Sudhir Gota

Teresa, our air quality researcher from Hong Kong believes that Metro Manila had only one thing in common with Hong Kong and it is air pollution!!

In order to prove that Metro Manila had lot to offer in terms of transport and land use and to show the best part of Metro Manila, we (Alvin our air quality researcher and me) decided to take her to Marikina. Alvin has seen the transformation of Marikina from close quarters, from being only a “bedroom community” city to city with lot of public space.

Teresa had only one question for us i.e. - Why Marikina? What’s in Marikina that is not in Ortigas? I suggested that she better wait and watch and give her comments in Marikina.

In order to hype the visit, Alvin decided to give history and geography lesson to us. He started explaining about Marikina - Marikina, the ‘shoe-capital’ of Philippines prospered on account of its shoe industry. The concept of its growth was the balance of basic-service industries with the service employment and basic employment balancing the growth. The balance was broken in 1980’s, when the subsidiary business districts of Metro Manila expanded thus pushing the middle class people to the peripheries thus engulfing Marikina. On account of low cost of living in Marikina, people started using it as a base for working in other parts of metro Manila. Only a minority of trips had both origin and destination in Marikina. It became a “bedroom community” and the city started decaying. The local government then started initiating steps in order to make the city livable. They took several initiatives such as removal of encroachment, provision of bike lanes and sidewalk, improvement of public space etc to stop the urban decay.

I couldn’t stop myself from jumping into the discussion (I have this bad tendency of always not allowing others to speak their mind when I am inspired!!) and explained why - Marikina city has lot to offer to transport researchers. I argued that many people simply don’t realize the importance of having good public space”. In fact, my love affair with public space started with a comment from one of my colleagues “Bert Fabian” when he suggested that “A good city is the one which has more public space than the street and parking space.” For him, the public space includes footpaths, bikelanes, parks, play grounds etc. What do you think?

Would you like to visit a garden, park, playground etc. in the heart of city next to your home, meet friends and relatives for relieving your stress or would rather go and sit in a mall?

I have another bad habit of comparing two things – cost in local currency with Indian rupees and city with Bangalore. Thus, as always, I brought in Bangalore into discussion of Marikina and suggested the evils of motorization and commercialization which transformed Bangalore city from “Garden city” to “Black city” ( people yet don’t realize that nearly 2 or 3 people die on roads in Bangalore daily). My colleagues were not impressed as they have heard this before number of times!!

We were about to reach Marikina and I was happy that I could prove that “city-design can influence the people behavior”. But there was a twist in the tale, as soon as we reached Marikina; we were in for a shock!

Teresa pointed out towards the main corridor which was congested with traffic and signals not working and pointed out – is it Marikina? Did we come to see this? She pointed out towards the smoke belchers – the jeepneys and the tricycles and told that the road is more polluted than Makati – one of the CBD’s of Metro Manila.

I agreed as she made a valid point. The congested road was virtually splitting the city and distorting the beauty. Yes, the heavy traffic was creating the “Berlin wall” syndrome. The people were standing next to the road watching traffic and children waving at people and neighbors at other end of the road afraid of stepping onto the street. While driving, Alvin was feeling sorry for them as they were inhaling his car’s tail-pipe emissions. He suggested that they need to transform this road and reduce the intensity of traffic by improving the public transport.

I was trying to understand the pattern of traffic – landuse-environment. We parked our vehicles in the free parking area. I could immediately see the challenges. The city still needs to work out this free parking aspect. You can never have free parking of motorized vehicles and less traffic. Teresa stated appreciating the beauty of Marikina and immediately saw the free parking spaces of bikes taken over by motor bikes. This again is a challenge for all of us. History has shown that with little incentives such as cheap fuel and free parking, the motorbikes can dominate the human powered bikes and we should ensure its reversal by policy changes. All modes have some role to play in urban transport but the role and extent is never understood properly by the governments which often lead us to chaos.

Marikina though realized the importance of cycling long back when its Mayor Marides C. Fernando launched the bike program by suggesting that “The Bicycle Program is designed to decongest the traffic on the road, increase our mobility and to provide the low income people their transport mode that will allow them to have a healthier lifestyle” . It was awarded in 2008 in the category of “Climate change and health in cities” by WHO. Alvin indicated that the award is because of its “Public Space” policies as people are healthier.

He pointed out that in Marikina people liked to live outside their homes. I have no doubt about this as he visits his home regularly only in the early mornings…

“Public Space” policy is the beauty of Marikina. Marikina was possibly one of the first cities in Asia to prove that mode share of cycles can increase provided the non motorized policies are in place. Marikina has approx 53 km of bike lanes spread over an area of 33 square kilometers. The beauty is that approximately 19 km of bike lanes run parallel to streams. Marikina has also supported the bikers by providing bicycle loan facilities and innovative renting scheme.

Yes, the success can be measured - “increase in Non motorized transport share from 4% in 1999 to 10% in 2006”. This is critical as majority of trips either starts or ends outside Marikina. Now the situation is that majority of households have access to bikes!! . One could see innumerable places where people can meet, walk, play etc.

We entered into the CBD of Marikina. Innovative use of Road-witching concept can be explored in detail if somebody traverses through this area. The innovative road landscape allows share-use of roads with people and vehicles co-existing. One more important lesson for me was the use of lanes of 2.5-3m for motorized traffic and it was working good. I learnt my tricks of highway design based on the fundamentals of 3.5m lanes. This was a surprise for me!

The challenge is in the issue of jeepneys. Teresa was sad to see people hanging out of Jeepneys. With 35% of total trips by jeepneys (nearly 1400 jeepneys are registered in Marikina), overcrowding is common. The public transport holds the key for Marikina. Future of Marikina depends on it.

We started walking along the “riverwalk”. We came across many people enjoying the beauty of sunset in the park. When Teresa mistook living carabao (buffalo) for artificial sculpture, we knew that our walking time is up and we need to have quick dinner. Our colleague Jaja (administrative officer) joined us for dinner. She doesn’t want big malls in Marikina. Guess why?

“It’s not that they don’t provide the good shopping experience or big discounts, but because it sticks out like a sore thumb in the beauty of the city.” Also she wants the parks and rivers to be maintained well. But the issue is how would the city government fund this? Alvin suggests that the entry fees for parks would be like road pricing. It would reduce the demand and I also agree on that. I was eying the removal of free parking facilities. The fund can go for benefit of parks and they can restructure the land-tax to make the rich pay more for the government in benefit of clean city.

We all agreed that the challenge for Marikina would be the land-use policies. Currently there are no concrete towers in middle of city or high rise buildings. If in future they transform the public land into commercial and concrete space the beauty would be lost. Teresa reserved her judgment and wanted to see the full city and we promised to come back again for detailed review.

After the dinner, Jaja made an interesting observation on crime rate in Marikina. She pointed out that the crime rate in Marikina has come down significantly. Alvin attributes this to the public space policy. Is it so? What do you think?

For me, it was interesting to note the change in people’s behavior by changing the policies of public space. The challenge in future is enormous as parks and open space currently constitute only 16% of road space and public spaces are fast shrinking (nearly 50% reduction of space from 2007).

Bert Fabian’s quote “Changing cities changing minds” is true and Marikina is a prime example of this. But the city needs to do more. The challenge is great!!!