In Metro Manila, there are two inevitabilities: not death and taxes, as taxes are all too frequently evaded here, but death and traffic. However, that is not to say that the soul-crushing weight of traffic is evenly distributed throughout the Metro: the road network that links together the 17 cities and municipalities of Metro Manila ranges from potholed one-way side roads plied by bicycle rickshaws to monstrous twelve-lane expressways choked with trucks, buses and shiny new SUVs, and traffic conditions can vary wildly from road to road, hour to hour, and day to day. Some general traffic trends can be discerned, as when millions of commuters travel each morning from their homes in the suburbs (mostly in the north) to the business districts of the centre, then pour back into their suburban enclaves in the evenings. Each week also brings, with grim predictability, the great and terrible Friday night exodus from the Metro, an apocalyptic spectacle wherein millions of Monday-to-Friday Manileños leave their offices and boarding houses to slowly honk their way back to the relative peace and quiet of their home provinces. But amidst all of these recurring patterns, one of the most remarkable features of Manila traffic is its sheer unpredictability. Of course, many of Manila’s impromptu traffic jams are caused by obvious factors like rain, road accidents, and naked, mentally ill men walking down the middle of busy freeways. On the other hand, other traffic flare-ups seem almost inexplicable, like the impassible midnight traffic jams I’ve found myself in at Pasay Rotonda, or total gridlock in a sleepy residential area of New Manila on a Saturday afternoon.
Given the massive socioeconomic disparities that are pervasive in Manila, it’s no surprise that one’s experience of Manila traffic can vary wildly depending on one’s level of privilege. It seems a bit silly that many people would apply the word “commuting” to both an underpaid service worker inhaling hot, toxic air while trapped inside a crowded jeepney for two interminable hours of stop-and-go honking, and to an executive being shuttled to their office by their driver inside an air-conditioned SUV equipped with pitch-black tinted windows to protect them from the unworthy eyes of the masses while they catch up on business e-mails and watch funny YouTube videos on their iPad. But still, although money may buy comfort, it cannot buy you freedom from the time-sucking daily reality of Manila traffic. The three MRT and LRT lines offer commuters a chance to soar above the gridlock, but at the price of sacrificing any basic notion of personal space, and with constant risk of getting groped or pickpocketed. The only people who can really beat the system are the lucky few with access to private helicopters – and even then, they’re still constrained by only being able to travel to locations that are equipped with helipads, which feels like an indignity all its own.
But amidst all of this mayhem, there is one shining beacon of sanity: The Metro Manila Skyway. Since I’ve moved to the south of the Metro, this elevated highway has been my lifeline, a thin rope that keeps me tenuously attached to sanity. The Skyway is an elevated highway built on top of the South Luzon Expressway, a many-laned beast that links the Makati business district to the southern suburbs of the Metro, as well as the neighbouring provinces of Laguna, Cavite and Batangas.
The ground-level (or, as they say, “at-grade”) portion of the expressway isn’t bad as Manila roads go. As a massive for-profit money-making operation, this privately operated tollway is managed with cold corporate efficiency. It isn’t overburdened with busy intersections like EDSA, Metro Manila’s main thoroughfare; however, traffic jams can be a problem near the tollgates, as queueing cars overflow into adjacent lanes while patiently waiting to pay some rather hefty toll fees on the way back to their gated communities.
But oh, the Skyway! The Skyway! Though the toll is even more astronomical, the Skyway benefits tremendously from relatively few exits, and an economical toll system whereby all tolls are paid when entering the tollway, rather than having separate entry and exit toll booths as in the at-grade portion. The end result is a tightly controlled tollway system that almost never suffers from traffic jams, even if you may not quite be able to reach the legal speed limit on a Friday night.
I suspect the Skyway also avoids traffic jams partly because the sheer cost of taking it also acts as a deterrent to many middle-class drivers, who would rather save a few pesos by riding at grade. On the other hand, the toll fee is more easily swallowed by a well-filled bus, which can split the fee across numerous passengers – especially at rush hour, when the aisles fill up with standing passengers, the steps of the bus turn into improvised seats, and the conductor offers you a signboard to sit on so that your butt won’t feel the full heat of the bus’s motor through the floor. (“Mainit sa puwet!“ as one conductor helpfully explained to me.) So, just as the fastest commuting in Metro Manila is done by squished-in MRT passengers and helicopter-riding taipans, so the Skyway is a luxury reserved primarily for the lavishly well-off and the average folk riding the bus (with me in the latter category), but not so much anyone inbetween.
I cannot lie to you, dear readers – I have felt more than a trace of smugness while riding the Skyway in the thick of rush hour, whisked back home through the concrete clouds, unaffected by the horrendous traffic snarling below. Most of the time I am lucky enough to score a comfy seat, and can pass the time reading eBooks about the Soviet War in Afghanistan, watching The Expendables 3 on the onboard TV, or gazing upon the innumerable condo developments and supersized billboards touting the latest skin whitening products. But whether I am sitting comfortably in an actual seat, standing in the aisle while holding on for dear life, or feeling the heat on my butt through the steps, I invariably want to kiss the bus’s dirty floor and thank the heavens for the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) project that brought us the Metro Manila Skyway.
The Skyway is the reason I can live in the extreme suburbs, in an area that is only barely part of Metro Manila at all, and still not feel alienated from the daily life of the city. It’s the reason why I am a short ride away from the glamour and glitz of the Makati business district, where I can carouse with my office-worker friends without having to pay a king’s ransom in rent to actually live amidst such illustrious surroundings. Skyway, I love you!
In a tribute to my elevated concrete saviour, I hereby make a non-binding pledge to name any future children I may have “Skyway”. I will not differentiate their names in any way, like, say, calling them Skyway Stage 1, Skyway Stage 2, etc., for that would only adulterate the purity of my tribute. All will be Skyway, and only Skyway; and Skyway will be all. This is my pledge; lo, hear me speak it, non-binding though it may be.
As I write this, the Skyway is being extended northward to bring a glimmer of sanity to the traffic-choked northern regions of Metro Manila. When all is said and done, the expanded Skyway system will allow travelers to completely bypass the ground-level traffic and travel from one end of the Metro to the other entirely on elevated roads, or even bypass it completely while passing from the southern to northern provinces of Luzon. I look forward to the day when my sons and daughters – Skyway, Skyway, Skyway, and of course little Skyway – will be able to travel from Alabang to Balintawak without ever touching the ground. Who knew that concrete could taste so sweet?