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BENJAMIN DE LA PENA | Urbanization works - and 'decongestion' doesn't mean what you think it means

InterAksyon.com means BUSINESS

Benjamin de la Peña currently serves as the director of community and national strategy for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.  Most recently, de la Peña served as associate director for urban development at the Rockefeller Foundation, where he supervised programming related to: urbanization; the emerging science of cities; the role of informality in cities; cities and technology; bus rapid transit (BRT); innovations in informal mobility; and transportation and urban policy. 

This past week, Businessworld and Inquirer.net published two identically titled opinion pieces. Both were called "Decongesting Metro Manila", and both were written by corporate management experts. The first article was by Dean Andrea L. Santiago of De La Salle University's Ramon V. Del Rosario College of Business, the second by Jose Rene C. Gayo, Dean of the MFI Farm Business School, guest-writing for the Management Association of the Philippines. (MAP issues a standard disclaimer that the opinions expressed are Gayo's and not MAP's.)

The structures of both articles are so similar, you wonder if they are writing off the same topical outline.

Both authors are also ill-informed about cities and urban dynamics, and so both prescribe the same old hat "cures" that have led to some of the worst urban policies in the last century. Their arguments are built on a misunderstanding of the term "congestion" and the false (and potentially disastrous) call for "decongestion".

Both business school deans use traffic congestion as their starting point but then, rather than proposing solutions to decongest transportation, they jump off to "decongesting" the megacity. They make the mistake of conflating "congestion" - a term that is used by transportation and traffic engineers to describe the amount of traffic delay  (e.g. slower moving traffic) in road networks – with overcrowding. The "cures" proposed by Gayo and Santiago are not about traffic congestion; they are about depopulating the city.

Boiled down, they are basically saying, "Metro Manila is overpopulated, therefore, depopulate it." How? Santiago proposes "alternative growth corridors", Gayo proposes moving the capital.

Santiago opens with a statistic from JICA about congestion costing the economy P2 billion per day - conveniently failing to point out that JICA is talking about traffic. The DLSU Dean quickly makes a leap in her argument, going from stressing that "this figure contains more than just lost man-hours and fuel wasted by a multitude of idling cars" to saying that "congestion can be seen in the problem of informal settlers, slums, criminality, and theft of water and electricity." This "congestion" is "a long term problem," she adds.

Gayo makes a similar jump in a single paragraph, skipping from "monstrous traffic jams" to environmental vulnerability. "These problems are signs of a city that has grown more than its carrying capacity," says Gayo.

I'll deal with their prescriptions in my follow up articles, but for now, let us tackle the core of their argument: traffic congestion and population "congestion". Does traffic congestion warrant pulling up our tent posts and trying to build somewhere else? And is it really that easy to depopulate a city?

Here's the thing. Try searching the headlines of any city in the world and you will find this formulation: "Congestion in city X costs the city Y amount", with the costs usually computed in man-hours lost. Every city with a vibrant and growing economy will have that headline.  (By the way, that headline is usually also used to frame expensive proposals to expand roads and build more freeways.)

Congestion seems to be a problem common to all cities that have successful economies. Eric Dumbaugh, writing for Atlantic Cities, mapped traffic congestion vs. urban GDP in US cities and found that there was a strong and positive correlation between traffic delays and GDP. The bigger the economy of your city, the more likely you are to suffer from traffic congestion.

Anthony Downs, in a book excerpt called "Why Traffic Congestion Is Here to Stay. . . and Will Get Worse"  says, "rising traffic congestion is an inescapable condition in all large and growing metropolitan areas across the world, from Los Angeles to Tokyo, from Cairo to São Paulo. Peak-hour traffic congestion is a result of the way modern societies operate, and of residents' habits that cause them to overload roads and transit systems every day." He goes on to say that traffic congestion reflects economic prosperity and should not be seen as a mark of social failure.

Here's the other thing: If either Deans were worth their academic salt, they should do some background research on what happens when cities lose their population. Hint: it's usually an economic disaster. 

The Deans should take a tour of all the cities losing their populations in the older industrial cities of the American Midwest and Eastern Europe. They will find cities with stalled or failing economies; cities that are losing industries and businesses and are scrambling to attract people back to their cores. The current poster child is Detroit. The Motor City was once the third largest metropolis in the US, but, because of bad urban policy, has lost nearly a quarter of its population in every decade since its heyday. Last year, Detroit became the largest city ever to declare bankruptcy.

These are nightmare scenarios no mayor wants to see and no educated civic or academic leader should wish on any community.

This is the crux of the matter: Our leaders - civic, political and academic - are so woefully uninformed about urbanization and cities. So we have no coherent urban policy. We spend all our energy insanely trying to cure traffic congestion and don't seem to know how to improve our cities so they can be more livable and more competitive. Our policy leaders and their advisers don't understand cities, tending to think of them only as extra-large real estate projects, not as networks, or economies or ecosystems.

The Philippines is an urban country. Close to 70 percent of our population now lives in cities. This is actually a good thing. While urbanization comes with its own attendant problems (among them pollution, and yes, traffic congestion) what is very clear is that urbanization leads to economic growth. The economic leaders in our region - Japan, South Korea, Taiwan all have very urbanized economies; so, too, the leading global economies of the "developed" world. (For all our current conflict with China, there is something we can learn from their economic growth program - they are driving urbanization, not preventing it.  They are growing their cities, not trying to depopulate them.)

There are two important ideas our policy makers and leaders need to understand:

Traffic congestion is a feature of urban economic growth. Trying to solve it by depopulating a city would be an unmitigated disaster.

We are an urbanized country. We had better learn to be good at it. We need a cohesive urban policy.

While I rail at how uninformed Gayo and Santiago are, I am at least hopeful that we can use this disagreement as the start of much needed discussion. We need to ask ourselves: What kind of cities do we want to live in? How do we get there?

Next up, I'll write on why building a new city or a growth corridor will NOT "decongest" your old city. It's been tried and we know it doesn't work.

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