Policy Idea: Road, Rail, and River–Efficient Mass Transportation Solutions for the PH

Politics Society Economy

Despite the country’s recent growth story, the lack of an efficient transport system curtails economic activity and deprives residents of opportunity, mobility, access, and time.

By Siegfrid S. Suarez


The Philippines is a bustling country with a population of 102,624,209.1 In Metro Manila alone, the population stands at 12,877,253.2 Today, the Philippines is widely considered as one of Asia’s economic bright spots, with an average of 6.2 percent growth under the Aquino administration and a 53.1 percent rise in foreign direct investment over 2012-2014.3

Yet, despite the country’s recent growth story, the lack of an efficient transport infrastructure curtails economic activity and deprives residents of opportunity, mobility, access, and time. A 2014 study by The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), reported in BusinessWorld, records that while EDSA, Manila’s main thoroughfare, is capable of accommodating around 1,600 buses, there are 2,500 buses traversing EDSA at any given time.4

Meanwhile, the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) reported that there are currently 260,000 cars plying both the northbound and southbound lanes of EDSA, greatly exceeding the road’s capacity of 160,000 cars per direction.5 JICA estimates that the traffic jams along EDSA alone cost the country US $57 million daily.6 By multiplying the figures estimated by JICA, the monster traffic jams in EDSA cause more or less US $17-20 billion in economic loss annually. More generally, JICA estimates that “the growing number of cars and the inefficient mass transit systems cost road users Php 2.4 billion a day,” and that that could “swell to Php 6 billion a day by 2030.”7

As the Philippine economy grows, congestion only stands to worsen, while insufficient transportation infrastructure will severely limit the country’s economic potential. The recent victory of tough-talking Rodrigo R. Duterte as President of the Philippines was seen as a potential catalyst for genuine change. However, seven months into his administration, not much change in mass transportation has been seen or felt by the public. It has recently been reported that emergency powers to address the traffic situation, which will be given by Congress to the President, is forthcoming.8

To paraphrase the former Mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa, a developed country is not a place where the poor have cars; it’s where the rich use public transport. The thriving global cities of Hong Kong, Tokyo, and London share in common efficient railway systems, with their main business districts connected to the residential areas, historic monuments, commercial centers, and airports, as well as to the surrounding provinces. Additionally, “as an international financial center, New York City is distinguished by its low ownership of personal automobiles and the highest rate of public transportation use in the United States. It is the only city in which over half of all households do not own a car, and in Manhattan this figure even reaches 75 [percent].”9

Proposal 1: Build a Strategic Railway Network

Indeed, the best solution to provide the Philippines with an efficient mass transportation system is a network of railways, featuring above- or below-ground systems within the business districts and light rail connecting the business districts outward. Railways are practical, on time, and basic—they move people from point A to point B without traffic. Further, the set schedule allows for predictability and the ability to plan ahead—luxuries crucial to the functioning of business and daily life.

Currently, only three main lines serve Metro Manila: the LRT I, II, and MRT III lines. The three lines are immensely overused and insufficient. The government must add supplementary routes to these existing lines, connect more areas to each other, and relieve the burden of the existing lines. Emerging residential and business districts such as Bonifacio Global City (BGC), Alabang, and Laguna, among others, are not accessible by rail transportation—this is an oversight that will only worsen congestion as these areas continue to grow in the coming years.

For an efficient mass transportation, there should be three major rail systems running: those within a district; those which connect districts; and those which connect provinces. As to railways within a district, these pertain to trains which service political, economic, and social hubs, such as government office clusters, central business districts, and entertainment districts.

The following are more concrete examples: Manila’s government offices should be accessible to each other for a more efficient government; Makati CBD should be connected by subway so that a person with a meeting at the opposite end of the business district need not take their personal vehicle anymore. The Entertainment City in Pasay which is home to three casinos as of publication, should be connected by rail, and even possibly extend to the nearby SM Mall of Asia to provide greater accessibility especially to tourists. 

As for railways which connect districts, these trains are envisioned to provide seamless connectivity among political, economic, or social districts. As an example, a railway should connect Makati CBD to Bonifacio Global City, and the latter to Ortigas CBD. By connecting these business districts, the continuity of business meetings and transactions would be unhampered by unnecessary traffic. Lastly, railways which connect provinces are important for two main reasons: to provide accessibility of people living in nearby provinces to jobs in Manila; and to provide a cost-efficient alternative transportation to people when traveling from one province to another.

It can be noted that in Europe, the railways are conveniently used by some people to live in one country and work in another. As an example, there are some people who live in France, but take the train daily to neighboring Switzerland to work. In the Philippines, this type of railway can make it easily possible for a person living in Pampanga to work in Makati daily, and at the same time be home with their family after work. All in all, the peak of an efficient mass transportation through railway can only be achieved with the concurrence of the three main railway systems as discussed here. 

Proposal 2: Construct More Roads while Encouraging Public Transportation Use

In addition to a railway network, the Philippines should also construct more roads in order for both private and public transport vehicles to flow freely and to catch up with the growing number of purchased vehicles. However, it is important, yet counter-intuitive, to note that building additional roads does not by itself alleviate road congestion, especially when coupled with economic growth, as the cars on the road only multiply to occupy the new spaces provided by such expansion.

The first, most vital priority is to create mass transportation solutions that move people off the road. Regarding research on the outcome of infrastructure building in the United States, Matthew Turner writes for the Property and Environment Research Center: “previous attempts to build our way out of urban traffic congestion have been largely self-defeating in the sense that, sooner or later, new roads tend to create more demand for driving.”10 However, “capacity additions can still be worthwhile…particularly if new roads are priced to encourage their most efficient use. Across-the-board improvements in bus service may also produce economic benefits sufficient to justify their costs.” Unlike the United States, the Philippines still severely lacks basic infrastructure around the country, but what is important to note with regard to providing mass transportation solutions and addressing traffic is how and what to do to meet our road transportation needs.

London provides us an example of a metropolis with effective road management policies. Here, areas with high traffic densities are subjected to a congestion charge of GBP 11.50 per day11 in order to discourage people from driving their own cars and to use the public transport system instead. A study by Independent (UK) has shown that the imposition of congestion charge has immediately impacted the traffic flow, as it reduced the traffic by around fifteen percent.12 Accordingly, around half of those who left their cars at home in London took the public transport system.13

Proposal 3: Maximize Use of the Pasig River Ferry System

Another unique feature of the Philippines which can be utilized is the waterways. Currently, the Pasig River Ferry System is in use, but is highly underutilized. Indeed the river is quite polluted, but it is still capable of being traversed for transportation purposes. Currently, there are seven Ferry stations wherein passengers may ride, starting from Intramuros in Manila up to Pinagbuhatan in Pasig. There are three reasons why the Pasig River System is underutilized: lack of information, inaccessibility of the stations in terms of inter-modal connectivity, and possible health hazards.

Towards the first reason, the government and the private sector should do a better job of informing people of the availability of such service. A service which is not known to the public is as good as a non-existing service.

Anent the second reason, the ferry stations lack adequate parking spaces and/or proper public vehicle terminals, sufficient to avoid traffic build up in the streets where said stations are located. Further, not all of the ferry stations offer free vehicle transfers to accessible places. In the stations without transfers, public transportation is not immediately accessible thus the ferry passengers have a hard time reaching their destinations. The government should include the ferry stations in the loop of the usual transport routes of public vehicles.

Lastly, people avoid riding the ferry because of the possible hazardous effects of contact with the Pasig River’s pollution. Unfortunately, past efforts by the government and private sector to clean the river have been futile. As early as 1973, President Ferdinand Marcos issued Presidential Decree No. 274 to clean and restore the Pasig River to beauty and gainful use, yet little has been done to clean the river. This is only yet another reason for us to redouble our efforts to clean and restore our capital’s most important riverway.

By combining a complete railway network with more and bigger roads, and with the ferry system, the country will achieve the pinnacle of an efficient mass transport system. This is the vision of development that we desire for the Philippines.

Policy Proposal

  • Establish three main rail systems to decongest Metro Manila and to connect the Philippines:
    • Build subways in primary business districts—inside BGC, Makati CBD, Ortigas CBD, and Alabang. These subways should then be connected to the main railway systems like the MRT-3 in EDSA.
    • Construct a light rail system to reach currently unserved districts, connect currently served districts, and relieve the burden of existing lines.
    • Build long distance railways to connect the provinces to the Metro city to widen the economic possibility that the national capital region (NCR) offers outward, to make it feasible for struggling workers to live outside the expensive NCR, to prevent the potential division of households and breakup of families.

  • Construct flyovers, expressways, and inner roads while the railway system is being expanded in line with the infrastructure priorities of our government’s economic development plan—linking our largest agricultural sectors to markets and providing the infrastructure needed to attract foreign investment in key industries, particularly our growing manufacturing industry as well as our important business process outsourcing industry.

  • Make use of and improve the existing Pasig River Ferry system:
    • Inform people of the availability of river travel, bringing more attention to the Pasig River ferry system, and make it a more useful, efficient service. This attention should also help focus environmental efforts on our most important capital riverway.
    • Increase inter-modal connectivity of the Pasig River ferry systems, making sure to include the ferry stations in the loop of the usual transport routes of public vehicles
    • Devote more resources on cleaning the Pasig River.




“The world factbook: Philippines.” CIA.gov. Central Intelligence Agency, n.d. Web. 13 February 2017. [Population figures based on July 2016 estimate].


“2015 Census of population and housing: National capital region.” Census.gov.ph. Civil Registration Service, n.d. Web. 13 February 2017. 


“Agenda of the next president: Economy and jobs.” Inquirer.net. Philippine Daily Inquirer, 10 Feb. 2016. Web. 29 Feb. 2016. 


Lopez, M.L. and Escaño, E.E. “HPG: More needs to be done to ease EDSA traffic.” BusinessWorld Online. BusinessWorld, 07 Sep. 2015. Web. 12 April 2016




Rodis, R. “Manila’s traffic jams cost $57 million a day.” Inquirer.net. Philippine Daily Inquirer, 23 Oct. 2014. Web. 11 April 2016. 


“Agenda of the next president: Traffic.” Inquirer.net. Philippine Daily Inquirer, 16 Feb. 2016. Web. 29 Feb. 2016. 


Tan, K.J. “Senate panel Oks emergency powers for Duterte to solve PH traffic.” News.ABS-CBN.com. ABS-CBN, 14 Dec. 2016. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.


Kun, J. “Where the rich use public transport.” CityAtlas.org. City Atlas, 18 Oct. 2012. Web. 29 Feb. 2016. 


Turner, M. “Road congestion and its implications for transportation policy.” PERC.org. Property and Environment Research Center Report 29, no. 3 Fall 2011. Web. 29 Feb. 2016. 


“Congestion Charge.” TFL.gov.uk. Transport for London, n.d. Web. 28 April 2016.  


Morris, N. “The big question: Has the congestion charge been effective in reducing London’s traffic?” Independent.co.uk. Independent, 13 Feb. 2008. Web. 29 April 2016. 







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