AUGUST 31, 2020

The two-wheeled revolution

BY NEAL P. CORPUS
PHOTOS BY JL JAVIER

What exactly will it take to achieve a bike-friendly Metro Manila?

Here’s a simple fact: Metro Manila has a big transport problem. Even before the pandemic, terrible traffic was just a fact of life living in the metro. 

Traffic jams were long and frequent, and oftentimes it took more time to travel ten kilometers in the city than it was to travel a hundred out of it. Lines for public transportation would snake down many flights of stairs and around multiple blocks; passengers wait for hours only to board a vehicle bursting at the seams.

We seemed to get by, but since the handling of COVID-19 in the country forced public transportation into a screeching halt, it revealed that we are ripe — overdue, perhaps — for a transport revolution.

As public transportation continues to be limited, many people are looking at using active transport as an alternative.

To give you a clearer picture of the transport landscape, car-owners make up only 12 percent of households in Metro Manila. 

This means that the vast majority of residents from in and around Manila solely rely on public and other means of transport — without those, how do we expect people to get where they need to go?

In the absence of public transportation, cycling and other forms of active transport quickly became the top alternative to owning a private vehicle. It was relatively cheap, didn’t require a license, and more importantly, promoted social distancing. 

While the number of cyclists and active transport users have grown exponentially during the lockdown, there isn’t enough infrastructure to protect them.

But as the weeks went by, it became clear that the infrastructure to support and protect cyclists — the number of which has grown exponentially under quarantine — just aren’t in place. 

While groups like Life Cycles PH rushed to procure bicycles for frontliners in need, they also advocated for protected bike lanes, among other bike-friendly infrastructure. But to truly make a difference in the long run, we also need to change the culture of cycling and active transport in the country.

This begins by looking at the benefits of a more active transport-focused city. According to cycling advocate Rowhe Siy of Mobile in MNL, “a city that is active transport-centric will have better air quality,” noting that this will have a positive impact for those who have respiratory illnesses like asthma. 

Having bike and active transport-friendly infrastructure also slows car traffic, “allowing people to move around with less worry of getting hit by a car,” says Rowhe.

There are many benefits to using active transport, which begs the question of why it isn’t as popular in the country.

On top of that, photographer and avid cyclist Miguel Nacianceno adds possibly one of the most attractive benefits of active transport: “We’ll spend less time sitting in traffic.”

There are lots of personal benefits too: in our interview last month, Keisha Mayuga of Life Cycles PH shared that not only does she save up to P2,000 a week by taking her bike versus other modes of transport, it also allows her to turn her usual two-hour commute into just 45 minutes of exercise. Talk about hitting two birds with one stone. 

So if using active transport is so great, what is holding us back? 

For starters, a big hurdle is the lack of infrastructure. While pop-up bike lanes are increasingly becoming common as the government realizes the demand for them, a wide network of protected active transport lanes is necessary for it to really take off. 

For cyclists and active transport users to be safe on the road, regular bike lanes may not cut it — protected bike lanes are necessary.

Parking for bicycles and other modes of active transport are also key.

Rowhe says this is one of her biggest challenges as an active transport user: “Many active transport users, myself included, will tell you that this has dictated where they’ve agreed to meet with people, or where they’ve chosen to shop.”

Another common gripe is that it’s way too hot in the Philippines to be using active transport, with many citing office dress codes as a hindrance.

But as Keisha mentioned, this can be circumvented by building workplace showers and lockers and further encouragement by institutions to use active transport going to work.

But creating a culture of active transport goes beyond just building infrastructure. It’s imperative that policy-makers truly understand the needs of active transport users, so that the implemented measures don’t end up half-baked.

For an active transport culture to take off, car owners must be willing to leave their comfort zone.

It’s also important to change the mindset of Filipinos towards using active transport. One of the main things that hold back car owners, says Rowhe, is having to leave a comfort zone.

“Getting around in an air-conditioned shelter is comfortable and probably what most car owners have known their whole lives,” she says.

She also cites a quote from congressman and former MMDA chairman Bayani Fernando, who said that “only scavengers are cyclists.” This mindset that using active transport is only for those who can’t afford their own cars is simply untrue, and says a lot about how those in power view active transport in the country.

Miguel also adds that while he admits he is part of the privileged 12 percent who own cars, he explains why it’s important to go out of this comfort zone: “If you grow up with the means to drive your own car, you hardly think about people who commute daily to get anywhere.”

Although it seems like active transport culture has always been alive in other countries like The Netherlands, it took them a while to figure it out.

But here’s the thing: if other countries can create strong active transport cultures, then so can we. Now one might think that what works abroad may not work here, because each city has its own set of challenges. 

If you look at The Netherlands, which has the most number of bicycles per capita, they didn’t always have a strong biking culture. In an interview with Vox, Chris and Melissa Bruntlett, the authors of Building The Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality, explain that it was also a struggle for them.

The Dutch made a lot of mistakes in different cities: “In Utrecht, they paved over canals,” Chris explains. “[The Netherlands’] status as a cycling nation wasn’t always a given. It took a lot of hard work…and forward-thinking politicians to get where they are.”

For those still apprehensive to get on two wheels, it helps to look at our peers who are doing it.

So how can we get there?

For Rowhe, it starts with normalizing using active transport. On her Instagram page for Mobile in MNL, she features various active transport users, making it a point to indicate their profession so that people can see that they can do it too, regardless of occupation.

“I heard somewhere that it’s easier to get people interested in something when they see people like themselves doing it,” Rowhe says. “If you’re apprehensive, find someone who’s already [using active transport], and ask if you can join them for a ride. Most people will be more than happy to oblige.”

It also pays to encourage establishments to become active transport friendly. Ayala Malls currently has a wide and growing network of active transport parking across the country, and other establishments are following suit. 

Cycling alone won’t solve our city’s traffic woes — a combination of active and public transportation is when the magic happens.

And finally, becoming a more active transport-friendly metro is realizing that it isn’t a silver bullet. Chris adds that as Marco te Brömmelstroet explains, active transport alone “doesn’t replace the private automobile, and neither does public transit.”

It’s only when you combine the two, Chris says, is when the magic happens. That’s when active transport truly shines, and using a car only becomes redundant.

Want to get on two wheels? Check out Keisha’s tips for new cyclists along with a list of stores here.