There have been recent media announcements about the Pasig River Expressway, also known as Parex — a proposed 19.37- kilometer six-lane elevated expressway running the length of the Pasig River, with an estimated cost of P81.5 billion. According to the media reports, the toll way project of San Miguel Corp. was approved in August 2020 by the Tollways Regulatory Board. Is this what we need at this time? And have we considered what we would be sacrificing in the process?
For decades, the popular response to traffic has been more roads or wider roads. This approach has failed. The painful lesson is that roads designed mainly for the use of cars actually diminish mobility for all — they end up attracting greater motor vehicle use leading to more road congestion (a phenomenon known as “induced demand”).
The proponents of the Parex project claim that it can move up to 120,000 cars a day; it is described as the “ultimate solution to traffic.” But we have heard this “promise” many times before —just one more lane, just one more road, just one more highway — and traffic will be gone. We know better now than to rely on such promises.
But the larger issue is what the Philippines would sacrifice by authorizing a 19.37-kilometer elevated concrete structure along the entire length of the Pasig River. In the most admired cities around the world, the land along waterways offer residents and visitors green public space for strolling, cycling and other leisure activities, plus the best views of the city.
Waterways — the streams, rivers and bays — are a large part of what gives a city its allure, character and vitality. Think of the Seine in Paris; think of Sydney Harbor; and think of the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. The value of these waterways to local residents, not only as tourist attractions, but also for their physical and mental health, is beyond measure.
In the article titled “Living Near Water Can Be Beneficial To Your Mental Health” (theconversation.com, March 10, 2021), Michail Georgiou and Sebastian Chastin cite the health benefits of living near water: “So far, studies show that people living near water have lower risk of premature death, a lower risk of obesity, and generally report better mental health and well-being. These blue spaces also reduce the gap between less and more affluent areas in the risk of dying prematurely.” Therefore, if an expressway has the effect of limiting public access to, and appreciation of, a waterway or nearby cultural assets, such costs need to be carefully considered.
One of Japan’s biggest infrastructure regrets was the construction of the Nihonbashi Expressway along the Nihonbashi River in the 1960s. The project was intended to relieve traffic congestion in downtown Tokyo, in time for the Tokyo Olympics. Soon after it was built, it was severely criticized as an eyesore — affecting public appreciation of the river and one of Tokyo’s cultural treasures, the iconic Nihonbashi Bridge. (Recently, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government was soliciting public feedback on a proposal to transform the Nihonbashi Expressway into a linear “green” park for pedestrians only.)
Some cities get lucky. In 1969, New Orleans was considering to build a controversial riverfront expressway, traversing along the edge of the famous French Quarter, in the hope that it would be able to move large volumes of cars in and out of the center of the city.
Thankfully, the then US secretary of transportation made the bold decision to cancel the elevated interstate highway that would have permanently tarnished the historic district of New Orleans.
And then you have the case where a busy elevated expressway was demolished in 2003 in order to restore a waterway running through the center of Seoul — the inspiring story of the Cheonggyecheon Stream. This was an area of Seoul in decay and economic decline, infected by the shadow, noise and air pollution from a busy 11-kilometer expressway.
Today, in place of the elevated road, the waterway was revived, the natural environment was restored and the historic bridges crossing the stream were preserved. The Cheonggyecheon Stream is regarded today as the top tourist destination in the city and a popular park for local residents.
The three examples above make the point that expressways along waterways may save on right-of-way costs, but end up with many hidden costs that are not factored into the decision. While proponents of the Pasig River Expressway cite the benefits to be gained in terms of reduced traffic and faster travel (doubtful benefits over the long term because of the effects of induced demand), have we weighted these benefits against what we stand to lose?
Robert Y. Siy is a development economist, city and regional planner, and public transport advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @RobertRsiy.
Article and Photo originally posted by Manila Times last April 17, 2021 and written by Robert Siy.