Metro Manila, the Capital of The Philippines is a sprawling metropolis that covers an area of approximately 250 square miles. Into that area are crammed a contentious number of people. The 2010 census would tell us that 11.5 million people live in the Metro, but to listen to media reports and other sources, numbers of 20 million people are often quoted. Whichever is right probably doesn’t matter, either way, it’s an awful lot of people crammed into such a tiny area. I’ve heard Metro Manila called the most populous city in Asia and I wouldn’t bet against it. Wherever you turn there are people.
Metro Manila is actually a conglomeration of sixteen separate cities and one municipality, that form the Metro, or as it is often called, The National Capital Region (NCR). The largest of these cities by population and by area is Quezon City at just over 62 square miles, with a population of almost 3 million. The smallest of the cities is San Juan at just less than 2.3 square miles and a population of only 121,000 people. The other 14 cities sit in between with the Capital, Manila itself being at just on 15 square miles, with a population of around 1.7 million people. To give you some perspective on that, Auckland City, with a population of just on 1.4 million people covers an area of 187 square miles. Whatever way you look at it, there’s one hell of a lot of people living in a very small area in Metro Manila. Of course that makes it an awful lot of fun just getting around the city.
The first thing I would caution people against is that if you have issues with “personal space” then Metro Manila may not be the place for you, especially if you plan to travel on the public transport system here in the Metro. On the public transport system there just is no such thing as “personal space”. Think cans of sardines and you won’t be far off the mark. In fact, cans of sardines, marinating in their own juices seems a fairly appropriate metaphor for the way the public transport system works here in the Metro, especially in high summer.
Gustavo Petro, the former Mayor of Bogota, Columbia in South America once said; “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” Unfortunately, successive national and local politicians in Metro Manila have never quite subscribed to this theory. At last count, unofficially 20% of commuters in Metro Manila owned cars, for the other 80% of us, it’s a case of public transportation or shank's pony (walk). Given the extreme heat here and the vast distances to get from one place to another, walking is not really an option for any great distance. Most of the politicians’ efforts in Metro Manila seem to be focused on roads and improving and adding to the local roading infrastructure. There are two small overhead rail systems that service parts of the Metro, but they are also grossly overloaded and in need of major overhaul and refurbishment. So what are our options in getting around this immense city with its millions of commuters?
First and foremost and perhaps an iconic symbols of The Philippines is the humble Jeepney. The concept of the jeepney is a testament to the ingenuity of the Filipino people. When the American troops began to leave The Philippines after World War II hundreds, if not thousands, of surplus army jeeps were sold or given to the local Filipinos. The jeeps were cut down and altered to suit the local’s needs. Roofs were added for shade and the jeepneys were highly decorated with vibrant colours and oodles of chrome. The jeep’s back seats were turned into parallel bench seats and the lengths of the jeeps were extended to accommodate more passengers. Jeepneys emerged as an easy way to recreate a public transport system that had been devastated by the war. From these humble beginnings; modern, custom built jeepneys emerged and have been plying the streets of Manila for over 60 years now. Jeepneys are still the most common form of public transportation in and around the NCR. The vehicles themselves differ greatly in terms of age, design, size, comfort and safety. It would be fair to say that the vast majority of the jeepneys, although they may once have been stylish are now at the end of their practical lives and frankly are falling apart. Nevertheless, they remain the cheapest way of getting reasonable distances around the Metro. Although some jeepneys have glass sliding windows, many are open to the elements, a real blessing in summer when a cool breeze can help to keep the passengers below boiling point. During the rainy season of course, the open windows can be a real curse with water trickling down one’s back as you ride along.
In an effort to ensure the driver makes a living there is always the tendency to try and stuff just one more person into the back of the jeepney. Many is the time I’ve sat squashed into the back of the jeepney waiting to leave when I hear the loader saying; “Dalawang”, meaning two more people to get in before we can leave. I’ll look around and wonder just how they propose to squeeze two more people into this vehicle, but squeeze them in they do. Filipinos are the least complaining, most accommodating people I know and somehow they will manage to create a tiny space to at least put half a butt cheek on. I think the main problem is that over the years Filipinos in general, as diets have changed, have become larger. That doesn’t stop jeepney owners from trying to continue to fit the same number of people in as they did twenty years ago. The reality is that you are crushed up against the people on either side and that’s just the way it is. Many people just close their eyes and go to their happy place while the jeepney trundles on. There is no choice for most of us; it’s jeepney or walk, so we just get on with it no matter how hot and uncomfortable it is.
If you are just looking to travel a short distance, then a tricycle or a pedi-cab could be the answer for you. Tricycles are just what the name implies; a motorcycle with a covered sidecar attached. There are numerous tricycles operating in most areas of Metro Manila. They’re a bit more expensive than other options, but for the short hop around the neighbourhood they are ideal. Most tricycles can hold 3 people comfortably; two in the sidecar and one person sitting behind the rider on the motorbike. One of the more amazing sights you might see here is school-kids heading off to school on their tricycle service. I’ve seen as many as seven or eight children crammed onto one of these bikes. Pedi-cabs are just the same deal as tricycles except they are pedalled, quite a bit more slowly than tricycles, around the neighbourhood by very fit Filipinos.
There are three other main options for getting around the Metro’s public transport system; the Bus, the FX and the Taxi. With the bus you have two options, “Ordinary Fare” and “Air-Conditioned”. The ordinary fare bus is a bus without any windows, so the breeze can blow in to help keep you cool as you travel, whereas the air conditioned buses are probably the sort of bus that most of us are used to, full-sized buses with air-conditioning. Buses are cheap and frequent, although no less crowded than any other form of public transport. If you are lucky enough to get on early and get a seat, then you are fine, but if it’s standing room only it is hot, uncomfortable and crushing. When I first came here in 1993 there were many buses that appeared to date from the 1950’s and were dilapidated and potentially deadly. These days standards have risen somewhat and many of the buses that ply the Metro’s routes are modern, clean coaches, but there are still plenty of the older variety around. Buses have a bad reputation here as there are regular incidents of bus accidents resulting in many deaths and injuries. The local authorities are trying to bring the operators up to an acceptable standard but like everything here there are too few people policing too many buses. They are a comfortable way to travel around (provided you have a seat), but they are prey to the vicissitudes of the Metro’s traffic jams, in fact many would say buses and jeepney drivers are the cause of many of the traffic jams.
The FX is a relatively new concept started around 15 years ago. The name comes from the vehicle that was initially used to transport people around; the locally produced Toyota Tamaraw FX. These days FX services tend to be large 18 seater mini-buses, rather than the old 10 seater Tamaraw FX. The vehicles are equipped with air-conditioning and theoretically should be more comfortable than Jeepneys or Buses, but in reality are not much different comfort-wise. Like all other Public Utility Vehicles the aim is to cram as many people into an FX as humanly possible. A typical configuration for a mini-bus variety of FX would be; 8 people on bench seats in the rear of the vehicle, facing each other; two sets of seats in the middle of the vehicle, holding four people in each row; and then two people in the front of the vehicle along with the driver. This gives a total of 18 passengers plus a driver and as most vehicle's air-conditioning seems to be either turned down low to save on fuel or not working properly, trips by FX can be just as hot, cramped and uncomfortable as a Jeepney or a Bus.
A popular choice for getting around; especially for foreigners, are the private taxis that ply the Metro. Taxis are relatively cheap by western standards and are usually fairly modern and air-conditioned. Like all traffic in the metro they have to weave their way through the traffic jams, but somehow taxi drivers seem to have an innate ability to find gaps in traffic that nobody else sees. This is probably evidenced by the dents and paint scrapes on most taxis’ bodywork. Two traps for younger players to avoid when catching taxis around the Metro. 1/ Do not accept a ride from a taxi driver who doesn’t want to use the meter, or tells you the meter is broken. The driver will often ask where you are going and then quote a price to take you there. The price is invariably much higher (around 60-100% of the meter rate) and if you are a foreigner, even higher. Just say salamat (thanks) but no thanks and walk away. Trust me there are usually plenty of other taxis around. 2/ You will often find that some taxi drivers don’t want to go too far out of their own locality, which can be a bit ironic since many of them have painted on the side of their cabs – “To Metro Manila and all points of Luzon”. Often though they will not want to travel out of their well-known local area, so if that happens, don’t worry, just flag down another one. As I said, there’s no shortage of taxis plying the metro.
The two overhead rail systems provide commuters with an opportunity to beat the traffic jams and to ride above them in air-conditioned comfort. Well, that’s the promise, but unfortunately not really the reality. The LRT (Light Rail Transport) and MRT (Metro Rail Transport) are a good way to beat the traffic jams if you want to go from say Quezon City to Makati, but be warned – if you go at rush hour you will be in for a long queue. As an example MRT-3, which runs parallel to the main road thoroughfare EDSA runs 16.95 kilometres from North Avenue in Quezon City to Taft Avenue in Pasay City. Built to handle 350,000 people per day, the current ridership is closer to 650,000 per day. More carriages are coming, so we are told and just “bear with it for now” the powers that be say, but the reality is getting on the MRT-3 can involve you queuing for up to one or two hours just to get your ticket and get on the train. When you finally do get onto the train, if you’re not at the front of the line, and lucky enough to get a seat, it’s a jostling, very “close” ride to your destination. Even getting on and off can be a real hassle as you have to fight your way through a sea of bodies just to get to the door. The one redeeming feature of both the MRT and the LRT is that they have special carriages, at the front of the trains, just for women and the disabled. This will provide comfort for many women who don’t fancy standing, pressed up against a heaving mass of sweaty men for any length of time. They at least can stand pressed up against a heaving mass of sweaty other women.
If all of this dissuades you from coming to Manila, please don’t let it. The realities of getting around any major city, especially in Asia, are daunting, but in some ways that’s part of the unique experience that we seek when we travel overseas. For visitors it will be a bit of a culture shock, but I say “when in Rome, do as the Romans”. It’s only by travelling around with the locals that you get the true Filipino experience. Like the locals there will be times you will get frustrated, but equally you will take away a great appreciation of the Filipino psyche and you cannot but fail to be impressed by the way the people here keep smiling, keep laughing and keep positive no matter what obstacles are placed in their way.