In the City With the World’s Worst Traffic, Uber Is an Awkward Fit
I’d learned to dread turning that corner. It was the first corner out of the gate from Magallanes Village, where my family’s house is, feeding into Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, the perpetually snarled main highway in Manila. Since heading back home to the Philippines over the Thanksgiving holiday, I’d have to turn that corner every time I wanted to meet up with friends at a bar, join my parents for dinner at a restaurant, or just try to get a coffee. And that’s when I’d see it.
The traffic. Crawling as far as I could see in both directions. A jumble of steel and tires, nearly at a standstill, except for the abrupt angles of vehicles jockeying, futilely, for a better position in the slog. All you could do was insert yourself in the stream and wait. It was excruciating; you felt powerless in the herd. I grew up here, and I’ve visited many times in past years. And I never remember it being this bad.
According to the Global Driver Satisfaction Index from Waze (a Google-owned traffic and navigation app beloved in Manila), Manila has the worst traffic in the world. Looking at data from 50 million users in 32 countries and 167 metro areas, Waze put Manila dead last. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 described as “miserable” and 10 being “satisfying,” Manila scored a 0.4. I know I was miserable: a journey of 3 miles, a typical distance from my house to popular meeting spots in the city, would take close to two hours.
Because traffic was so atrocious, it was a pain asking friends and family for a ride. But during this last visit, I had more options. Manila has two major players in app-based ride-hailing. The first is GrabTaxi, a Southeast Asia-based company which began as a taxi-hailing app in 2012 but has since extended its platform to include private car services, motorcycle taxis, and carpooling. The second is Uber.
Back in May, the Philippines became the first country to develop nationwide ride-hailing regulations, making it legal for app-based transportation services to operate anywhere in the nation after starting out in legally murky territory in the Manila last year. Such uniform regulations are a far cry from the endless conflicts Uber has faced across much of Europe and the United States, where city, state, and national governments have all tried to weigh in.
But below the surface, all is not shiny and perfect. In Manila, Uber has come up against a unique set of cultural challenges that underscore the fact that Silicon Valley solutionism doesn’t always translate tidily when it’s exported abroad. The system is prone to middlemen and ripe for exploitation by government officials. To be fair, a lot of city residents seem to love it. But I’m not sure anyone is getting anywhere any faster.
A San Francisco Problem
Uber’s origin story has several versions, but one narrative CEO Travis Kalanick sticks to is that the company was founded to address a very San Francisco problem. “Getting stranded on the streets of San Francisco is familiar territory,” Kalanick writes in a 2010 Uber blog post. And so one wintry evening in Paris, during an overnight idea session with cofounder Garrett Camp, Uber was born.
There isn’t just a supply and demand problem in San Francisco; there’s also a deeper problem with the local taxi industry. According to a 2013 Bay Citizen investigation, passengers registered more than 1,700 complaints with the city from July 2011 to June 2012—more than one for each of the 1,500 or so cabs running in the city at the time.
The same issue doesn’t necessarily exist in the hundreds of cities that Uber, a company now valued at $62.5 billion, operates in globally. Yes, people want to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. But Uber famously doesn’t wait around to figure out the quirks of particular markets before muscling in. The company tends to barrel its way into a new country or city without technically being legal and gets pushback from regulatory bodies, often in the form of a cease-and-desist or even an outright ban. But Uber stays put. Then, digging into its cavernous coffers and unleashing its loyal user base, it lobbies and campaigns until regulators relent. It almost always wins.
Sharing the Road
That’s the tack the company is taking in the Philippines. And it seems to be working, especially with the public. The citizens of Manila almost uniformly love Uber. Months into operating in the city, dozens of glowing op-eds have been written in praise of Uber. The company, they say, provides a safe, comfortable, and convenient commuting alternative, especially in a place where public transportation has a reputation of being dangerous, particularly for women. In Manila, unlike many places in the US, residents actually like that Uber maps out driver routes and tracks the entire trip. It makes passengers feel safe.
Mistrust in the government works to Uber’s advantage as well. Months after the country’s transportation department made ride-hailing apps legal in the Philippines, the government handed down a licensing plan for Uber and similar companies. According to the government, the plan was put in place because Uber needed to pay taxes, just like any other business. But some viewed the government’s move more skeptically. “I am reminded of the oft-repeated joke that ‘licensing’ is what it’s called when a government ‘takes away your right to do something and then sells it back to you,’” one pundit in the Philippines wrote.
But it’s not entirely clear Uber itself gets why it’s being embraced. At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting hosted in Manila this year, Uber’s David Plouffe, who masterminded Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, played up the idea that Uber can reduce car usage and ownership by putting two or three people in one car for one trip, filling seats that would otherwise stay empty by connecting drivers with people who need rides. Uber’s core proposition, Plouffe said, is: “I press a button, and I get a ride from my fellow citizen.”
The problem is that this doesn’t apply to the unique way ride-sharing works in the Philippines. Instead of car owners registering to work on the platform, operators with an entrepreneurial spirit typically buy small fleets of brand new cars and hire individual drivers—essentially layering a new middleman on top of Uber and other platforms. These are brand new cars that are being added to Manila’s roads. According to former Metro Manila traffic director Yves Gonzalez in an interview with Top Gear Philippines, Uber and GrabTaxi add an estiamted 10,000 to 15,000 vehicles to the roads at a time when there are reportedly more than 200 cars for every mile of road in the capital. Yes, 15,000 is not a huge number compared to more than 2.5 million cars that the Philippines’ Land Transportation Office says it registered in 2015 alone. But they also don’t seem to be helping.
Uber officials in Manila did not respond to multiple inquiries seeking comment.
Long Way Home
Riding an Uber home one night in Manila, I asked my driver what it was like dealing with all this traffic. You learn to live with it, he said. Sometimes, he told me, drivers get requests that have them crawling in traffic for an hour-and-a-half just to reach to a passenger. Still, with such poor commuting alternatives available, the trips never get canceled, he said.
So, what now? It’s hard to say Uber is bad for Manila. The company is making an effort to tune into certain cultural quirks—for instance, testing cash payments, which GrabTaxi has always allowed. (According to data from the World Bank, only 31 percent of Filipinos have bank accounts.) And there’s clearly a demand for Uber’s services, especially among the people who can afford it—like the city’s big expat community, as well as people like me, who no longer live in the Philippines but visit often.
Either way, Uber looks like it’s in Manila to stay. But it’s worth examining whether taking a Silicon Valley approach to a city far away has as much potential to feed into and amplify infrastructure problems as to solve them. That’s worth taking a closer look at, not just in the Philippines, but all over the world.