This story was co-published with rapperAn online news publication based in the Philippines.

Tina Batala had a bicycle for many years. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that the then 21-year-old university student actually started using it to get around Metro Manila, after a friend invited her on a ride on a rainy day in June 2020.

“There were no cars, and it felt safe,” she said. Riding on roads free of car traffic has brought prestige to Metro Manila. one of the most congested urban areas Batala’s confidence grew in the world that she could get around on a bike despite not being a “hardcore cyclist”.

She said, “Re-experiencing the city I grew up in brought a change in me, and I felt it was something I wanted to continue.”

fight with one of many Filipinos – and people around the world – embraced biking in a new way during the pandemic. But now, the country’s climate-friendly means of transportation other than walking is under threat, as national lawmakers slashed budgets for bike lanes — and Filipino cyclists are organizing to make sure the pandemic doesn’t stop. Ray of hope brings sustainable improvements to bicycle infrastructure.

maintain profit

COVID-19 plunges Metro Manila’s already struggling public transportation system into crisis: the government shut down mass transportation in the city for two and a half months in an effort to contain the virus, and after the shutdown was lifted, capacity The border forced the passengers to wait. for three hours Just to get on the Metro Rail Transit, or MRT. Similar wait times plagued buses and jeepneys, symbolically Filipino public transit vehicles.

bike owner more than car owners 5 to 1 in Metro Manila, a metropolitan area made up of 16 interconnected cities. Long lines at transit stations have made bicycling the most viable option for many people. hospitals began to be established bike parking To accommodate the hordes of doctors and nurses who cycle to work. Local city governments used traffic cones or simple stripes of paint to outline pop-up bike lanes, and the national government’s Department of Transportation, or DOTR, promoted active transportation (which includes biking, walking, scooter and ) created a new office to focus explicitly on. like). By June 2021, 313 kilometer New bike lanes have been added to the streets of Metro Manila (194 miles) through the joint efforts of the local and national governments.

people on bikes in a bike lane
People ride their bicycles on newly installed bike lanes in Manila, Philippines in June 2020. Ruel Umali / Xinhua via Getty

“The pandemic was a big factor in getting the Philippine government to prioritize and promote active mobility,” said Alden Joshua Dionisio, program manager for the DOTR’s active transportation office, which has 14 staff members.

Metro Manila’s post-pandemic cycling boom mirrors a phenomenon experienced in cities around the world. In America, people started cycling “unprecedented leveland bike sales Enhanced, in Europe, over $1.1 billion dollars Biking infrastructure was created between March and October 2020, with cities such as Paris and Brussels leading the way. and in South America cities like Lima and Bogotá started bike lanes along roads This had been identified years earlier but was not established until the pandemic brought more cyclists to the streets.

Pedal-pushing has yielded many benefits. Eliza Go Tian, ​​head of the low-carbon transportation project at the United Nations Development Program in the Philippines, said switching from cars to bikes leads to a huge reduction in climate-changing emissions. According to an Oxford study, the daily travel emissions of cyclists are 84 percent lower than those of non-cyclists. Study, More bike trips and fewer car trips also reduce air pollution, which is nearly costing the Philippines $87 billion annually in health care costs and productivity loss, according to A 2021 study, Bikes can also reduce car traffic and noise pollution, help riders stay healthier and more active, and provide greater agency over one’s own mobility.

Despite so many benefits, the benefits of the last three years are not guaranteed to last in the Philippines. Although the national government has earmarked 4 billion pesos (about $71 million) for active transportation from 2020 to 2023, the budget has been cut each year, from a peak of 2 billion pesos in 2022 to 500 million pesos for 2024 Has been done.

“We have people making decisions that are still car-centric,” Dionisio said.

Progress could be significantly slowed by a drop in funding for the office overseeing safe biking infrastructure: recent survey found that 4 out of 5 household heads in the Philippines agree that more people would use bikes for transportation if the roads were safer.

“The pace is slowing down a bit,” Tian said.

Decision-makers in business and politics come primarily from the car-owning class, which can exacerbate inequality, said Earl DeKena, the business association’s permanent transportation officer. Makati Business Club, even though only 6 percent of Filipinos own carsBiking has been linked to poverty in the past, and is sometimes discriminated against in both the public and private sector.

“The norm, especially before the pandemic, has been that if you’re on a bicycle, you’re not treated the same as if you’re in a vehicle,” he said. “It has a tone of, ‘If you’re in the car, you probably paid more.'”

When this attitude is elevated to the level of policy, it could ensure preferential treatment for car owners – rather than the 94 percent of Filipinos who do not own cars – in the law.

A mural of people wearing masks and a bike rider in front
A man walks past a graffiti depicting frontline health workers wearing masks in Manila in November 2021. Ted Elzibe/AFP via Getty Images

keep the pace

Ramir Angeles pointed out that fragmented and uneven monitoring of biking infrastructure also creates problems for bikers. Angeles is a transportation engineer for the government of Quezon City, one of the cities that make up Metro Manila. Since local government units oversee local roads while the national government oversees national roads, maintenance of bike lanes can be unequal.

“Bike lanes are now a far more hostile environment than they were before” during the peak of the pandemic, Engels said, adding that a return to pre-pandemic levels of car traffic has increased the sense of danger for many bikers. And in some parts of Metro Manila, bike infrastructure is actively “being removed or downgraded,” he said.

Batala has experienced the latter firsthand. When she learned in February that bike lanes along Ayala Avenue, one of Metro Manila’s busiest business districts, were being converted into dangerous “sharrows” that forced bikers to share a lane with public transportation vehicles such as buses. will force. And jeepneys, she was angry, while leaving the private vehicle lane untouched.

“These bike lanes were so important for the safety of our essential workers… What if we had cities that keep making them work but don’t really care about their safety?” He asked. “It really struck me that if we didn’t take to the streets, speak up, and organize, those streets would basically be lost forever.”

Batala’s response to that frustration was to organize. What began as a group ride in protest against the Ayala Avenue plan eventually turned into the #MakeItSafer campaign, part of a larger transportation advocacy group called the Move As One Coalition. Campaign convincing Ayala Land, the decision-making entity behind the bike lane conversion, will hold talks with advocates to work toward a different solution. and when Ayala Land “rejected the community’s proposed security interventions,” Move As One was staged another protest trip This time in July, the pressure will be on decision makers to fix bike lanes and strengthen enforcement to keep motorcyclists out of bike lanes.

Batala’s experience points to a factor that could help Metro Manila maintain its momentum: a vibrant community of bikers that has been expanding rapidly since 2020. Cycling clubs started by those riders are springing up throughout the metro area, facilitating group rides, pop-up events, and protests. The result is a citywide network of people willing to organize to defend the interests of bikers.

And even though bicycling isn’t growing as quickly as it did in 2020, the number of bikers on the road is still high. One bike count found in June 2022 about 54,000 cyclists on main roads for more than four hours. Even that number, which Angeles said was an undercount and which was conducted in only four of the 16 cities that make up Metro Manila, makes it clear that cyclists make up a sizable demographic. Has happened.

A man wearing a T-shirt and shorts is riding a bike on a paved road at sunset
A man wearing a face mask rides a bike on World Bicycle Day in Manila, Philippines in June 2022. Dante Diosina Jr. / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“Because of the people who woke up to the community that was built, there is a strong response,” said Anneka Crisostomo, a sustainable transportation advocate and community manager. Tambe Cycling HubA bike shop and gathering place in Pasig, another city in Metro Manila.

“There are people who are now more mindful of the road space we deserve, because so many of us have seen that it really can be done.”

Many businesses are starting to see the importance in serving the needs of that growing community, said Desena of the Makati Business Club. Restaurants that earn a reputation for being “bike friendly” by treating bikers as valued customers rather than second-class citizens attract valuable word-of-mouth marketing among the cycling community. He also pointed to large companies like McDonald’s and mall chain Robinsons, which have made secure bike parking a priority.

“The majority of our population, and therefore the majority of our market, is the cycling market,” he said. “If you’re a businessman, you can earn more if you serve cyclists and pedestrians.”

Ultimately, Dequena thinks it’s no big secret that Metro Manila needs to do what it takes to keep up its bicycling momentum and provide climate and health benefits to its citizens.

It doesn’t need to be Amsterdam, Paris or even Bogotá, which Desena thinks are more useful comparisons than the affluent cities of the global north. The city just needs its leaders to stick to the initiatives they started during the pandemic — building and maintaining safe bike infrastructure instead of prioritizing cars at every turn.

“If you plan transportation based on your past patterns, you are always running the risk of repeating patterns that have existed in the past,” he said. “So there has to come a point where you say, ‘We want to change what we look like in order to move forward.'”

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