Manila traffic: the agony, without the ecstasy

One billion and counting. Just how many cars can fit on this Earth?

By Chi Liquicia

Vehicles line up in a traffic jam during rush hour in Manila. (Reuters)

One billion. That’s how many cars there now are on Earth, according to a recent report in the UK newspaper the Guardian. Pick a city anywhere on the planet, and one can be certain that traffic is a problem. But one metro area in particular stands out – Manila, Philippines, with a population of almost 12 million people. The city is notorious for its traffic mess, especially since traffic laws are all but ignored, and a clean driving record is a bribe away.

“It does not take foreigners in Manila long to notice that Filipinos tend to consider traffic laws optional, not mandatory. People load, unload and park their cars and trucks pretty much anywhere they please. They disregard traffic signals and sometimes cruise down the wrong side of streets,” reports GMA News Online, a Filipino publication.

Getting stuck on Manila’s roads is one very unpleasant experience. During rush hour, traffic in the main thoroughfares in Manila slows to a crawl, and an accident can cause gridlock for hours.

Just too many, period

The problem is there are just too many vehicles in the Philippine capital, where roads are no longer sufficient to accommodate them, according to an official with the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA), reports GMA.

Corruption is also a factor. “It’s probably even more pervasive than indiscipline,” says GMA, referring to the rampant practice by motorists of paying off traffic cops and bus operators bribing officials to escape sanctions for violations.

The government estimates that Manila’s traffic congestion costs the equivalent of $3 billion annually in lost productivity, illness, wasted fuel and vehicle maintenance. But as GMA News Online reports, efforts to put in place long-term and lasting solutions “have always ended up looking like the traffic itself – gridlocked in a tangled mess.” Politics plays a big role in this.

Traffic is not a new problem in Manila, according to GMA. In a novel he wrote in 1887, national hero Jose Rizal described the crush of horse-drawn carriages in the narrow streets of the small Spanish colonial capital. By 1922, under colonial rule by the U.S., the city already had 10,000 automobiles and 6,000 horse carts, and it became necessary to set up a traffic division with 97 police officers.


Traffic is backed up in all directions in Los Angeles, ranked as one of the worst cities in the U.S. for traffic congestion, in March. (Reuters)

Thank you, Henry Ford

Back here in the U.S., where, thanks to Henry Ford, all things traffic originated, the auto reigns supreme. It’s no surprise that the U.S. ranks No. 1 in the world for the highest vehicle-to-person ratio, with nearly 240 million vehicles, (China ranks No. 2) according to, an auto industry information source. The worst city for traffic in the U.S.? Chicago, according to an Urban Mobility Report in 2010. After Chicago comes Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Houston, San Francisco, Dallas, Boston, Atlanta, Seattle, and rounding out the Top 10, the Big, congested Apple.


Now consider this astonishing fact. A recent traffic jam in China, the country that accounts for half of the growth in traffic in recent years, lasted NINE days. NPR reports that the traffic jam on the Beijing-Tibet Expressway stretched more than 62 MILES.

10 million, and counting

Jamil Anderlini, deputy Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times, told NPR that the nine-day traffic jam is “a sign of things to come. The side effects of China’s scorching economic growth, from poisonous air to worsening income inequality, are already well-known to all who visit the country.”

Anderlini observed: “traffic jams like this could become much more common as consumers – in what is now the world’s largest car market – snap up more than 10 million vehicles a year.”