Senator Grace Poe has recently proposed SB 1146 or the “Sustainable Elevated Walkways Act of 2016”. I came to learn about the bill from the Philippine Daily Inquirer: Poe seeks more elevated walkways to ease traffic. My interest piqued due to the original headline reading “Poe seeks to ban beggars, vendors from elevated walkways”. It was typical clickbait headline, too common with news outlets nowadays but it was also surprising because it came from Sen. Poe. During the 2016 presidential elections, she ran on a coalition called “Partido Galing at Puso” (Party of Excellence and Heart). Moreover her presidential campaign was premised on the slogan “Gobyernong May Puso” (Government with a Heart), strongly criticizing the Pnoy administration for not caring enough about the common citizen. It was an out of character proposal.
Reading the article and the bill a number of times though, it wasn’t as bad as the original headline portrayed. Yet, there are still problematic provisions, including a number of discriminatory prohibitions that will disproportionately affect the poor or people at the lower rungs of society. The original headline is true to that extent. Problematic as well is that the proposal is premised on framing “elevated walkways” as a fix that has “limitless” applications and uses. A framework/program that directs government agencies to prioritize pedestrians and pedestrian facilities would be more desirable as it provides flexibility on what form they could take.
Let’s start with the bill’s ultimate goal, which is to establish a “Sustainable Elevated Walkway Program” within the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH). The program directs DPWH to construct an elevated walkway system on EDSA and “major public thoroughfares in high density urban areas throughout the country”. It sets out that the walkways will have standards in 13 areas such as continuous flow, safety and social inclusivity. These are all fine in of themselves, and actually surprised me with the breadth that they covered. Reading the study they cited as the basis for the bill and the prohibited acts stated in Section 5 though, the bill needs to be extensively amended, if not entirely rewritten.
Section 5 states that the following will be prohibited on elevated walkways:
- (a) Driving or parking motor and non-motor vehicles along all such walkways, including its vertical access points and drop-off areas;
- (b) Vending, selling, or servicing of foods, magazines, newspapers, cigarettes, brooms, watches or jewelries, shoes and other footwear, shoe shine and shoe repair, and/or any other commodities, items, and services;
- (c) Alms or donation-seeking activities;
- (d) Doing house chores such as washing clothes, hanging clothes and bathing;
- (e) Repair of vehicles of all types;
- (f) Dumping garbage;
- (g) Sports, games, and amusements;
- (h) Use of walkway to install pens of animals or keep animals in chains or tether;
- (i) Holding picnics/gatherings or storage of foodstuffs and beverages for such gatherings;
- (j) Drinking liquor;
- (k) Storing of junks and recyclable materials;
- (l) Storage of construction materials for sale (pipes, tubings, lumber, cement and the like).
Looking at the list though, it seems that the standard of continuous flow is highly prioritized compared to the standard of social inclusivity. It is addressing the symptom instead of the causes for many of these prohibited acts. For example, letter (f) Dumping garbage is quite prevalent in the Metro Area because there is a lack of waste receptacles everywhere. The only reliable trash bins available are in commercial establishments. This does not even tackle the need for waste segregation to say the least. Letter (b) again points to the lack of affordable spaces for vendors to actually ply their goods. I’m always reminded of the reason why hawker centres became a staple in Singapore’s urban life. It needs to be remembered that these places were a strategy to move street vendors away from sidewalks and roads by providing them with cheap stalls to move into. The policy was based on the idea that vendors provide cheap food items to ordinary people. It kept daily living costs down. In order to keep those costs down, the rents highly are subsidized. The impending move of bus terminals along Cubao and Taft is a good opportunity to take up. Going back to the prohibition, letters (d), (h), (k) all relate to the lack of affordable housing. Letter (g), (i), (j) points to the lack of public open spaces such as parks.
By prohibiting such acts without the attendant solutions in place amounts to a social cleansing of the city. Prohibition merely displaces them to other locations where they will continue doing the same acts. These show that the bill has already failed its central tenets of social inclusivity and sustainability. It goes against what Sen. Poe has advocated over the past year, gobyernong may puso. It points to a much more dangerous and problematic idea: not everyone has a right to the city. Only those with financial resources do.
If this bill is to be amended, it has to be broader than elevated walkways. It or a number of related bills have to provide and direct state policy and funding into building pedestrian facilities and public spaces of all kinds, and tying land use plans with transportation plans.
Pedestrian facilities mean actually having wider sidewalks, in some cases having one, along EDSA and other urban areas. Any project such as an elevated walkway would need to occupy significant sidewalk space as seen on EDSA. That space must be reclaimed, even at the cost of taking road space away from vehicles. When the city is built to prioritized walking then people will actually walk to their destination. Makati shows an example where underground and elevated walkways working together in providing a seamless route between different areas of the central business district. It is complemented by wide, evenly paved sidewalks with adequate shading. They could use more street furniture for resting between walks, eliminating the need to always go into a store.
It is also quite surprising that either Sen. Poe or her staff only took the need for elevated walkways from the Rotmeyer study. It consistently advocated for the need to look at connecting public spaces as well as seeing walkways as public spaces. I thought it would resonate with them that Hong Kong’s elevated walkway system was filling the need for public spaces for Filipina domestic workers. This includes using the system was place where they could gather, have a picnic, eat together on Sundays. The bill would prohibit all these actions and actually deny that they are public spaces.
Lastly, I do recognize that this bill is only one part of I hope an overall plan to address the traffic problem in the Philippines’ urban areas. Yet, it does not tackle the mismatch between the land use plans and the transportation plans. People will walk along places that are interesting. People can walk inside malls for hours not only because it is “climatically controlled” but also because there are a myriad of things that can interest them. Compare that with say the walk between Ortigas Avenue and Santolan Avenue on the northbound side. It is merely a long stretch of walls, provided by the Corinthian Gardens subdivision and Camp Aguinaldo. It is a gruelling walk with only the People Power Monument breaking the monotony. The southbound side is slightly better but the space has been designed for vehicular use. Sidewalks are parking spaces and in some instances an additional lane for buses. Instead of being fronted by inviting shops and commercial facilities, people have to navigate irregularly parked cars. If we are to ever “fix” the traffic crisis, it requires more fundamental changes that go beyond elevated walkways.
Again, I urge Sen. Poe to rethink and amend certain sections of SB1146. At its core, I can see the potential in what it is trying to achieve. I fully support the need to actually have pedestrian facilities such as an elevated walkway. Our cities are in dire need of such. Yet, the program needs to be thought of much more broadly and much more inclusively before it should be passed.