Talking ‘bout a (bike) revolution

July 1, 2020

by Rosario Guzman

I bike-commute to work, and it is my advocacy.

I love the adrenaline rush from packing my stuff every morning, putting them on my pannier, changing into cycling attire, and pedaling on to work. Not a few times, I forget to bring pocket money.

My city is hilly, and my rides give me that much-needed oomph for my sedentary existence. I love the clicking sound of a well-tuned gear shift as I go uphill and my soft gasps (or grunts) as the only gauge I need for my simple machine. I relish the downhills and tailwinds, the draft on my face as I pass between houses and tall trees, and the unexpected drizzle on an evening ride. I always look forward to the exhilarating feeling of freedom a bike ride brings.

Okay, I may be romanticizing this a bit. I bike-commute in Metro Manila – a city among the world’s top 10 in air pollution, Asia’s most crowded city, and the worst traffic on earth. A Dutch friend once told me when he learned that I bike in the metro that I am being suicidal. Amsterdam where he lives is the second most bike-friendly city on the planet, next to Copenhagen. The Netherlands has an enviable bicycle culture that makes you think their kids learned to cycle first before they could even walk. This can only emanate from a progressive economy and organized society, however.

Back in Metro Manila, you have to be a warrior to assert more sustainable options for mobility, including simply being a pedestrian. You have to fight for a lane, a space, a green light, a minute. And as a female cyclist, you also have to fight for a little respect. On the road, we are the lowest form of life, along with the mass of public transport commuters who struggle everyday to get to their destinations. It’s a lonely road.

Twisted plans

The Philippines is private car-centric. The Duterte administration’s vision paper, AmBisyon Natin 2040, imagines a future where each family owns a private car. We will be “predominantly middle-class” by then, government envisions, which is sadly a twisted view of development, not to mention that government lacks imagination for a sustainable public mass transport system.

Private cars and those needlessly huge sports utility vehicles dominate the main thoroughfares. In 2019, for instance, they comprised 63% of the daily volume of EDSA. This is while the public is having the worst transport crisis.

Government’s infrastructure ambition, Build, Build, Build, is dominantly transport-focused but unfortunately caters to the trading and service-oriented economy that is concentrated in Metro Manila. This is while the country’s agricultural and industrial base is shrinking.

Metro Manila is a chaos of shopping malls, hypermarkets, condominiums, and office spaces for call centers and online gambling. It is bursting with real estate development, which is hollow if we come to think how the country cannot even produce its own steel.

Automotive corporations, commercial banks, oil companies, and even the government are the ones that profit from promoting private motor vehicle use. Car dealers sell imported completely knocked-down vehicles, while banks offer auto loans at favorable interest rates. Petroleum products are overpriced, while government collects taxes on the pump sales. Government also earns from vehicle registration and licensing fees.

Meanwhile, real estate and construction oligarchs, retail giants, importers and exporters, and foreign investors have immensely increased their wealth from infrastructure projects that benefit their own businesses.

The bottom line is that the push for such infrastructure and real estate development only perpetuates private car-centricity. A sustainable mass transport system, much less a bicycle culture, can never emanate from this kind of development.

Bikers, unite!

Then COVID-19 happened. Suddenly, the government is encouraging biking as a mode of transport around the metro to observe physical distancing. Suddenly, the government is recognizing the economic, environmental and health benefits of riding a bicycle, and as a solution to traffic congestion. It is strange that it has taken a health crisis for the government to recognize the viability and sustainability of biking.

So here we are – we are giving the bicycle another chance. Some people are restoring their old bicycles, while others are starting to save up for new buys. There are also adults who have determinedly taken up riding lessons from friends. More and more cyclists are filling the streets to go to the market, to work, or to visit their families. Here we are – we are reclaiming that sense of freedom.

Yet, as with its COVID response, the government is not prepared and seems unwilling to respond. The transportation department has only delegated the task of sorting out this “new normal” to the local government units thus making efforts fragmented, and worse, tokenistic. The different transport and traffic agencies also lack cohesion on what new rules, or even what new attitude, to adopt to really encourage biking as a transport mode and to start a process of re-education of motorists and even pedestrians.

The government is not prepared to accompany its promotion of the use of bicycles with steps that would truly encourage biking in a car-centric metropolis. The government has yet to reorient its infrastructure plan for the government itself to internalize the principle of road-sharing with cyclists and to promote bikers’ welfare.

For a start, the government can designate continuous and integrated bike lanes for a safe and efficient bike commute. It can require all establishments to provide bike parking or may assign public spaces for such. The government can also design foot bridges or overpasses with bike ramps for safer traverses in busy avenues. These efforts would eventually give rise to more advanced measures such as designation of exclusive bike roads, exclusive bike traffic rules and signs, putting bike racks in train coaches, providing public bike-sharing as last-mile augmentation, and the like.

Ultimately, we should aspire for an ambitious sustainable development plan which will take into account environmental integrity, strengthening the capacity of the public health system, and building the country’s agricultural and industrial capacity base. We can be a nation that manufactures its own bicycles. It will be such a revolution.

For a fast shift, government can start by listening to the stakeholders – the bikers. But several bike advocates’ groups have come forward to suggest and cooperate to make this work, only to be ignored or, worse, even fined for interfering. The government seems to be against any type of activism at this point.

This is why I tell my foreign friends that you cannot simply be a cyclist in the Philippines without being an activist – we have to fight for recognition every single day. And now that our number is increasing, I can only parody the revolutionary Karl Marx: “Bikers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains!”