Published in The Freeman (Philippine Star), Dec. 15, 2011
My friend told me bluntly, “You’re writing about impossible things and weird scenarios.” “Sure,” I answered. Sometimes, writing about land use and transport needs some examples that maybe ludicrous if only to stress a point. But we can also give lighter, more realistic examples. Or even better, provide analogies.
I attended a workshop in Bangkok two years ago. It was about financial management of urban projects, but one of the sessions involved a topic on improving working efficiency. When you start talking about efficiency, engineering and mathematics always come to mind. Maybe because efficiency is always the subject of engines and other mechanical gadgets where you measure the most output you can get out of a given input. Like squeezing ink out of stone.
“Imagine a workshop such as this, say 100 participants, in the 16th floor of a hotel,” the lecturer started. A lot of us were half listening, half falling to sleep on a drowsy Thai afternoon after an exquisite meal of spicy “tom yam khrung.” The lecturer’s voice seemed as if it was the perfect cure for insomia! He droned on, “The worshop schedule has a lunch break between 12 to 1 pm.” The restaurant is at the ground floor and there are 2 elevators (which can carry 10 people each at one time) serving the 16-storey building. If it takes the elevator “x” minutes to go up the 16 floors, the same time to go down to the lobby, and “y” minutes for a person to eat lunch, how can you arrange the lunch break so that everybody will be back at the 16th floor by 1 pm?
I was wide awake before he could finish the question. Have to confess, it’s that way with engineers – numbers excite us, …more so if these involve problems. So how do we bring a hundred persons down 16 floors using 2 10-person capacity elevators, feed them lunch then bring them back, all within one hour? Aha! – But there are a lot of ways, and many of you has probably thought of some already. It will need some assumptions, though, like maybe the elevator should not stop on each floor, etc. In essence, most of the solutions would probably be right, and the only determinant to the better one is the cheaper price of doing it.
And the more expensive option, really is, just transfer the restaurant to the 16th floor! It’s a lot of work, … and more expensive, and the hotel would probably reject it outright, but as far as a solution to the problem is concerned, it will work. The other equally difficult and expensive solution is to build more elevators! Again, not an attractive option but a solution just the same. You probably have thought of more realistic and cheaper solutions.
But this is an analogy and if the comparison involves planning the hotel beforehand, these solutions would be worthy of closer study. If a restaurant is needed to feed a function in the 16th floor of a hotel, we might as well place that in the design beforehand. In urban planning terms, we say we can place the land use (in this case, “dining”) where the people are, or place it somewhere else and provide the necessary transport system (“elevators”) to it. That’s the general idea of locating elementary schools or high schools in each barangay, … as many as possible. The aim is to provide basic education services within walking distance of where the children live. That way, they don’t need to ride jeepneys or trisikads … or worse, hitch rides in other vehicles exposing them to unnecessary danger.
Some call it self-contained communities. It goes against the grain of traditional zoning principles where areas are colored yellow or red or some other color, for residential, commercial, institutional, and other land uses. For dominant use, maybe, but the ordinary, daily activities of residents should already be located near the residential areas. Schools, markets, convenience stores, groceries, and a hundred other activities should be near, not halfway across the city. This way, we minimize traffic snarls the same way we prevent being squeezed in a crowded elevator for a quick lunch downstairs.