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Manila Is A Good Reason To Build A New City

A new world is coming.

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MANILA, Philippines- I can’t believe humans would do this to themselves. Like Dhaka without the excuses, there is far too much traffic for the roads to carry. To get anywhere in this city takes, literally, hours of sitting in a semi-idle vehicle huffing exhaust. How can businesses function with such a barrier to movement? What is life like in a place where a massive portion of a person’s waking hours must be devoted to sitting in traffic? How are lives impacted when what would seem like a simple trip downtown for work takes three hours of transit time? What potential here is being choked dead by this standstill? Economies live and die on the efficiency of their transportation networks — the veins and arteries of commerce. Manila is a daily logistical heart attack.

I feel like an alien making his first trip to earth each time I come in to the Philippines: why would a society choose to live like this? Why are cars positioned over quality of life? How did this place get so broken? To think that in the 21st century — a time of a great infrastructure Renaissance — that there are places where it’s almost literally faster to walk than it is to drive a car is absurd — absurd yet fascinating. One of the prime directives of travel is to experience things unfathomable … and the traffic in Manila is just about that — it gives you this strange out of body experience that comes from seeing something your mind deems unreal.

I was puzzled by how my Uber driver who was giving me a lift from the airport — 2+ hours to go 30 kilometers — could make any money. How many rides could he give per day, given that each one would have an average speed in the ballpark of 10 to 15 km per hour; where each lift that would be measured in minutes in most other cities would take hours here. The number of rides per day to stay financially afloat seems as if it would be higher than the hours per day that one person could reasonably drive.

Manila is broken.

Manila is broken, and from I know of urban development financing it is unlikely to be fixed.

Many people in Europe or North America scoff at new cities in Asia — they call them ghost towns, white elephants, etc, without giving them much of a chance. While the new city building movement has grown to excess — around 200 new cities are in the works right now — at root they are often needed infrastructure to contend with the urbanization crisis that has struck most cities across Asia. To put it simply, too many people moved in too fast, too much building happened without proper planning, electric and wastewater systems were pushed beyond their limits, and then the middle class boomed and they all decided to drive their own cars.

To fix places like Manila or Dhaka is almost foolish: the core problems go to the root of these places — the entire road network, electrical grid, IT infrastructure, wastewater system, etc, would all need to be completely renewed. People would need to be evacuated en masse, myriad buildings would need be torn down, entire neighborhoods would need to be wiped off the map.

You just can’t do that.

So most cities in this predicament are investing massive amounts of money into band-aids — elevated roadways, etc — that are more or less superficial improvements, at best, a compounding of the problem to be remedied, at worse. However, this fact has not been lost on the administrators of these cities, and many have realized that maybe it may be time to start all over again.

Dysfunctional cities are doubling down and building brand new versions of themselves all over Asia and other emerging markets. China did this too excess with what I dubbed the “City 2.0” strategy. Basically, a massive swath of farm land will be cleared out or land will be reclaimed from the sea in proximity to an existing city for an entirely new urban core that will feature wide roadways, places to park, elite public transport (sometimes), and just about everything the new middle class could dream of. They are designed to give impetus for a class-conscious migration: those with money move over into the nice new city, those without stay behind in the shitty old city.

This strategy isn’t new. Malaysia did it with Putrajaya and Cyberjaya. Shanghai with Pudong and a ring of new towns and cities. South Korea with Songdo. Brazil with Brasilia. Australia with Canberra.

It is vastly more expensive and less profitable to modernize an existing city than it is to build a new one. Development firms and other investors are falling all over themselves to throw money into a new city … but to fix an old city, there just isn’t much money to be made from this so funding is hard to come by.

To these ends, Manila is currently building New Manila Bay City of Pearl. They are removing portions of Mt. Pinatubo and dumping it in Manila Bay for a new island for the rich.

New Clark City — a “smart eco-city” — is also in the works. This proposed sister city of Manila is slated to become the new capital of the Philippines.

The list goes on …

The point of this is that the world as we know it is being restructured and change almost faster than we can comprehend it. Paradigms are being transformed, new dots on the map are being created. For the traveler, this is an exciting time: new places are appearing, everywhere. These are new places that don’t have a history, don’t have a reputation, and haven’t been described to death and conceptually set in amber. However, it is common for travelers to have this extreme reluctance to acknowledge the modern. We are much more focused on history rather than history in the making.

Why I’m attracted to new cities.


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Filed under: New Cities, Philippines, Urbanization

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

10 comments… add one

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  • Trav May 5, 2019, 3:52 pm

    Dude, didn’t you start your last post the same way?

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    • Wade Shepard May 5, 2019, 4:01 pm

      Yes, then I moved it to this post because it fits better here. I was only going to do one post about Manila, but then they kept coming …

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  • tony logan May 6, 2019, 5:40 am

    The car is the world’s most destructive invention and is responsible of the fact that life on the Planet is soon ending. People used to rant about how bad television was for human culture. Now right behind the car, I would put computers and their accompanying technology in that most destructive category. Technology under capitalist control is not our saviour but rather is our assassin.

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    • Wade Shepard May 6, 2019, 8:42 am

      I agree about cars. The biggest problem was that these booming middle class, car driving populations arose in countries with weak institutions and not enough know-how, revenue, and regulations to cope with the traffic issue. Cars in these countries were initially seen as a sign of status and progress that governments seemed to be proud of. Now, they are the thing that’s making these cities unworkable for business, which is kind of ironic. When it’s almost as fast to walk (literally in Dhaka) than it is to drive then driving is just a way to have an air conditioned pod to sit in while stuck in traffic. I guess that’s seen as luxury in some places. On top of that we have all these development and IT firms selling solutions to entice countries to basically give up on their existing cities and build new ones. It’s kind of a racket, but one that has an underlying ripple of logic. I don’t know how to fix Manila. I’m pretty sure nobody does.

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  • steven May 6, 2019, 9:43 am

    The government could see significant results of less congestion starting tomorrow if they implemented “road space rationing” an odd/even licence plate that allows people every other day of driving their cars. Also only allowing truck deliveries between 11;00 pm and 5;00 am ( or there-about)

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    • Wade Shepard May 6, 2019, 10:17 am

      Yes, some cities have tried to use strategies like that, but then people usually just found workarounds — like getting two license plates — and in a country with weak institutions / high corruption this can be really hard to implement and enforce. However, you’re right, something drastic really needs to be done. There is so much potential in places like Manila that’s just being squandered because the place simply doesn’t function. It’s tough because there are not really adequate public transport alternatives, and these take a long time to develop. I tend to think offering better alternatives rather than restricting people from what they want to do tends to work better. Maybe a safe and modern light rail system and then promoting how much faster and cheaper it is than driving could work. Basically, you need to make people want to change their transportation habits or else they will just game the system and little progress will be made.

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  • Johanes May 8, 2019, 7:10 am

    Awesome post. I worked in Manila myself for almost a year and yes, it was definitely a problem. You either reach work really early or arrive too late. So it’s best to just find a place to stay where you can just walk towards work. I sure hope the government will be able to fix this issue before it gets worse.

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    • Wade Shepard May 8, 2019, 10:29 am

      Yes, I guess this is one way to make people get out of their cars and walk 😉

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      • Trevor May 8, 2019, 11:44 am

        walking in Manila sucks and in the rain… it REALLY sucks

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        • Wade Shepard May 8, 2019, 1:25 pm

          I can imagine that it probably floods often. Is this the case?

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