I knew they were trying to kill me…
In my dream, a sleek red motorcycle passes me on the right while a jeepney cuts directly across my path in the intersection. Packs of motorcycles follow the red Yamaha, some with 3 or 4 people or young women sitting sideways. All of a sudden others are in the street, moving between cars. I can feel the sweat rolling on my forehead as I point the nose of my Kia through the chaos. Directly ahead is a guy with a rack filled with water bottles and other cars switching lanes. Further on I can see 3 taxis making U-turns in the middle of the road. My body stiffens for the impact. I grip the steering wheel tight, like a starving man with a Christmas ham. I picture Vin Diesel in Fast and Furious and swallow hard. And then I wake up. I am breathing quickly; my cats are staring at me. And as I lay in bed, I realize that all of this is true, a pulsing miasma of vehicles, fighting for every inch in Cebu. And I know it’s as dangerous as my dream; except we are all going 6 miles per hour.
It’s not that drivers in Cebu are bad or unskilled; indeed, I am amazed there aren’t more accidents. But, my typical driving speed in the city is between 5-20 mph, quite slow enough for even my “old guy” reaction time. The problem is, there are simply more cars than there used to be.
As Cebu City becomes more prosperous (and it is) more people can afford to own cars and motorcycles. “Rich” Cebuanos seem to like those big SUV’s and there are really no roads or parking spaces that can handle them. I am regularly stuck behind some guy’s giant “Conquistador” or a sleek new “Armada” (with heat-seeking lasers) with tires bigger than most sari-sari stores. The LTO in Cebu reports that there have been 168,000 additional vehicles registered in Cebu in the past 11 months and by the end of 2018, registered vehicles will jump from 574,819 to 800,000. The roads, the infrastructure, just can’t take it. And then there are the jeepneys.
In addition to so many more vehicles on Cebu roads, Cebuano drivers just can’t resist clogging the intersections. When the street light changes to red, they have filled the intersections, so cars with a green light have no place to go. I have waited through 4 or 5 light cycles until someone (actually I think it’s some form of divine intervention) unclogs the path. You just sit there. Nobody moves.
New laws in Cebu City.
Mayor Tommy Osmena has recently begun enforcing some new motor vehicle laws in the city and the difference is noticeable. One such law is to hang signs on major thoroughfares (such as Osmena Boulevard) in Cebu City announcing a 1000 peso fine for being in the intersection after your light has changed. Of course, this is dependent on there being a CITOM guy there to hand out a ticket. CITOM is the traffic management program that puts guys with ticket books and whistles to direct traffic through intersections. There are no patrol cars, just these guys. If you get caught doing something, they take your license and you have to go to LTO to pay your fine and retrieve it. I will say, since Sinulog, at the end of January, there are more CITOM guys around to unclog the clogs and keep things moving. I hope this continues.
Another new law that started last week is the “Anti-Counter Flowing Law” (Executive Order (EO) 034) which allows the traffic group to seize vehicles of drivers caught counter-flowing in Cebu City. You know, “driving on the wrong side of the road.” In the first week, they impounded more than 100 vehicles, mostly motorbikes, which they will keep for one month. Again, this requires a lot more CITOM presence in the streets.
On a larger scale, the Philippines has begun the nationwide implementation of jeepney modernization. All buses and jeepneys are to be modernized by 2020 bringing them up to environmental and safety standards. This is a huge undertaking. The Department of Transportation has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Development Bank of the Philippines to provide loans to PUV cooperatives for the purchase of new vehicles by current jeepney owners. Of course, there has been a great deal of pushback about this from jeepney owners who don’t want to buy a new vehicle or renovate the old, but this is a sorely neglected aspect of traffic congestion and vehicle maintenance, with many older jeepneys belching black smoke daily into the city and countryside air. From what I’ve read, this change will take place, and it will be a great improvement. Luckily, in Cebu City, trikes are not allowed. I guess someone thought they might cause traffic congestion.
Weird Stuff: Motorbikes in Cebu and SE Asia
And then there are the motorbikes. Having moved from the USA with its government-approved car seats, strict seat belt regulations in cars, uniformly enforced helmet laws and a patrol car on every corner to give you a ticket that costs between $150-$500; nothing prepares you for the motorbikes in SE Asia.
By now everyone has seen a photo or two of 5 or 6 people in SE Asia on a motor scooter. This is pretty common throughout the Philippines. After all, a motorbike is simply two wheels able to transport just about everything, if it’s loaded right. In reality, the Philippines isn’t the worst in this part of the world.
When I was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia I was told you only have to be 10 to drive a motorbike. There were thousands of them, with no street lights or traffic control, going every direction. Though I was only there 5 days, I witnessed multiple accidents. On the day I left town I saw a family of 7, a kid driver, followed by a man with 8 foot long sticks on his head holding an infant, two small girls behind him and the mother holding another infant in one arm and a plastic bag filled with gasoline in the other. The dad was smoking a cigarette. This time I was glad I was in an SUV with a hired driver.
Officials in Vietnam’s traffic-choked capital Hanoi vowed recently to banish motorbikes by 2030 to ease environment and congestion woes, a decision that swiftly divided a city where two-wheelers are the main means of transportation. Good intentions. Difficult changes in a Third World country.
In fact, the Philippines passed a law last year banning small children on motorbikes, a very common practice here. But I haven’t seen this happening yet. I am afraid that even with these good intentions there are just not enough CITOM or others to enforce these laws. And who has the 1500 peso fine?
There are many other “weird” driving behaviors here. I’ll never get used to riding in rented vans in the provinces, in Leyte or other places on Cebu Island, where on a two-lane road who can hit 50 or 60 mph and small children, two and 3 years old are standing, walking, playing in the dirt, 18 inches from the edge.
Or cars making u-turns in the middle of traffic or pedestrians crossing anywhere and everywhere, holding up a hand and hoping you stop. But as I said, everything about driving moves pretty slowly and you can usually adjust. And if you time it right, and know your routes, the traffic in Cebu City is not too bad. In fact, I love driving in the Cebu night, when the streets are clear and there’s a cool breeze blowing through the windows. All of this stuff is just a part of the “edginess” of living in The Phils and SE Asia. There’s a bit of the unpredictable. To be truthful, there’s a lot about the “edginess” I like.
Once in California, I saw a guy, standing by the side of the highway, hitchhiking with two goats; he had a backpack and his thumb out; the two goats were on a leash. So it’s not just Cebu. I guess there’s weird stuff about driving, about “getting around” that goes on everywhere. I always wondered if he got a ride and who it was that picked him up.
“Ok, Buddy. Get in. But the goats have to ride up front with me.”
I am drifting back to sleep. I’m becoming Vin Diesel again, or maybe this time I’ll be The Rock. The dreams are still messing with me; I can’t seem to kick them. The driving and all those cars and bikes. As I climb into bed, I watch my wife roll her eyes and shake her head. I can see she doesn’t understand. The motorbike helmet I mean.