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INSIGHTS: Our Cars, Our Choices, Our Crosses

{Editor's Note: Dinna Louise C. Dayao is the advocacy and campaigns officer of the Firefly Brigade, a citizen's action group which promotes the bicycle for clean air and sustainable cities. She is also a contributor to the CyberDyaryo Clean Air Journalism Project.}

By Dinna Louise C. Dayao

MANILA, Philippines, April 7, 2004 (ENS) - In a few days, Metro Manila will be a ghost town - or a paradise, depending on how you look at it.

After the city folk's mad rush to get out of the metropolis, it will seem deserted. And, following the din of loud car horns, squealing brakes, and revving engines, the silence will seem eerie.

On the other hand, Metro Manila will be a paradise for the city dwellers who decide to stay behind. For one, there will be no traffic jams. It will be faster to get from point A to point B. The air will be perceptibly cleaner. The near absence of motor vehicles will encourage cyclists, walkers, and runners to come out and reclaim the streets. And it will be so quiet you can actually hear the birds sing - and yourself think.

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Manila traffic (All photos courtesy David Tong)
Rethinking our addiction to the car during the Holy Week would not be out of keeping with the reflective spirit of Lent. In Germany, several Lutheran and Catholic churches have asked their followers to give up cars for Lent and use alternative means of transport. According to a press release by the archdiocese of Mainz, the campaign is "an appeal to all Christians to question their daily lifestyle and their relationship to the environment," especially regarding their use of cars, "to become inwardly free and independent."

Closer to home, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and GOMBURZA, an organization of priests, nuns, brothers and laity who work for justice, aim to send the same message through the "Thank God It's Friday" campaign. Launched on March 26, the program calls on citizens to leave their cars at home and instead take public transport, carpool, walk, and bike every Friday.

You think "addiction" is too strong a word to describe Filipinos' love affair with the car? How else would you describe the readiness to put up with the 18 kilometers per hour that is the average speed on Metro Manila's streets? The willingness to sit in a car for hours on end, breathing in pollutants? The assumption that one's life is incomplete without a car?

All in the name of personal freedom and mobility, and the mistaken notion that cars are air conditioned cocoons that protect us from dirty air. In fact, studies show that car commuters are exposed to higher levels of pollution than bicycle commuters are.

Andre Nel, a professor in the Department of Immunology and Allergy at the University of California at Los Angeles, offers an explanation in an MSNBC article. He says that contrary to popular belief, car air conditioners do not help filter tiny particles in diesel exhaust. Diesel emissions from buses, jeepneys, utility vehicles, and trucks are recognized as causing cancer, and are estimated to be the largest contributor to urban air pollution. "At this stage most cars are not manufactured with an efficient filtration system for these small particles," he says.

Still not convinced? Car owners, try this experiment, suggests Robert Vance Pulley, World Bank country director for the Philippines, in his article, "On Filipinos' Most Wanted List: Clean Air." Just tape pieces of "filtrete," available from hardware stores, over the air conditioning vents inside your car. As you watch particulates turn the filter black over a few weeks, think of your lungs - and imagine how much worse it is for the majority who ride in jeepneys or tricycles and can least afford the related health costs.

Indeed, we all bear many crosses in the name of motorization and "progress." So it's up to all of us to make everyday choices that will change things for the better.

Consider the facts:

Cars are a factor in oppressing the poor.
In Metro Manila, a mere 20 percent of the population uses cars for daily transport, according to the Metro Manila Urban Transportation Integration Study. Yet cars occupy most of the space on the streets. And road transport absorbs massive public investments for building and maintenance.

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Because the needs of the car soak up so much of our national budget, many Filipinos are deprived of education, health, water, and sanitation programs. The poor suffer the most. Aside from not having access to basic services, they experience the worst air pollution daily as they take public transport, bike, or walk.

Cars pollute the air.
The 3.9 million cars and other motor vehicles nationwide are the major sources of air pollution. They emit deadly pollutants which endanger health. The result: an estimated 75 billion pesos annually in medical costs, lost productivity, and deaths nationwide, according to the Philippines Environment Monitor 2002.

Cars endanger lives.
An average of 800 people, mostly pedestrians, are killed yearly in road accidents, according to the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority. Pedestrians make up 64 percent of the total number of deaths, followed by drivers at 19 percent and passengers at 17 percent.

Cars = traffic jams.
Traffic is noisy, pollutes the air we breathe, divides our communities, and deprives citizens of the physical activity needed to promote health, writes John Whitelegg in his article, "Dying to Breathe." It terrifies the elderly and is a constant source of worry for parents. Traffic makes basic tasks for those lacking in perfect hearing, sight, and physical mobility much more difficult.

Cars eat up a lot of money.
Many people underestimate the actual cost of their cars. This is because the expenses - the purchase of a new car, annual insurance, maintenance or fuel costs, toll and parking fees - do not arise at the same time.

Cars cause us to lose touch with our community.
Cars enclose people in steel boxes and distance their occupants from their neighbors. Driving encourages us to see other drivers and pedestrians only as "obstacles" - potential causes of accidents, people who get in the way, and traffic.

cars In contrast, walking, cycling, and public transport put us in more direct contact with society, says Carbusters.org. In a growing number of communities, bicycling and walking are considered indicators of a community's livability - a factor that has a profound impact on attracting businesses and workers as well as tourism.

We can change our lifestyles to minimize our dependency on cars. Let's work together to clean the air, lessen gridlock, and create more livable cities.

Let's walk, take public transportation, or car pool with our friends. Let's take the opportunity to rediscover our city and bond with our buddies.

Let's ask local officials to designate car-free zones and days. Their doing so would enable more people to run, bike, and stroll together without fear that cars would hit them. The tree-lined academic oval of University of the Philippines Diliman is car-free on Sundays. As a result, many happy families, cyclists, joggers, and senior citizens come out to enjoy the clean air, the freedom, and the safe environment.

Let's use our cars less. In so doing, we will cause less pollution, avoid stress, and save our money, our vehicles, energy, and time!

Let's pedal our way around the city. A third of the trips taken in the metropolis are shorter than two kilometers. These short trips, which add significantly to both traffic congestion and pollution, are ideal for bicycle travel.



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