Long live the motorcycle?
The night before I write this piece, I have a dream. I try to come home early but my car crashes into a motorcycle that ignored the lights signaling that I was about to make a right turn. The crash sends the motorcycle into a tumble, but thankfully — miraculously — the driver survives unhurt. Just as I discover that he was in fact delivering the Thai salad I had ordered ahead of my arrival, I wake up.
In reality, motorcycles are — to borrow the words of the poet Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta — a city dweller’s “best dream and worst nightmare.” On one hand, they transport our food, deliver our online shopping purchases, hand over our documents to those who still insist (in this day and age!) on physical signatures, and allow us to travel quickly from where we are loved to where we are needed.
On the other hand, they constitute a peril for both the motorcycle riders and the rest of the public. I actually harbor fears of crashing into a motorbike given that they seemingly materialize out of nowhere, especially at night when many of them don’t even have lights. In Katipunan where I used to live, motorcycles would even try to slip through the sidewalks that double as parking spaces, posing a danger to the Ateneans on their way to Regis Center. Simply put, many motorcycle drivers think traffic rules don’t apply to them.
Perhaps my view of motorcycles is also skewed by the many victims of motorcycle crashes I have seen in the Philippine General Hospital emergency room. While being in the ER can distort our perception of various issues (for instance, we might end up thinking, like Duterte, that drugs destroy the brain), the idea that motorcycles are particularly perilous is backed by World Health Organization statistics showing that motorcycle riders account for more than 50 percent of the over 10,000 annual road crash casualties in the country.
But the riders themselves offer a different perspective. My friend Philippe Arenillo, an entrepreneur, says he drives a Yamaha Nmax from Parañaque to Pasig: “With a car, the route used to cost me about P450 per day. But now, with a motorcycle, it just costs me P50-P60… at just half the time!” With a brand-new motorbike selling for just the price of a high-end smartphone, it is much more affordable compared to cars recently made even more expensive by TRAIN.
Philippe’s sentiments are shared by many Filipinos, which is probably why over a million motorbikes are sold each year in the country. Not counting the increasing number of people who work for motorcycle-based services like Angkas and GrabExpress, it is no accident that the rise in motorcycle use has corresponded with the deterioration of the MRT and the further worsening of our traffic situation.
It’s also worth noting that while motorcycles violate a lot of rules, those rules, just like the roads themselves, were designed for cars. Moreover, as the anthropologist Allison Truitt put it, motorcycles “elude attempts to regulate their movement precisely because they embody the very mobility promised by economic reforms”—a predicament as true in Manila as it is in Truitt’s field site, Saigon.
For now, it seems that all we can do is to tighten our hands on the wheel or the handlebar.
My only experience driving a motorbike was in Nicaragua, where the only options to reach a volcano I wanted to climb were to hire a (very expensive) van or to rent a motorbike. Prodded by a boisterous youth named Moses, a Canadian backpacker and I were cajoled into taking the latter option—and my part-exhilarated, part-horrified self ended up driving an old Honda scooter 60 kilometers over rolling highways and rough roads.
Even from that singular experience, I can understand the excitement — amid the necessity and the risk — that entices people to join those riders’ clubs that troop to Tanay on weekends; the same excitement that leads some riders to pursue their Schumacher predilections. Philippe, who says that his wife made him take a motorcycle safety course, acknowledges as much. “It can feel like playing a video game,” he tells me. “Only a bit more exciting.”
If only — like a video game, or a misbegotten dream — one could easily start all over again after a fall.
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