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No Free Lunch

People over cars

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—Some 30 years ago, I rode my trusty bicycle to my classes here, and like other bikers, had to do so on the sidewalks as the motor vehicle traffic along the main thoroughfare, Massachusetts Avenue, was too scary to compete with. I am now delighted to see clearly demarcated bicycle lanes right on the street exclusively for cyclists’ use; motorists encroaching on this space are subject to a steep $100 fine. I learned that the city council adopted a Vehicle Trip Reduction Ordinance in the 1990s as part of a policy toward a sustainable future that includes encouraging all reasonable forms of non-automobile travel, including infrastructure modifications that would promote bicycling and walking.

In our own country, something very similar is brewing, and catching fire. Noted environmental lawyer and Ramon Magsaysay awardee Antonio Oposa Jr.—known for having won landmark class-action suits against the government to protect our forests and Manila Bay, among other things—is at it again. His new crusade aims to bring back the primacy of people in our cities which through time have been planned more and more for cars, to the neglect of the 95 percent among us who don’t own one. This time he is invoking a little-known provision in the Local Government Code that says only 1,000 registered voters in cities are needed to initiate a petition for the city council to propose or amend an ordinance (in municipalities and barangays, it takes only 100 and 50 voters respectively). He likewise cites Executive Order 774 (on the climate change program) declaring that “those who have less in wheels must have more in road.” Oposa has started with Cebu City, whose city council has so far been receptive to his “Road Revolution” campaign to allot 30 percent of city roads to pedestrians, 30 percent to bike riders, 30 percent to collective transportation and 10 percent to road gardens.

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The city council promptly agreed to pilot it in six barangays in its Heritage District, where Cebu City was founded and where its oldest houses that survived the World War II bombing stand. A corresponding city ordinance is now being considered.

Meanwhile, support for the Road Revolution is snowballing. The City Council of Dumaguete City is reportedly initiating moves to declare portions of certain thoroughfares in the city as vehicle-free promenades, starting with Perdices Street and/or Rizal Boulevard. Similarly, the board of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority has reportedly approved the “pedestrianization” of Dewey Avenue, inspired by the advocacies of the Road Revolution movement.

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I wrote a few years ago in this column of the crusade waged by former Mayor Enrique Peñalosa of Bogota, Colombia, who has become a sort of folk hero among those working to make cities around the world more livable. His credo has been that cities are for people, not for cars. As mayor, he surprised many by declining a $15 billion highway program from donors, deciding instead to restrict car use and create quality public transport, amid strong criticism and even ridicule from detractors. The city decided that funds were better spent building a 35-kilometer “greenway” for cyclists and pedestrians, rather than an eight-lane highway proposed by foreign donors that would have primarily benefited those who own cars.

Peñalosa’s out-of-the-box reasoning is that transport, unlike most other development concerns, is a problem that gets worse as a society gets richer. He notes that building more road infrastructure in cities worldwide ultimately leads to more traffic jams, for one simple reason: supply creates even more demand. Without restrictions, building more roads leads more people to buy cars. Thus, he argues that expanding highways as a response to traffic jams is like putting out a fire with gasoline. He shows dozens of starkly contrasting photographs from cities around the world to prove his point. Against photos of cities with wide sidewalks and bikeways that make walking or biking pleasant for rich and poor alike, he juxtaposes photos of cities where pedestrians are forced onto the roadway, thus endangering their lives, because sidewalks are either taken over by parked vehicles or vendor stalls, are too narrow, or non-existent.

Indeed, investments in infrastructure can be anti-poor (and anti-children) if government fails to recognize that: (1) cars are owned by a small minority of the population in most places in the world, and (2) the only means of transport accessible to low income citizens in developing country cities (or children in all cities) is the bicycle.

Peñalosa and the Road Revolution adherents believe that a great city is one that provides much free joy: parks, sidewalks, waterfronts, sports facilities, libraries, quality public education, pedestrian promenades, marvelous waterfronts, and yes, protected bicycle lanes. The last, to Peñalosa, is a fitting symbol of democracy: It shows that a citizen on a $40 bicycle is just as important as one in a $40,000 car.

If we truly believe that cities are for people, then moves must be made to restrict car use. Cities around the world have already shown how, with congestion charges in London and Singapore, parking restrictions in Tokyo, car-free days, and so on. But more than bicycle lanes, cities must also provide a good mass transport system for all this to work. Clean Air Initiative-Asia, another international advocacy group, also pushes for more walkable cities.

All this demands that we all be willing to make a dramatic change in our lifestyles as well. At the rate our environmental sins are catching up with us, we really have no choice.

E-mail: cielito.habito@gmail.com

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TAGS: Bicycle, bicycle lane, bikers, Cambridge, Cebu City, Dumaguete City, environmental lawyer and Ramon Magsaysay awardee Antonio Oposa Jr., Vehicle Trip Reduction Ordinance
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