Like many of the world’s largest and most densely populated megacities, Manila faces grinding traffic problems. The city’s overloaded highways and public transit networks subject countless people to indignities each day. Many see the situation as hopeless, but new technologies and online services may help ease the burden.
Traffic problems are acute in many of Asia’s teeming megacities. Millions in Manila, Bangkok, Jakarta, and elsewhere endure commutes that can last hours each way. Rapid urbanization, poor city planning, inadequate traffic enforcement, and other factors compound the problem.
Endless gridlock poses environmental and public health risks as well. Aging cars and buses crowd the roads, spewing emissions that pollute the air and damage lungs. In Manila, where many people travel in open-air vehicles called jeepneys, the pollution can be especially evident. It’s not uncommon to see jeepney passengers holding pieces of cloth over their faces when stuck in traffic in an effort to avoid breathing the thick clouds of exhaust.
It will take years and many billions of pesos to fix Manila’s infrastructure, but in the meantime, new apps and websites are emerging there that can reduce strain on the city’s transit networks. They can even liberate people from the burdens of commuting altogether.
Tripid, a ride-sharing app funded by mobile carrier company Globe Telecom’s Kickstart Ventures, offers one potential solution. The app encourages carpooling by letting drivers earn extra cash while providing passengers a low-cost alternative to taxis and public transport. It also helps match drivers with like-minded passengers so that the driving experience can be more social and enjoyable.
A slew of taxi-booking apps that launched in Manila last year also grease the wheels of the transit system. Services like Grabtaxi, Easy Taxi, and various others make it easier to find a taxi in a city where many drivers routinely turn down passengers or force them to haggle over fares. The sites tap into unused capacity in vehicles that might otherwise be circling aimlessly for passengers.
Another set of online services enables Filipinos to find remote work, eliminating the need to commute altogether. For those living inside major cities, these services help keep people off the roads at busy hours. For those outside cities, they provide a viable alternative to urban migration, easing the strain that growing populations put on Manila and other cities.
Many digital technologies and services facilitate telecommuting, but freelance job websites have garnered special attention in the Philippines. Due to strong English-language skills, high levels of digital engagement, and other qualities, Filipinos make great hires for the kind of independent contract work that more and more companies need today. Freelance websites are expanding quickly in the country as both global employers and local job seekers wake up to the opportunity.
Most of the world’s leading freelance sites now host large virtual workforces in the Philippines. Freelancer.com, the biggest in the country, counts roughly 500,000 Filipinos onboard. Elance.com, another leading platform that is currently merging with oDesk, had more than 150,000 in 2013. A growing number of niche services, such as 199jobs and Virtual Staff Finder, also help people find freelancing gigs and let them work from anywhere.
At this point, services like Tripid and the taxi-booking apps can dramatically improve an individual’s transport experience, but add only marginal efficiencies to the broader transit system. Freelance sites keep potential commuters off the roads, but not enough to prevent traffic from turning Manila’s highways into parking lots every day.
Over time, however, tech-enabled efficiencies in transport networks might snowball. Even for perpetually gridlocked cities like Manila, traffic could eventually become just an annoying memory.
Will Greene runs TigerMine Ventures, an advisory firm that helps companies and organizations in Southeast Asia. He recently co-authored Perfect Digital Storm: Philippines, a new study on digital, social, and mobile trends in the Philippines today.