A Day in the Life of a Metro Manila Commuter

This is what it's like to brave the Metro's traffic every day.

by Kevyn Tapnio
Mar 19, 2019

(SPOT.ph) The idealist in everyone would think living in the Metro is easy, but rarely is it the case for anyone who has to spend hours commuting through the city’s traffic-plagued streets. For some, the day begins with an 18-kilometer commute; a trip that always takes longer than it should.

For someone who lives south of Metro Manila, for example, it starts the night before, when you make sure to set several alarms just so you know you’ll wake up on time. You sleep through two alarms and wake up on the third one; the one you can no longer afford to ignore.

You check your wallet before heading out. You’ve been tsked at way too many times before by cranky drivers refusing your P100 bill in the morning, and while you’ve always walked away with the proper change, you’d rather avoid the fuss and the sour encounter so early in the day.

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A tricycle ride takes you closer to the bus stop. You get off at the Sucat wet market, your hair still damp from the shower you’ve hastily taken.

PHOTO: Kevyn Tapnio

In the morning, every second counts. 

You don't want to get to the bus stop even a minute late. Those 60 seconds could add an extra 20 minutes of waiting for the next bus and those 20 minutes could add an extra hour to your travel time as the morning rush sets in.

It’s a chain reaction that you learned after months of traveling the same route, and it’s a thought you keep in mind as you walk through the Sucat wet market. You’ll need to climb up the Parañaque-Muntinlupa Friendship Footbridgea long footbridge that stretches across the West Service Road, SLEX roadway, and East Service Roadto get to the bus stop that takes you north.

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But you can hardly call it a bus stop. It’s just a sidewalk; a short strip of free space sandwiched between the East Service Road and the SLEX. You know how unsafe it is, but there’s nothing you can do but join the forming crowd.

The early morning crowd of passengers has to wait along the sidewalk right before the Sucat tollway entrance of SLEX.
PHOTO BY Kevyn Tapnio
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As soon as the clock strikes seven, the “bus stop” would be packed with people waiting for the next bus to come. The people, all in roughly the same, half-awake state as you, grow antsy with each minute. You shield your eyes from the sun, one foot tapping restlessly against the pavement.

From afar, you see the bus arriving, stopped only by the traffic enforcer who’s desperately trying to make sure cars can pass through the complicated intersection without accident. You look around, the newcomers catching your eye as you notice the crowd grow. You already know that the next bus, or even the one after, won’t be enough to accommodate you all.

The crowd shuffles as the next bus approaches.
PHOTO BY Kevyn Tapnio
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You make your way closer to where you think it would stop to load passengers. It’s a guessing game. Drivers don't always stop at the same spots and you'd be lucky to stand in the right place at the right time.

It doesn’t matter if you arrived earlier than everyone or if you just got there. Once the bus finally opens its doors, it’s a free-for-all race. Men and women elbow their way through the rushing crowd, tightly holding their bags close to avoid getting pickpocketed. Those who get on first are rewarded with seats, but people would pour in even when there’s barely any room left. More jostling ensues as the conductor makes his way down the aisle, charging people their respective fares, handing out tickets faster than you could even calculate your change.

And then, you wait.

PHOTO: Kevyn Tapnio

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At this point, that's the only thing you can do. You know the drill by now: You'll be spending 20 minutes (or more) stuck in the same area moving at a snail’s pace in various points of the ride. More people would get on the bus at the next stop, somehow finding room on the already packed bus, and it will take a while before there's enough room to breathe again.

As the minutes tick by, you start to wonder if it would have been better to take a different route. You consider getting off at the next MRT station, thinking you’d be faster if you avoid EDSA’s congested roads, but you remember the times you used to do that.

Sometimes, you'd pass by a sidewalk filled with people lining up for the nearest MRT station.
PHOTO BY Kevyn Tapnio
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You remember the times you had to fall in line along the stairs of the MRT stationperhaps even outside the station itself as the line would often stretch along the sidewalk.

You remember the times you saw people forcing their way into the train, just before the doors could close: You always think there’s no way they’d fit, but by some miracle, they do. You remember you learned to do that too, tucking your shoulders close and looking for ways to make yourself small enough to fit into whatever space is left.

You remember the times the train has stalled; when you had to get offmaybe even on the tracks themselvesand walk to the nearest bus stop, where many were already waiting, looking to get on a bus. It won't be easy for any of you, as hundreds pour out of the MRT station to join the waiting crowd.

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Worst case scenario, you’re forced to book a car. In your head, you weigh the options: Would you rather get to the office late or spend a few extra bucks to get there on time? It’s the rush hour, so you know that ride-sharing apps are likely to charge you extrajust as taxi drivers would as they complain about the traffic.

In the end, you stick to the bus.

PHOTO BY Kevyn Tapnio
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People force their way into the train, just before the doors close: You always think there’s no way they’d fit, but by some miracle, they do. You learned to do that too, tucking your shoulders close and looking for ways to make yourself small enough to fit into whatever space is left.

You could say commuting is equal parts stressful and stress-relieving. On a bad day, the minutes you spend on the road fuel your anxiety, building up to a bad mood without you noticing. On a less busy day, being in transit can offer a bit of downtime; a moment for you to resign yourself to however long the ride would take and bury yourself in the pages of a book or steal a few minutes of sleep instead.

There are certain things you get to learn when you commute around the Metro; little bits of knowledge you’re forced to pick up along the way if you want to survive the city’s unforgiving streets. The idealist in everyone would think it will get easy with time, but the truth is that it doesn't.

It's not fair, you think to yourself. Your feet have grown weary from walking the same path and climbing the same walkways each day, your tired shoulders bearing the weight of the thingsand all the thoughtsyou carry with you. 

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Some would tell you to wake up even earlier than you already do to avoid the morning rush. Some would tell you to move closer to work. Some might even encourage you to leave the city and go back to your home province.

Some days, they come very close to convincing you.

You would stop for a moment and look around. You would wonder, is this all there is to it? The years have gone and passed, yet the Metro's overwhelming traffic continues to hang over everyone's heads. 

The inefficiencies of the city's public transport system run deep and anyone would know it won't be easy. New infrastructure might help ease the traffic, but it would take more than just a fancy new subway or another tollway to decongest the roads you now know by heart. It would take a complete overhaulnew routes for city buses, new traffic schemes beyond EDSA, new rules to follow so that drivers no longer have to fight over passengers.

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But for now, this is the reality you live in.

It's waking up four hours before you're expected at work. It’s walking out of the house with your damp hair soaking your shoulders. It’s getting used to being pushed around and, in return, knowing when to push back as you all scramble to get on the bus. It’s learning that if you stand just the right way with your feet spaced at just the right distance, you can easily spend the one-and-a-half-hour ride standing up without holding onto anything.

Some would tell you to wake up even earlier than you already do to avoid the morning rush. Some would tell you to move closer to work. Some might even encourage you to leave the city and go back to your home province. Some days, they come very close to convincing you.

It’s learning to live with all the nuances of the Philippines’ public transport system, like understanding that even if you leave home at exactly the same time each day, you never seem to get to the office the same time you did the day before.

PHOTO: Kevyn Tapnio

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When you spend a considerable amount of your day stuck in transit, you’ll start to see past the city’s glamour. You look out the window and see trash littering the sidewalks. You see the smoke from all the vehicles on the street. You see people fighting sleep as they navigate their way through their busy lives and realize with a heavy heart that you're one of them, too, and this is the city you chose to live in.

So what else can you do but make the most of it?

Despite everything, you can’t deny it: The Metro is teeming with paths yet to be taken, roads yet to be explored, and dreams yet to be reached. If there’s one thing you can be sure about when it comes to commuting in Manilaand maybe even life itselfit’s that no matter how long the trip or how slow the ride, hopefully, you’ll get to your destination someday.

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