billion a day, a staggering figure that is expected to climb to P5.4 billion a day by 2035 if we don’t get a grip on this problem.

Some cities tackle their congestion issues by increasing the costs that come with using a private vehicle. Much like increasing the price of cigarettes to get smokers to quit, places like London, Singapore or Milan have introduced congestion charges in an attempt to get people to kick their four-wheeled habit. Such a scheme would be great for Metro Manila, but implementing it in an environment where chaos and rampant corruption reign supreme would be virtually impossible. Simpler and easier-to-maintain concepts are needed. Maybe it’s time to lower the stick and bring out the carrot, as hardly anyone will ever say no to some free money.

The author really uses a bicycle to travel around. PHOTO BY FRANK SCHUENGEL

The easiest way to approach this would be to incentivize commuters to use other modes of transport, particularly two-wheeled ones. Cycle to work in Germany and you can deduct €0.30 (P18) per kilometer from your taxable income. The country also allows firms to offer company-paid private bicycles as an employment benefit. Use your bike to commute in Belgium or the Netherlands and your boss can pay you a tax-free amount of €0.22 (P13) or €0.19 (P11) per kilometer, respectively. In the UK, employees can purchase bicycles using pre-tax income under the cycle-to-work scheme, which helps to save on income tax and allows participants to spread the payment over 12 months.

Looking at the situation around here, just paying people to pedal won’t be enough, though. Local governments have to start and be more creative if they want to ease congestion on the roads. Next to encouraging employees to ditch cars, they also have to try and motivate companies to be more bicycle-friendly. Tax incentives and government grants could be created to encourage the building of bike-parking and changing-room facilities with showers wherever possible. This can easily be achieved by working with the owners of large office towers and converting a number of existing parking spaces for this purpose. As not everyone will want to cycle, it may also be necessary to expand this kind of approach to other two-wheeled machines.

More people are using e-scooters to get around. PHOTO BY FRANK SCHUENGEL

With electric kick scooters quickly rising in popularity and becoming a real alternative to cars or public transport for a growing demographic of commuters, it may be worth supporting this method of travel in similar ways to how cyclists are being looked after in Europe. The basic idea is simply to discourage car use and encourage less-congesting and healthier alternatives. To really achieve this, one other step is also necessary, as just making cycling or taking a scooter to work more attractive won’t cut it on its own. For this to work, we have to make car use a less appealing option, and this means getting rid of one of the most frequent employment benefits: free parking.

The easiest way to approach this would be to incentivize commuters to use other modes of transport, particularly two-wheeled ones

Past projects in Europe have shown that human beings are a lazy old bunch, and we don’t like change all that much. If given the choice between getting paid to cycle or driving a car with free parking at work, the automobile still wins. So let’s do away with this perk and change the picture. In the future, someone with a 10km commute may be presented with the following options: Use a car and pay for fuel and upkeep plus P100 for parking every day, or use a bicycle or scooter and get paid P110 (10 times P11 based on the Dutch model).

Just in case you now think that it’s nuts to pay people to commute: Look around you now and remember how much Carmageddon is costing this city every day. That P3.5 billion a day isn’t hypothetical. That’s real money that our economy is losing. The only thing that would be crazy and irresponsible is to keep going the way we are now. It’s time to build a ton more bicycle lanes and banish the car to where it really belongs: on nice open roads during the weekend. Achieving this is totally possible, but the impulse has to come from us, the commuters. If we wait until the powers-that-be do something, we’ll still be sitting in traffic come 2050. I’m quite sure nobody really wants that.

Frank Schuengel

Frank is a German e-commerce executive who loves his wife, a Filipina, so much he decided to base himself in Manila. He has interesting thoughts on Philippine motoring.