Metro Manila as the Happy City: The Present State and Future Prospects of Philippine Urban Life

Paolo Monteiro

Charles Aaron Salazar 620x415

City living is about movement. Can the government fix the pains of the daily commute? Paolo Monteiro imagines a Manila for those without cars

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives through Urban Design
by Charles Montgomery
London: Penguin Books, 2013

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time
By Jeff Speck
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012

5:50 am, Monday. Bag packed, extra clothes included. Money in various denominations separated into multiple wallets for easy access and safety—a precaution, since there have been incidents of robbery in transit. Arriving at the queue, close to a hundred people are already in front of me, waiting for the Toyota carriage to ferry them from Antipolo City and into the central business district of the 12 million-strong Metro Manila, about 30 kilometers away.

The scene is more desperate at the light rail station at the very heart of what was supposed to be the Philippines’ master planned capital, Quezon City. The MRT station at Quezon Avenue has since become the case study of Metro Manila’s dire transportation infrastructure—its daily entrance queue stretches from the elevated platform to ground level to across an entire block in South Triangle. The car drivers are also not spared, as a cursory glance at EDSA or C5 during rush hour features the same long line of inefficiency, characteristic of a bustling, yet still developing, metropolis.

These experiences are the norm for a Manileño. Moving from point A to B requires trudging across winding paths with cracked and cramped sidewalks. It is a mad scramble for the last jeepney seat, and a game of hopscotch over the occasional open manhole. Add the rains to the equation and an extra road block is added into the day’s Amazing Race.

Whether via public transit or personal automobile, Metro Manila travel is a losing proposition—each long journey entails a sacrifice, both in the measurable economic costs and in the unquantifiable losses owing to reduced social interaction. It simply creates unhappiness. Given these problems, it should be a national imperative to improve the situation, but with the fissures and political tensions in Philippine society, this task becomes difficult. After all, the anguish felt by some urbanites stuck in their chauffeured cars along EDSA may be incomparable to those felt by the commuting masses in packed LRT coaches.

While government officials claim they are “aware” of the situation and are taking steps to address the problem,1  actual exposure to the trials of commuters is the best means to accelerate change. The familiar concept of People Power comes to the fore: Pressure from the grassroots will shape policy directions at the highest levels. At present, there is now a very loud and active movement, advocating for a truly sustainable and walkable Manila.

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design written by Charles Montgomery, and Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time by Jeff Speck both discuss how good urban design improves the health and general happiness of a city’s inhabitants. They also offer insights that may aid the ongoing attempts to retrofit Metro Manila in favor of the pedestrian. Specifically, in the journey to improve Philippine transit and the quality of life in the city, putting the citizen at the center of any urban design plan is paramount. More importantly, they state that the citizen has the responsibility and capability to effect this meaningful change. 

Time Is Money

The adage of time having immense economic value finds meaning when taken in the context of road congestion and crumbling infrastructure. Clogged streets delay deliveries and increase the likelihood of absences and tardiness from employees, not to mention cause employees to begin their workday already fatigued and tense.

2013 research from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) estimates that the Philippines loses P2.4 billion daily due to traffic in Metro Manila.2  Furthermore, the World Economic Forum (WEF) rates the country’s poor infrastructure as one of the biggest hindrances to Philippine competitiveness. According to the WEF, the country remains in the bottom half of its infrastructure ranking among the almost 150 economies it annually surveys. In the 2013-2014 edition of the WEF Global Competitiveness Report, out of 148 economies, the Philippines ranked poorly in terms of quality of overall infrastructure (98th), quality of roads (87th), railroads (89th), seaports (116th), and airports (113th). Not surprisingly, the Philippines placed 8th out of 10 countries in Southeast Asia in overall infrastructure competitiveness. It’s also striking to find that the inadequate supply of infrastructure was ranked the most problematic factor to doing business in the Philippines, displacing corruption, which has been the country’s biggest hindrance since 2003.3

As a response to the recommendation of business groups and the World Bank, as well as a means to sustain economic growth and generate employment, the government has promised to augment the infrastructure budget, from 2.3% of GDP in 2013 to the benchmark 5% of GDP in 2016.

On top of public investments, the government has been actively promoting its public-private partnership (PPP) program to further close the infrastructure gap. Despite difficulties in implementation, the listed projects have generated great interest from local and foreign investors. The PPP Center is targeting to award around 15 projects by 2016, with at least 10 of these related to transportation.4 

Missing the Mark

While these government efforts are commendable, the people factor must not be overlooked in any urban design plan. Evidence suggests that losing sight of a plan’s primary beneficiaries results in expensive proposals that cater to narrow interests, attempt to solve the wrong “problems,” and communicate a policy of non-inclusive development.

For instance, among the many achievements touted by the Aquino administration involve infrastructure for vehicles.5  Such achievements should still be lauded if only to showcase the benefits that good governance can bring—and without a doubt, these have been achieved. However, absent similar emphasis on a people-centric transport policy and infrastructure, the message of a government for inclusive development is lost.

In Happy City, Montgomery argues that “master plans” miss the point, deliberately or accidentally. Recalling a conversation with former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa, he says that JICA had been providing technical assistance to ease the city’s congestion. However, he further notes that the plan, costing $5 billion, involved the construction of elevated freeways, implying the symbiosis between development and private cars, while favoring the Japanese auto industry and the local elite. Peñalosa did not implement the plan, stating the disconnect between the plan’s purpose and what his city really needs:

 ‘We think it’s totally normal in developing-country cities that we spend billions of dollars building elevated highways while people don’t have schools, they don’t have sewers, they don’t have parks. And we think this is progress, and we show this with great pride, these elevated highways!’ (241)

Similarly, Speck, in Walkable City, makes pointed remarks against traffic studies. He gives three reasons why these must not be taken at face value. First, computer or economic models depend on their inputs, and he warns that outcomes can be fabricated by a mere alteration of variables. He further notes that traffic studies are typically conducted by companies also involved in traffic engineering, hence the great potential for conflicts of interest. Lastly, such studies rarely consider induced demand—the increase in vehicles resulting from the increase in roads, which in time, eliminates the benefits the new roads initially achieved.6

The Happy, Walkable City

Both Montgomery and Speck believe that a happy city is a walkable city. Montgomery calls it transformative urbanism—“the city could be a device for happiness…by changing the shapes and systems that defined urban existence.”7

Montgomery says that if the people are to truly be at the core of the city’s existence, the city must be configured to guarantee happiness. He refers to the Greek concept of eudaimonia. Best described as a state of human flourishing, eudaimonia connotes that a person’s talents and potentials are fully harnessed and realized.8 Quoting the World Values Survey and Gallup World Poll, he adds that interpersonal relationships are the more important factors in determining life satisfaction, rather than income or the mere acquisition of material possessions.9

The city must, therefore, rethink its (and its people’s) relationship with cars. In the Philippines, while only 2% of the population own an automobile, they corner the most significant amount of investments.10 Together, Skyway Stage 3, Metro Pacific’s NLEX-SLEX Connector, and the NAIA Expressway already cost P63.4 billion.11Montgomery notes that in the US, road user taxes and toll fees fund only 50% of highway expenses, while the other half is financed by property and income taxes paid by everyone. He argues that commuters and cyclists are subsidizing car users with their taxes—an unfair set-up considering that pedestrian and bike-friendly infrastructure cost only a fraction to build and maintain.12 To ensure greater equity in the daily commute, people-centric infrastructure should not only involve bike lanes and mass transit systems, but also structures that protect pedestrians and make their commute relaxing and unique. Trees and urban art are an example.

In the attempt to shift the attention from the car to the person, Montgomery states that repairing urban sprawl—the rapid and usually car-dependent expansion away from the city’s central core—involves the development of more mixed-use neighborhoods. The main goal would be to ensure that the basic needs of the people are within reach, which in turn creates the demand for mass transit and comfortable places to wait for public vehicles. Such a design philosophy, he says, “offers truly public space—that is, owned and controlled by the local municipality, not the mall owner or developer.”13

Speck, meanwhile, maintains that designing a city around walkability has led to greater transportation savings for its residents, giving them the fiscal space to spend more for recreational and social activities. The cities themselves benefit from walkable neighborhoods due to higher real estate taxes, an increased population of young “creatives” migrating into the city, and a greater number of high-value companies which these “creatives” attract.14 Walkability is a better and more long-term incentive for millenials and companies to relocate to a city and, consequently, infuse it with life, compared to the temporary attraction generated by tax breaks and other fiscal perks.

Speck’s General Theory of Walkability, perhaps, best summarizes the above themes. He presents four conditions that must all be satisfied for a city (and its walk) to be considered as favorable. Firstly, a walk must be useful in that most aspects of life, as mentioned, are located close at hand. A walk must also be safe for pedestrians, and this includes both actual safety and the feeling of being safe. Next, walking must becomfortable—buildings and landscape shape urban streets into “outdoor living rooms.” Lastly, a walk must be interesting, with sidewalks lined with unique buildings, art, as well as friendly faces.15 

The Bikes and the People vs. the Cars

A number of institutional and government research support Montgomery’s and Speck’s ideas.  According to a 2005 report commissioned by the New Zealand government, widespread economic, social, health, and environmental benefits will be attained from a people-centric urban design.16  This idea also underlies Urban Land Institute (ULI) Philippines’ report on the 10 principles that should guide sustainable development in the Makati central business district and Bonifacio Global City—the districts that ULI considers as Metro Manila’s New Urban Core.17

Unfortunately, many Filipino urbanites still adhere to a car-centric lifestyle, whether forced or by choice. The ASEAN Automotive Federation reports continuing vitality in the Philippine car market, with a 22.9% (42,034 units) spike in vehicle sales during the first quarter of 2014, significantly higher than six other Southeast Asian countries.18

Moreover, perhaps due to a misguided sense of social justice, at least four bills in the House of Representatives seek to standardize the number of parking slots in an establishment, as well as significantly reduce or eliminate parking fees altogether.19  Such proposals, Speck explains, are counterproductive as they only encourage more driving and force developers to recover the costs of “free parking” through hidden charges.20

Aggravating the situation is the lack of an existing comprehensive national policy on sustainable transport and urban design. Piecemeal solutions to the problem appear to be the status quo while an overarching strategy is being formulated.

This seeming lack of direction, however, has spawned numerous groups strongly advocating for a walkable and happy Metro Manila.  The local Share the Road Movement, for example, is on the right track. Their call to allocate part of Manila’s tarmac to sustainable transport has been warmly received by both citizens and the government, and the message they sent has inspired numerous, but significant, urban design initiatives.

To illustrate, the Metro Manila Development Authority has constructed bikeways and bike-sharing facilities—now totalling six—along major Metro thoroughfares, although the system still has room for further improvement.21  Five cities have also committed to close off major roads for bikers and pedestrians for at least a day22—an idea reminiscent of Bogota’s Ciclovia.23

In addition, the PPP Center and the Department of Transportation outlined the government’s proposed direction regarding Manila transport at an investment conference last March. Although still in the planning stages, it is worth noting that there is a vision for expanding Manila’s railways and in constructing a bus rapid transit system in two of Manila’s major roads.24

On the policy side, House Bill 3827, or the Bicyclist Act, envisions the establishment of Local Bikeways Offices, mandating them to provide adequate support and infrastructure for bikers.25 Senate Bill 26, or the Sustainable Transportation Act, on the other hand, is more holistic, requiring major government agencies to promote sustainable transport, and provide and maintain walkways, footbridges, sidewalks, and other pedestrian-friendly structures.26

Significantly, in a blending of public and private efforts, Liveable Cities has been identified as a Philippine priority when the country hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Meeting in 2015. The APEC National Organizing Council (APEC-NOC) has decided to spread the numerous meetings to 10 cities across the country to disperse infrastructure investments and start the Liveable Cities trend.27  Likewise, the National Competitiveness Council and the APEC-NOC launched the Liveable Cities Design Challenge, encouraging urban planners to design more people-friendly and climate change resilient towns and cities. So far, 21 cities and municipalities have joined the contest.28

The early parts of Happy City depict the Greek polis as the shared project that the Greeks “cared for with almost religious fervor.” It is only through healthy affairs in the polis that a person will achieve eudaimonia, simply put, happiness.29 Indeed, the city is for and about the people, and its future, whether prosperous or not, depends on the citizens that live within it. While the journey at present still feels like the daily five-hour commute that most Manileños endure, the road towards a truly sustainable, walkable, and happy Metro Manila is already being steadily paved.


  1. As mentioned by then newly-appointed Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) Secretary Joseph Emilio Aguinaldo Abaya during a General Membership Meeting of the Makati Business Club on 25 April 2012. As of 29 March 2014, awarding of mass transport contracts by the DOTC has been sluggish and contentious. Whether the factors that led to these difficulties could have been avoided is the subject of ongoing public discussions and investigations by Congress.

  2. Remo, Michelle. 2013. “’Traffic costs P2.4B daily.” The Philippine Daily Inquirer, 6 July. Internet document:

  3. Lu, Ma. Roxanne et al. 2013. “Rising to the Challenge of Inclusive Growth.” MBC Research Report No. 113. Internet document:

  4. Canilao, Cosette. Presentation at Economic Development Cluster Meeting, Makati City, 2013.

  5. These are the Araneta Ave.-Quezon Ave. underpass (September 2012), the opening of the first section of the Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway (December 2013), and the groundbreaking of Skyway Stage 3 (January 2014), among others.

  6. “Because I must: Induced Demand”, pages 80-87.

  7. See introductory text of “The Mayor of Happy” page 4

  8. See introductory text of “The City Has Always Been A Happiness Project” on pages 15-18, and “Beyond the Hedonic City” on pages 32-36.

  9. “What Matters Most” pages 36-38

  10. Thorpe, David. 2014. “Share the Road Campaign Wants 50% of Streets Car-Free.” Sustainable Cities Collective, 17 February. Internet document:

  11. PPP Center of the Philippines. 2014. “Status of PPP Projects.” 6 June. Internet document:

  12. “Equity Wars” pages 246-250

  13. “Sprawl Repair” pages 238-284

  14. “Walking, the Urban Advantage” pages 17-36

  15. “General Theory of Walkability” page 11

  16. McIndoe, Graeme et al. 2005. The Value of Urban Design: The economic, environmental and social benefits of urban design. Wellington: New Zealand Ministry of the Environment. Internet document:

  17. Urban Land Institute. 2013. Ten Principles for Sustainable Development of Metro Manila’s New Urban Core. Washington, DC: Urban Land Institute

  18. Feliciano, Claire -Ann. 2014. “Philippine vehicle sales growth tops neighbors.” BusinessWorld Online, 11 May. Internet document:

  19. Philippine House of Representatives. HBs 581, 592, 902, and 1193. 16th Congress.

  20. “Step 3: Getting the Parking Right” pages 115-138

  21. Cupin, Bea. 2014. “DPWH to open new bike lanes in Quezon City.”, 12 March. Internet document:

  22. Ranada, Pia. 2014. “5 PH Cities to block off roads for pedestrians, cyclists.” Rappler, 26 March. Internet document:, accessed 27 March 2014.

  23. “When Roads Stop being Roads” in Happy City pages 177-180

  24. Department of Transportation and Communications. 2014. “Rail Transport Direction.” Presentation at Invest Transport PH organized by the PPP Center of the Philippines, Taguig City, March 2014.

  25. Philippine House of Representatives. HB 3827. 16th Congress.

  26. Philippine Senate. SB 26. 16th Congress.

  27. Zobel de Ayala, Jaime Augusto. “APEC 2015: The Philippines in the Global Spotlight.” Keynote address, Special Membership Meeting of the Makati Business Club, Makati City, 10 December 2013.

  28. Cuevas-Miel, Likha. 2014. “Best urban planners sought as private sector launches contest for most liveable cities.”, 12 March. Internet document:–best-urban-planners-sought-as-private-sector-launches-contest-for-most-liveable-cities

  29. See introductory text to “The City has Always Been a Happiness Project” pages 15-18.