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Are tech solutions enough to tame traffic in Asian cities?


It isn’t strange for a commuter in Metro Manila to spend four hours a day stuck in traffic travelling from home to work and back. It’s not as if people are travelling long distances for a single trip to run for two to three hours. These are trips of just 10 to 15 kilometers. There’s no such thing as rush hours anymore, as bumper-to-bumper conditions seem to be the norm around the clock.

World’s worst traffic

Traffic app Waze released their Global Driver Satisfaction Index in 2015, and it cited the Philippines’ capital region as having the world’s worst traffic. The report, which is based on Waze’s data, factored in average commute times, distances, traffic, driver services, and road quality. Save for driver services, which pertains to the availability of gasoline stations and parking, Manila ranked poorly across the board.

Many believe this to be a culmination of factors which include poor driver discipline combined with a dismal enforcement of traffic laws, lack of mass transportation options, poor road quality, and a swelling population.

Metro Manila as an economic center has a daytime population of 15 million people. The metro’s aging train system is already pushed way passed capacity. The MRT line tries to accommodate 500,000 riders with only a capacity of 350,000. A Japanese study in 2012 estimated that the nation is losing PHP 2 billion (US$ 42.8M) daily because of traffic. Officials now estimate that it has ballooned to PHP 3 billion (US$ 64.2M) today.

Tech solutions are available …

Those with smartphones and mobile data can use apps like Waze to help navigate through traffic jams. The app tracks GPS data from its users to provide real-time information on the speed of traffic flow along a user’s route. Users can also report things like potholes, accidents, road blocks, and police visibility to inform others of road conditions.

Ride-sharing apps like Uber and Grab also give commuters alternatives to available public transportation. Filipinos can ride jeepneys, buses, cabs, and light rail, none of which are really linked or coordinated. Uber and Grab users believe that ride-shares are safer and more convenient than riding cramped public transports. These also help improve utilization of an otherwise under-performing resource–meaning several users sharing a car can theoretically reduce the number of cars plying the streets, as with the case of UberPool.

Government agencies have also pushed for the installation CCTV cameras along major thoroughfares in order to monitor traffic flow and record erring motorists, in lieu of apprehending traffic violators on the spot, which can further worsen the traffic flow. There are also calls for making dashboard cameras mandatory on all vehicles and GPS trackers on public utility vehicles, in order to help promote driver discipline through surveillance and monitoring.

But not enough

These technology solutions do provide a bit of respite for drivers and commuters who can afford access. Waze aims to help drivers but, if even side streets are packed, the app’s alternative routes may not be as helpful as they were intended to be. Uber and Grab provide rider comfort, but critics also blame the proliferation of brand new vehicles acquired just for the purpose of ride-sharing as unnecessary additions to the volume of vehicles on the road.

Surveillance techniques seem to tap paranoia as a factor for drivers to be more disciplined on the road. Facebook pages have already been devoted to dashboard camera feeds aimed to shame violators. This culture of shaming, however, can be ethically debatable. Options such as driver education and appeals to shared responsibility are more ideal ways to inspire courtesy.

Urban planning and social engineering are still crucial

Technology solutions provide some relief, but this is like treating the symptoms of a disease. Solving traffic problems in a big metropolis like Metro Manila will require widespread reforms.

A great part of the problem is the sheer number of people in the metro. Decongesting Metro Manila–and other crowded cities–not only means widening the roads. The region houses the key business districts and these draw workers from the nearby provinces. Developing other places into economic hubs would encourage more people to stay put rather than go to just one city for work. However, this means developing infrastructure and stimulating entrepreneurship and investment even across the countryside.

The volume of vehicles plying the roads also need to be lessened. A growing economy also has its drawbacks, as more people are now empowered to purchase their own vehicles. Vehicle sales grew 23% in 2015. Many of these buyers are inspired by the idea that owning and driving your own vehicle is safer and more convenient than public transport. To combat this thinking, the government should eye a better public transport system of buses and trains and orderly pick-up and drop-off points. In addition, public works can aim to make roads more friendly to cyclists and pedestrians.

To address driver discipline, campaigns should be made to tighten the process of acquiring a license. Many drivers are still able to get licenses despite not really knowing defensive driving measures, road etiquette, and traffic laws. Campaigns to inspire sharing of the road and self-imposed discipline should also encourage the public to be better road users.

The takeaway

Developments in infrastructure are medium to longer-term solutions. Meanwhile, for the short-term, the conveniences provided by technology are very much welcome. In the end, real solutions are really systemic, and it is key for citizens to develop a shared sense of responsibility in order for nations to truly gain progress.

J. Angelo Racoma
I am a storyteller for startups and enterprises. I am a storyteller for startups and enterprises. I help brands and businesses engage and connect with audiences through effective content strategy. I have worked with top Fortune 500 technology companies, as well as numerous tech startups, incubators and accelerators across the EU, APAC and West Asia. Some examples include Microsoft, Rocket Internet, Pollenizer, Kickstart, and more.