While most of us consider Manila traffic as a source of stress, headaches and impending doom, Robert Siy sees the city’s congested highways and backed up roads as an intricate puzzle waiting to be solved.
“Having grown up in Manila, I am a child of the smoke and electricity and concrete and congestion,” Rob says. “Growing up, I’ve always wondered to myself: what would it take to get better transportation here?”
As a current Master’s student at the University of Leeds, Rob strongly believes that transport will be the most pressing problem the Philippine capital will face in the coming years.
A quick look at the numbers confirms Rob’s predictions: with an active population of 15 million individuals in the daytime and over 100,000 new registered cars per year, Manila overflows with frustrated commuters on a daily basis.
Part of the gridlock is exacerbated by the unreliable nature of the city’s public transportation system and the ease of purchasing cars. From 2012 to 2014 alone, yearly sales of commercial vehicles rose by 33% while passenger car sales grew by 87%, creating a so-called “carmageddon”. The situation is projected to worsen so much that JICA, a Japanese aid agency, estimates that the Philippines will lose 6 billion pesos daily by 2030 due to traffic if nothing is done.
Armed with a Master’s degree in finance from Boston College and a soon-to-be Master’s degree in transportation economics, Rob hopes to be on the team that devises a solution to our traffic situation.
“Traffic is one of those big ‘quality of life’ issues that becomes a problem in any big city, but the problems in Manila are so different from anywhere else in the world that it has to be tackled from so many different angles. We need a package of reforms to solve for everything from funding to engineering to social behavior,” he says.
Rob first developed an interest in development while working for the Department of Finance, where he was part of a technical sub-office that ran financial analyses on infrastructure projects. His job was to handle the review and approval of public-private partnership (PPP) projects that arranged for private sector parties to execute government projects in exchange for eventual revenue collection after the project’s completion.
Instead of financing projects through the tax registry and placing pressure on the government’s limited budget, the PPP model places responsibility on private companies to both invest in and deliver on agreements that would eventually benefit them. This also serves as a way to allocate risk between the government and the private sector in a way that is mutually beneficial.
“Our water and toll road projects follow this model, and the Mactan Airport in Cebu and the LRT-1 system in Manila now use this model as well,” Rob says. “This is a way of building things that is gaining popularity all over the world, and with this, we may see bigger investment into infrastructure in the Philippines.”
Of all the projects he oversaw, Rob says his budding interest in transport was further fueled after his father began working as a consultant for the Department of Transport and Communications. He says it was conversations with his Dad that first formed a solid foundation for his knowledge on transportation.
Soon, Rob ended his stint at the DOF to return to school and deepen this knowledge even further. Now just a few months shy of returning to the working world, Rob continues to reassess how he can maximize his impact in the Philippines. Part of his hesitation to immediately return to government stems from lacking the legitimacy and experience needed to truly understand how to execute proper solutions. He shares the following thoughts:
Part of it is me thinking about how I might return to government after 10 to 15 years of doing transport consulting for a private consulting firm first. It seems that people have a lot more credibility as a technocrat in government if they come from the private sector. While I’ve come to realize that the perception is misplaced because after working with brilliant colleagues who are lifelong civil servants, that’s the way it is at the moment.
Actually, a big problem in our government right now is that there isn’t a whole lot of technical capacity. We don’t have a lot of real experts in transport that are working there already, compared to transport ministries in other countries. Working with a transport consultancy will let me build demand forecast models for rail or bus systems from scratch. That’s what I’d like to do.
Nevertheless, the Xavier graduate is more hopeful than ever regarding the capacity of the Philippine government to execute effective and lasting change, as well as the commitment of Filipinos to holding officials accountable to their promises.
“We’re on the right track,” he says. “I think democracy is maturing in the Philippines and I think people are starting to expect more from their government. Standards are rising–we are expecting more from people than simply not being corrupt.”
As for Rob’s hopes beyond clearing Manila’s congested roads, he says:
I’d like to see more Filipinos get invested in the idea that we want to build a better life for people in and of itself. I am really inspired by people who believe that changing the way people live in the Philippines is a good thing. I’d like for more people to share that vision. I want to show people who left without any plans of returning that they were wrong not to believe in this country and not believe in people that want to make things better. If you’re somebody with the resources to ‘bail’ on the Philippines, that means you also have the resources to be able to do something really interesting. Right now, that means solving the great problems of our time–hunger, poverty, transport. I want to see more people buying into that as something they can invest themselves in.
Robert Siy is one of the 2015-16 Chevening scholars for the Philippines and a candidate for the M.A. in Transport Economics at the University of Leeds. He previously served in the Office of Privatization and Special Concerns at the Department of Finance. Robert dreams of building a better Philippines and believes we’ll get there sooner than we think.
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