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Tackling Manila's Mobility Problem

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

by Ivanna ADT

The Philippines boasts of great economic potential with several investment-grade rating upgrades and a young population, but its traffic woes pose a real challenge that put the progress it is enjoying at risk. Its capital Metro Manila attracts migration from across the archipelago because of business and employment opportunities, attractive housing and lifestyle, and better-quality schools, hospitals, and technology. While this presents endless possibilities, these factors have also contributed to the city’s vehicle congestion. The negative effect of this traffic problem is not limited to time but expands to health and environmental consequences. Economic factors, such as the advancement of technology and taxation, play a role in determining policies suited for Manila’s response to the problem.

It is the push and pull approach that organizes multiple ideas into a clear, integrated response to the problem. Residents need to be pushed out of the private automobile-use lifestyle and into public and non-motorized transportation. This requires the Philippine government to adopt policies that will make the switch easy, and keep the status quo difficult. These policies come in the form taxation and elimination of benefits for the current system.

Unsustainable System Description

In 2014, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), an organization that has long provided technical cooperation and other forms of aid to countries like the Philippines (JICA, 2017), presented a report estimating a PhP 2.4 billion loss on a daily basis due to traffic (Punongbayan & Mandrilla, 2015). They furthered that if the problem ensues, the Philippines will see a PhP 6-billion daily loss by 2030 (Francisco, 2014). This year in 2017, JICA reports that traffic congestion in te country has worsened incurring a daily economic loss of PhP 4.1 billion (, 2017).

The Philippines has a total population of 100,981,437 based on the 2015 Census of Population. This was higher by 8,643,585 compared to the 2010 Census of Population and Housing, which was also higher by 3,789, 486 compared to the 2007 Census of Population (Philippine Statistics Authority, 2017). The northern group of islands Luzon comprised 56.9 percent of the country’s total population, with the National Capital Region (NCR), central business districts like the Ortigas Center resides, accounted for 12.8% of the total population (Philippine Statistics Authority, 2017).

The Ortigas Center covers three main cities: Mandaluyong City, Pasig City, and Quezon City (Ortigas, 2017). The 100-hectare mini-city on its own has a population of 728, 899 and a labor force of 116,000 (Reyes, 2016). It is home to the 335,00-sqm. Shopping mall (SM Megamall) and cuts through the 23.8-km main thoroughfare EDSA (SY, 2003). It has 19,000 sqm. of Philippine Economic Zone Authority-accredited space for the knowledge process outsourcing industry (Reyes, 2016).

This wasteland turned central business district shares in the over 2,405,122 motor vehicles registered in NCR in 2016 (Land Transportation Office, 2016). Ortigas is notorious for its state of traffic round the clock. Former Metro Manila Development Authority chairman Francis Tolentino highlighted Ortigas Center as among the heavy contributors to traffic along EDSA (Frialde, 2010). Congestion hits its peak whenever SM Megamall would hold its regular sale that draws a large number of shoppers from various other areas (Frialde, 2010).

Rapid urbanization and economic growth brings with it an unprecedented acceleration of motorization in developing countries. The greater economic activity in Manila, experiencing its highest 5-year average growth from 2010 to 2014 since the 1970s, yields more jobs, a higher commercial activity, and busier roads (Punongbayan and Mandrilla, 2015). This is true for the Asian region where “the number of motor vehicles per one thousand people has more than tripled in the past thirty years” (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2012).

The Philippine Department of Health together with the World Health Organization conducted a study that showed that the air in Manila contains pollutants in excess of tolerable levels (Roses, 2002). This can be attributed to emissions from vehicles, power plants and factories, and refuse burning, road dust, and open cooking (World Bank, 2002). The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2012) identifies the road transport sector as the largest contributor of urban air pollutants, and high levels of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons. While particulate matter levels decreased since 1995 (due mostly to improved technology and standards), these still exceeded standards in many cities including Pasig City, which was recorded as a high population and high concentration area (World Bank, 2002).

Air pollution poses various health issues from colds, cough, and asthma, to serious respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia and lung cancer (GMA Network, 2012). 36.7 % of recorded deaths in Pasig City was caused by pneumonia, and 17.2 was caused by chronic lower respiratory disease (Department of Health, 2012).

Infants, elderly, and those suffering from chronic respiratory conditions are the most vulnerable to air pollution (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2012). According to the World Health Organization, nearly 2 million premature deaths in the world are caused by air pollution and road transport is among its major contributors (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2012).

Natural Systems Influences

Populous central business districts like Ortigas Center accelerate motorization and host traffic congestion with environmental consequences – air pollution, weather, water, energy, food, waste, and flood.

As vehicle ownership rises rapidly, Manila continues to show very high readings of particulates (World Bank, 2002). 70% of the vehicles are gasoline-fueled and 31% are diesel-fueled; utility vehicles outnumber cars; and since 1994, motorcycles and tricycles have surpassed cars (World Bank, 2002). A high growth in vehicle ownership contributes greatly to the city’s worsening air conditions.

The black carbon that gas and diesel engines emit is suspended in the atmosphere and contributes to global warming (CCA Coalition, 2017). The black carbon stays in the clouds, dimming the light coming to the earth’s surface, and changes rain patterns. It falls on the snow covering mountains with snoot that speeds up the ice melting (CCA Coalition, 2017).

Ground-level ozone emitted by cars (when oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds react with sunlight) among others is the main ingredient in smog (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2017). It damages vegetation and ecosystems as experienced by the United States where it was responsible for an estimated $500 million in reduced crop production each year (Mother Nature Network, 2009).

High-density cities, covering only 2% of the Earth’s surface, are resource-intensive consuming an estimate of 75% of the world’s resources (Webb, 2012). Daily routines that city-dwellers are accustomed to cause this high uptake. A driveway car wash, for example, can use more than 100 gallons of water (Chan, 2015). “International Carwash Assn. CEO Eric Wulf estimated that 8 to 10 gallons of water leave a household hose every minute it is in use (Chan, 2015). There is over-exploitation of water resources by cities. To meet the growing demand of water due to rapid urbanization, cities are going deeper and further (United Nations, 2017).

On the brighter side, traffic congestion presents opportunities for business. The time wasted in traffic means city dwellers are out in the streets and not home cooking. The congestion steals time away from home and pushes drivers and riders to eat out (Gandhi, 2016). Filipinos are said to waste 1,000 hours in traffic in a year (Ordinario, 2015).

This fast-paced, time-constrained, take-out lifestyle presents waste disposal issues with water bottles, food wrappings, bags scattered across the city (PDI, 2017). The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority collected a total of 202 tons, or 34 truckloads, of such waste in one day after a big event in Manila (PDI, 2017).

Human Behaviors Influences

Urban growth contributing to traffic congestion occurs for various reasons – businesses, housing, and leisure.

There are various reasons for urban growth: a) people leave their agriculture-driven home provinces to seek employment opportunities in the metro; b) there are better paying jobs in the cities that also offer the comfort of modernization; c) people who migrate to the city tend to be young so have higher birth rates; d) better medical conditions; and e) better education systems (BBC, 2017).

When migration occurs for employment, the demand for housing increases as population increases (Mulder, 2017). Simultaneously, “the supply of housing influences the opportunities for population increase through migration” (Mulder, 2017). While migration could begin from having work opportunity in the city, attractive housing could also trigger the process of migration and influence their choice of residential location.

Urban housing becomes attractive with its many perks. In Manila, the condominium projects are normally developed beside malls and shopping complexes (Brunn, Hays-Mitchell, & Graybill, 2016). The SM Megamall in Ortigas Center, has stores, restaurants, an ice skating rink, bowling lanes, cinemas, and other facilities that entice crowds over, thereby, increasing congestion.

These business, residential, and leisure developments, from higher investment-grade ratings, translate into rapid changes in land use (Brunn, Hays-Mitchell, & Graybill, 2016). The Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources Roy Cimatu said, “There are no more trees in Metro Manila and we should plant more to compensate for the carbon emissions in the metropolis” (Simeon, 2017). Despite this, President Rodrigo Duterte highlights his “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure-heavy program as the crux of his 10-point socioeconomic agenda (National Economic Development Authority, 2017).

Infrastructure development aims to improve accessibility and increase road capacity to ease the traffic, but road capacity also results in greater volume of traffic (Goodwin, 1996). According to Goodwin (1996), “an average road improvement has induced an additional 10% of base traffic in the short term and 20% in the long term: individual schemes with induced traffic at double this level may not be very unusual, especially for peak periods. Induced traffic is particularly seen on the alternative routes that road improvements are intended to relieve.”

Business increases technology

Businesses that spur growth in cities and contribute to congestion are also the businesses that attempt to solve the problem through technology. Billions of dollars are at stake for rising technology trends (Bort, 2016). The Philippine National Economic and Development Authority also wants to attract more investments in advanced technologies with plans to turn into a knowledge-based economy (Valencia, 2016).

MyTaxi.PH, Inc. and Uber have both invested heavily in the Philippines. Uber Philippines reported a net income of PhP 9.5 million in 2015, while MyTaxi.Ph, Inc. reported a net loss of PhP 2.2 billion in the same year (Lopez, 2016). The loss was due to its huge outlay for driver incentives (Lopez, 2016). Both companies promote its ride-sharing model as solution to congestion.

Technology improves communications, which can also be tapped as solution to the worsening traffic situation. “Traffic jams have been around for a long time, especially in developing countries with massive populations and immense pressure on existing infrastructure. But rapid changes in the environment, namely the high rates of smartphone adoption, cheap data plans and decent network strengths can help entrepreneurs turn this problem into opportunities (Gandhi, 2016).”

Waze, a GPS navigation software company, shares its data to help the government navigate through road problems, not limited to traffic. With is 90million active users globally, it released a Driver Satisfaction Index 2017 (on traffic density, road safety, driver services, road quality, socioeconomic conditions, that showed the Philippines at the bottom of a list of 39 countries (Camus, 2017).

Industrial Systems Dynamic Influences

Economic factors car pricing, taxation, coal production, and work policies.

A booming economy presenting employment opportunities yields high purchasing power. The current daily minimum wage rate in NCR is PhP 512 for non-agriculture industry, which increased from PhP 481 (Department of Labor and Employment, 2017). With higher purchasing power, there is higher demand for cars. There is a young demographic of car buyers, the new joiners of the workforce, who are now eligible to invest in durable goods such as cars; the large share of middle class; and the easy payment terms and low interest rates from the banks contribute to the increase in vehicles on the road (Punongbayan & Mandirlla, 2015).

Passenger car sales (87%) have grown more than commercial vehicle sales (33%) from 2012-2014 (Punongbayan & Mandirlla, 2015). The growth of passenger cars exceeded the growth of commercial vehicles from the fourth quarter of 2012 until the first quarter of 2015 (Punongbayan & Mandirlla, 2015).

Ride-sharing is meant to decrease vehicles on the road and mitigate traffic. Uber Regional Manager Michael Brown said they want “to innovate in order to make transport less expensive, to reduce congestion in cities, and to make transport more environmentally sane so we don’t ruin our planet (Villanueva & Lazaro, 2014).” Contrary to this, transport groups that are critical of Uber in the Philippines, composed of jeepney, taxi, and UV Express drivers, claims that ride-sharing only contribute to the worsening traffic condition in Manila (Hegina, 2015).

According to Clewlow and Mishra (2017), “Approximately half of ride-hailing trips are ones that would have been made by walking, biking, transit, or avoided altogether.” The Deutsche Bank AG analysts likewise estimate, contrary to what was anticipated, car companies will enjoy a rise in sales due to ride-sharing companies (Newcomb, 2016).

Taxation to ease congestion

The Philippine Congress bicameral committee had recently ratified the tax reform for acceleration and inclusion bill (Mercurio, 2017). The bill lowers personal income tax and presents offsetting measure in the form of excise taxes on sweetened beverages, fuel, coal, cosmetic surgeries, and automobiles. While the aim of the general bill is to improve the tax collection system, the Department of Finance advocated for the automobile tax as a solution to traffic congestion (Sunnex, 2016).

The Philippines is not alone in this. In 2010, Indonesia likewise raised car taxes to ease congestion. Jakarta City Administration spokesman Cucu Ahmad Kurina said, “We hope the higher taxes will reduce traffic congestion as the number of vehicle users in Jakarta is already high (BBC, 2010).”

Communications and congestion

Advancement and technology and communications present new work policy options that could ease traffic congestion. The Philippine Senate is deliberating on Senate Bill 1363 or the Telecommuting Act of 2017, which ensures protection of home-based workers and allowing the “work from home” policy to address the traffic crisis (Elemia, 2017).

Sharad Saxena, Principal Transport Specialist, East Asia Department, at the Asian Development Bank (2017) agrees: “If the Philippine law is successfully implemented, it would not only reduce traffic congestion; it could also enhance employee productivity and reduce air pollution and carbon emissions.”

Policy Recommendations

Manila’s mobility system has a long way to go. It begins with a paradigm shift from building transportation systems to providing mobility services (Hietanen, 2014). Instead of funding infrastructure-directed projects, the focus will be on providing smarter processes to allow the people to go from point A to point B.

A sustainable system requires the integration of “mobility, accessibility, affordability, social equity, efficiency, safety, security, convenience, low carbon, comfort, and people – and environment-friendliness (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2012). Not one aspect could be isolated from the rest.

Using the “push and pull” approach, policies should pull users into public and non-motorized transport (such as walking and bicycles), and push users out of automobile use (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2012). The pull aspect will require good quality of service in public transport, infrastructure that encourages public transport (such re-organizing the privatized bus system to offer a scheduled bus service) and non-motorized transport (such as improving the sidewalks, walking tunnels and bridges, planting trees in the city to provide shade for pedestrian, building green parks in the city center, using art to promote a sustainable street mindset), and policies that create an environment easy enough for its adoption (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2012). The push aspect will require stringent rules such as eliminating fuel subsidies, charges on automobile ownership, increasing the cost of using automobiles, and applying the polluter pays principle and imposing strict policies against polluters (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2012).

The strategy is to avoid unnecessary travel and reduce trip distances, shift towards more sustainable transport modes, and improve transport practices and technologies (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2012).


The intense complexity of Manila’s transportation system, and the frustration given the high economic stakes at hand, makes it difficult to begin the work towards solving the problem. There are solutions, such as ride-sharing or building more roads, that initially present itself as positive; but, while not negative in essence, also needs careful consideration because of its implications and reverse effects. In the end, applying the push and pull approach provides clarity to the equation. It provides a foundation to simple solutions of public and non-motorized modes of transportation.

List of References

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