Open door: Government looks to unlock potential by addressing gridlock


One of the most important priorities for transport sector stakeholders in the Philippines is reducing congestion across the country’s urban centres. The new administration of President Rodrigo Duterte has given strong signals that it intends to address this persistent problem, deploying a multi-pronged strategy that includes legal reforms, departmental restructuring and even the granting of emergency powers for a new secretary of transport. However, lack of clarity and cohesion within various governmental departments, as well as resistance to proposed emergency measures, poses a challenge for the Duterte administration’s transport agenda. Despite these difficulties, the recent announcement that several planned Metro Manila rail projects will move to the tendering stage in the immediate future offers a promising long-term solution. At the same time, ongoing projects, including the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Expressway, which opened in September 2016, and the Northern Luzon Expressway (NLEX), should offer near-term alleviation at some of Manila’s worst chokepoints.

Traffic Demographics

The capital city’s congestion problems are rooted in a host of overlapping factors such as urbanisation, rising car ownership, limited public transport networks and conflicting transport policies. Urbanisation is one of the key contributors to congestion in the city. Manila’s population rose from 18m in 2000 to 23m in 2010, and is forecast to rise to 30m by 2025, according to research by US-based Demographia. In 2006 population density was estimated at 274 people per ha, compared to 64 per ha in Paris, according to report published in February 2016 by The Economist. In August 2016 local media outlets reported that Manila is the most densely populated city on earth, with more than 46,000 people per sq km, which is nearly double that of New York City.

Urban planning has also affected traffic flows. Manila is shaped like an hourglass, with a narrower middle area home to all the main business districts, but flanked by bodies of water – Manila Bay to the west and Laguna de Bay to the east. The city’s northern and southern regions are characterised by suburban sprawl. Gated communities, many of which are next to bustling business districts, ban all vehicles without a resident sticker, funnelling traffic into major chokepoints.

Public Transit Deficit

Weak public transport networks pose another problem, with existing rail systems often operating well above capacity. Although three metropolitan rail lines are in operation at present – the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) 3 and Light Rail Transit (LRT) 1 and 2 lines – plans to build four additional lines have suffered delays until recently. Connections between existing routes are poor, and lines to get onto station platforms often stretch down staircases and onto the street at rush hour. With rail services characterised by service interruptions, road transport remains the most popular option for the estimated 80% of Manila residents who use public transport.

Media reports there are up to 50,000 jeepneys (stretched jeeps that carry roughly a dozen passengers each) driving on Manila’s roads, as well as a host of private bus lines that entered the market during the economic liberalisation of the 1990s. Manila is home to 1122 private operators and an estimated 266 private lines operate along the notoriously congested Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA) alone. The most significant contributor to congestion in Manila, however, is the country’s robust macroeconomic growth, which has driven an expansion of the middle class and, subsequently, vehicle ownership. Cars carry just 30% of passengers in the metropolitan area, but account for a reported 72% of traffic.


Many critical chokepoint areas in Manila, as highlighted by the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA), are located along EDSA, including intersections at Balintawak Market Road in the Muñoz area, Quezon Avenue in Kamuning, Aurora Boulevard in Santolan, Ortigas Avenue and Shaw Boulevard, Ayala Avenue and Taft Avenue. Other areas prone to high levels of congestion include the roads leading to and from the Manila North Harbour Port, particularly Circumferential Road 3, A Mabini Street, Dagat-Dagatan Avenue, North Bay Boulevard and Radial Road 10. The northern part of the city experiences the worst congestion on Rizal Avenue, Samson Road, General Malvar Street, MacArthur Highway and Karuhatan Road, while in the east chokepoints include Gil Fernando Bridge, Marcos Highway, the San Juan and Pasig intersections, and Meralco Avenue. Quezon City drivers, meanwhile, will find the worst traffic on the Bonny Serrano, Araneta, Timog, Katipunan and Magsayay avenues and the Capitol intersection.

Congestion Costs

Congestion in Manila has a dramatic impact on economic growth. In 2014 the Japan International Cooperation Agency found that traffic congestion cost the country P2.4bn ($50.8m) per day in lost productivity and income, a figure that is set to double by 2030 if current trends continue. In June 2016 Karl Kendrick Chua, a senior economist for the World Bank, told international media that the country’s GDP growth could easily reach 8% if it was not losing 15-30% of its productive time to traffic. In addition, in 2015 GPS-based navigation application Waze conducted a survey that found Manila’s traffic is the worst in the world, ahead of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in Brazil, and Jakarta in Indonesia.

Although previous administrations have attempted to mitigate congestion in the capital city, efforts have not met with much success. In February 2014, for example, a truck ban for the Metro Manila area was implemented, but cancelled after just seven months as congestion around the city’s ports soared. In September 2015 the ban was re-implemented, but only during peak traffic hours. For years, plans have been under way to develop new road and rail networks in the city, and under former President Benigno Aquino III, the country’s Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Centre successfully delivered the Daang Hari-South Luzon Expressway (SLEX) Link Road, also known as the Muntinlupa-Cavite Expressway, at a cost of some P2.23bn ($47.2m). The road opened in midway through 2015. Other large-scale projects, including new metro lines, the NAIA Expressway, Metro Manila Skyway and the North-South Railway project (see analysis), have faced substantial delays.

New Administration

The new administration of President Duterte assumed power in June 2016 and immediately moved to implement a host of sweeping reforms aimed at clearing the backlog of planned PPP projects and reducing congestion, including a controversial move to grant emergency powers to the president or a proxy transport official. Arthur Tugade, the new secretary of transport, announced in May 2016 that the government was looking at introducing measures that included granting emergency powers to President Duterte, who would then appoint a traffic manager with the authority to compel gated residential neighbourhoods to allow traffic through their streets, in addition to enabling the government to “bypass bureaucracy to spend directly on upgrading highways and on property for new roads”. In July 2016 Tugade also announced plans to cut processing times in all transport offices by 50% over the next two months, with a special focus on the Land Transportation Office (LTO), in a bid to reduce congestion on the MRT-3 and other public transport systems.

Moves to grant President Duterte emergency powers to reduce traffic moved ahead in July 2016, when Franklin Drilon, president of the Senate, proposed the Transportation Crisis Act of 2016. The act would grant President Duterte emergency powers to adopt alternative procurement methods for the construction, repair, rehabilitation, improvement and maintenance of transport projects that reduce traffic congestion in the Metro Manila area. The law would also enable the reorganisation of the Department of Transportation (DoT) and its agencies, including the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board, the LTO and the MMDA, which have been criticised for their functional arbitrage. The move was supported by former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who suggested Duterte also be granted the power to enter negotiated contracts for critical infrastructure projects. These plans have stalled, however, as some lawmakers opposed plans to appoint Tugade as traffic crisis manager and grant him more authority over traffic-related issues. They claim no such law is necessary, and urged the DoT to open alternate routes in Manila, arguing many are currently being used as parking spaces for buses.

Rail Progress

In September 2016 the Committee on Public Services announced an ambitious railway agenda, which highlighted 14 projects set to be completed before 2022 (see analysis).

The projects, valued at a total of P1.07trn ($22.6bn), will go far in reducing congestion in Manila, with 11 of the 14 located in Luzon. Although upgrades to the LRT-1 and MRT-3 lines were bid out under the previous administration, most of the 14 projects have not progressed beyond the initial planning phases, including four proposed new LRT lines. However, a groundbreaking ceremony for the LRT-7 took place in April 2016, marking an important step forward for the PPP programme and promising a long-term solution to persistent congestion (see overview).

New Expressways

Ongoing expressway construction projects should offer a much-needed interim solution to congestion in the city. A portion of the NAIA Expressway, a P17.93bn ($379.3m) project developed by the PPP Centre, opened in September 2016. The expressway connects Macapagal Boulevard, near Entertainment City, to NAIA’s Terminals 1 and 2, and is expected to reduce travel time from the Skyway system and SLEX to 8.2 minutes, from 24.3 at present. The expressway, which officially opened in October 2016, will generate P55m ($1.2m) in toll fees each month, under a PPP with San Miguel Holdings Corporation. In the same month, authorities announced that a project to widen the NLEX from Saint Rita to San Fernando would be finished in mid-December 2016, improving connectivity from Metro Manila to the Central Luzon region; the road was opened in January 2017.