President Aquino announced early in his term that the “Philippines is open for business.” But to keep the nation’s capital city open for business is proving to be a challenging task as Metro Manila is prone to complete shutdown from rainstorms and typhoons. It need not be so. With vision, some fortitude and investment, a significant part of the metropolis can be made to operate as a disruption-free zone (DFZ). This will require a paradigm shift in urban planning and a can-do attitude on the part of the national and local leaderships. But, daunting as it may seem, it can be done.
A metro-wide shutdown is very damaging to the economy and welfare of our people as Metro Manila is the political and economic center that accounts for a large 36-percent of our national economy. Moreover, the metropolis is home to more than 12 million people and over half of the 700,000 individuals employed in the BPO industry, which is projected to earn $16 billion or about P700 billion.
Perennial shutdowns should not be an accepted state of affair. A significant part of the metropolis can be a disruption-free zone to continue being productive even in the face of adverse weather conditions. Shutdowns must be selective and not wholesale, except during severe calamities. It does not make sense that shopping malls are open for business while the rest of the city is idled or for the Visayas and Mindanao to be denied full banking service when faraway Manila shuts down.
For this DFZ concept to work during adverse weather conditions, it is essential for government to assure commuter and vehicular mobility, communication and electric power service.
A large contiguous part of the metropolis stands on higher ground that is largely spared from flooding. This is the long eastern corridor that encompasses the cities of Quezon, parts of Mandaluyong, Pasig, Makati and the entire Bonifacio Global City. This corridor is ideal as the nucleus DFZ. It has basic road and transit infrastructure already in place, albeit insufficient. From here, other districts or regions may be integrated into the DFZ as the necessary infrastructure is upgraded or put into place.
This corridor has a large population to provide the vital human resource. It is where the national government center, as well as security establishment, is located. It has four large established commercial districts with several others quickly emerging. Headquarters of most large banks, the two trading floors of the stock exchange, numerous educational institutions, health care facilities and the Asian Development Bank are also located here.
Edsa, which is the longest and most important ring road, runs through the length of this metropolitan corridor. The other ring road, C5, runs on the eastern side and is extended by Katipunan and Commonwealth avenues on the north. Both ring roads are largely flood-free except for some depressed stretches, which can be addressed with road reengineering to render their entire length above flood level. From these two strategic ring roads, national roads radiate and connect to secondary roads in the surrounding districts to the east and west. These roads, if kept dry, will provide the necessary mobility in the DFZ.
To keep the banking system and capital markets functioning, central banking operations as well as securities dealing, clearing and depository facilities must likewise be operational. The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) and the Department of Finance (DOF) are important cogs, but the weak link, in this financial ecosystem. Both, being located along Manila Bay, are vulnerable to storm winds and flooding. With or without a DFZ, a business continuity capability is needed for both agencies.
A reliable 24/7 mass commuter transit system is another imperative component of the DFZ. People must have the confidence to venture out of their homes or stay at work in the DFZ without fear of being stranded. BPOs, although with operational capability, were shorthanded from absent personnel during the recent shutdown. Hong Kong, for instance, can stay open for business until hours before a severe storm arrives and reopens soon after it blows through. This is because of its superb transit and road infrastructure.
The proposed DFZ already has the backbone of a mass transit system—the MRT3 elevated commuter rail line that runs alongside Edsa. This line is interconnected at both ends by LRT1 at Balintawak in the north and Baclaran in the south; and LRT2 near its mid-section at Cubao that runs to downtown Manila and Santolan, Marikina, to the east.
But these are not enough. The train stations must be rendered flood free and additional system capacity is needed to serve the DFZ and its satellite bedroom communities. The MRT3 needs to be upgraded. It must be complemented by a reliable high-capacity ground-level transit system. Individually operated buses and jeepneys that tend to disappear from the streets during inclement weather would be a poor solution. It has to be a 24/7 all-weather system, such as a true bus rapid transit (BRT) or rail tram, preferably electric powered and operating on a dedicated roadway segregated by a physical barrier from other traffic. This ground transit must not be hampered by traffic gridlock, which usually sets in when rain pours and traffic supervisors disappear.
The PNR service will be a bonus. But the rail line needs to be elevated above flood level within the city core and all the way to the industrial districts in Laguna and Batangas. This line will provide continuous commuter service and logistic support for transporting container vans to and from the shipping port. In the long run, it would be more cost effective to upgrade the rail lines than elevating all the flood prone roads.
With reliable weather-proof transit, other outlying districts can be integrated into the DFZ. These are Fairview, UP and Loyola area in the north, Antipolo on the east if the LRT line is extended from the present Santolan-Marikina terminus to Masinag Market, and as far south as Alabang and parts of Calabarzon if the SLEx and PNR line are kept flood free. Even Naia and the Entertainment City can be part of the DFZ once the SLEx-Naia-Entertainment City expressway is completed and, more so, if the vital Edsa and Chino Roces (Buendia) Avenue links to the latter are flood-proofed.
Every effort must be made to expand the DFZ to include industrial districts, such as the Cavite EPZA and those in Calabarzon. This region is the most productive next to the national capital region.
Once the private sector is reasonably assured that the government will maintain a disruption-free zone, it will adapt accordingly with business continuity programs as it is equally in its interest to avoid costly disruption to operations.
A DFZ can and must be made a reality. National interest demands no less.
(The article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines. The author is the Chair of the MAP National Issues Committee’s Sub-Committee on Urban Development, the chair of the MAP Legislation Committee, and the president of Clairmont Group. Feedback at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. For previous articles, please visit <map.org.ph>)