Sri Lanka, 2012
It is a bit of an overstatement to say that I recently "visited" Manila, the Philippine Islands' famously traffic-choked capital city. Other than traveling to and from the airport, all I saw of it was within about a three-block radius from my hotel, which itself was half a block from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) office. I was in Manila (to the extent I was) to attend the ADB Transport Forum, the theme of which, this year, was "Inclusive and Sustainable Transport."
There was some time to explore before the Forum began, but what I've heard and seen of Manila did not encourage me to go very far. I did experience one good but incredibly noisy meal in the food court of a shopping mall, which made me further appreciate Enrique Peñalosa's remarks about malls replacing street life. It was particularly sad to see how packed the mall was versus how empty the nearby street was, a street that is carfree on Sundays. Getting to the mall was itself a challenge: the most obvious shortcut would have taken me through a large parking lot, but it was fenced off; the other shortcut involved going through a discount mall full of small stands. It proved less unpleasant, in the end, to take the long way round and deal with the surrounding car traffic.
From the roof of my hotel, I had a good view of the smog over the city—no surprise in light of the clear preference given to cars as a mode of transport. A lovely pocket park near ADB is dwarfed in size by the neighbouring parking lots. Carfree Sunday on a small street a couple blocks from ADB, from 6 am to 6 pm, was impressive for its duration but not its popularity; few people were there. On the other hand, it did turn out to be a good place to meet some of those people. Filipinos are famously friendly, and the relative quiet of the street (as opposed to the mall) facilitated conversation. I later heard that air quality measurements show the street has a six-fold reduction in pollution on carfree day; a relief given how hard I was breathing while dancing Zumba.
Meanwhile, rumour has it that ADB's new parking garage, where cars park for free, cost $60 million to build. During the Forum, we learned (in the lobby, not the sessions) that guests are not allowed to park their bicycles in the garage. Only foreign staff are allowed to park their cycles there; not even local staff have that "privilege." A conference participant who cycles around the city was unable to persuade the authorities to bend the rule during the Forum, despite the conference rooms being decorated with actual bicycles to reinforce the theme of sustainable transport. He finally had to park it at the nearby mall—from which it was later removed by traffic police.
As part of a workshop, a few of us took part in a walking audit that took us to the back entrance of ADB, which is next to an MRT stop. Although the station serves tens of thousands of passengers a day, the sidewalk is so narrow that pedestrians literally had to queue in order to pass, single file, one direction only. The noise and stench from the heavily trafficked street made the walk even more unpleasant. In front of ADB, there is a sidewalk fenced on either side, on one side to protect pedestrians from the traffic, and on the other to protect a generous strip of green space from pedestrians. The extremely limited and generally unattractive space allocated to pedestrians stands in marked contrast to the generous acreage given to cars. And drivers are so unused to the concept of stopping at crosswalks that ADB posts a traffic guard to help people cross the crosswalk during morning and afternoon rush hour.
Typically, a planned pedestrian amenity near the ADB office (for which it is unclear if ADB will contribute any funds, if it does ever get built), consisting of a linear pocket park, may be built above ground to avoid taking space away from cars. This despite the fact that it is planned along a street with only very light traffic.
Despite the incongruities, I have to give ADB credit. At this Forum, ADB encouraged discussion, debate, questioning, and even criticism of ADB's transport policies. They put themselves and others on (mock) trial to determine who is responsible for traffic conditions in Asia and the Pacific. Despite my rather outrageous performance as the civil society representative during the trial (at one point I made devil's horns at ADB), they invited me to act as a "revolutionary" during the closing debate on whether to take an evolutionary or revolutionary approach to change. How deep this willingness to question goes, and how sincere ADB's commitment to change, is unclear, but even that much is a lot for so large and conservative an institution.
However, let's not let ADB off too easily. They give hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to countries to build roads. The government requests the roads; ADB funds them. There is essentially no public input, no questioning as to whether the projects will deliver the intended benefits, or how the loan will be repaid, or how much environmental and social damage the roads inflict, or whether they could invest in some other way to create more benefit at less financial and other cost. When I tried to question their policy, an ADB official sounded just like a World Bank official I fought with years ago over the Dhaka rickshaw bans: "We talk to actual people in actual cities," he said, putting me and everyone I deal with in my daily work in the category of...what? Robots? Automatons? Inhabiting fictional places??
Just as one forum is not enough to judge ADB, so five days in only one small piece of a city is not enough to judge the entire metropolis. But what I did see leads me to hope that the words of one participant at the closing session prove true. Whatever else happens in the future, she remarked, "It will not be business as usual."
Text and photos by Debra Efroymson