Pedaling the bike culture forward
By force of necessity, many Filipinos living through the pandemic are realizing the practicality of bicycling, the bike-ability of most of our everyday destinations — and, yes, the pleasures of riding a bike. Aside from being an enjoyable activity, cycling is also economical and convenient, not to mention beneficial for health and the environment.
I number myself among them. For the longest time, I have been reluctant to embrace cycling as a hobby or mode of transport, partly because of my singular pursuit of mountain climbing — and partly because I had safety issues, having had a bike accident as a child and knowing how notorious our drivers can be (in Metro Manila alone, at least 19 people were killed in bicycle-related road crashes in 2019).
Thankfully, my friends have convinced me that bicycling can be manageable in our cities, and that it can complement my hiking. Moreover, as Howie Severino, who has guided me in the bike trails around Taal Lake during those halcyon, pre-pandemic days, once told me, “We need people to actually use their bikes if we are to make the Philippines a bike-friendly country.”
Thus, nowadays, I find myself looking forward to near-daily bike rides that take me to Laguna’s backcountry roads, allowing me to discover each town, one barangay after another. When you bike, you can easily stop to buy things—as when I buy pineapples in Calauan not far from the sloping piña fields — or even pause to enjoy the beautiful scenery. Hiking will always be my first love, but when I first reached San Pablo via the uphill route through Imoc, I felt as if I had reached a summit.
Is it recreation, exercise, or transport? I don’t think it is useful to make any distinction. In any case, the government should encourage bicycling for whatever reason. On top of the benefits I mentioned above, it is one of the safest activities insofar as COVID-19 is concerned, especially when you ride by yourself and practice physical distancing.
Thankfully, there is recognition from the IATF that active transport is the way forward, both during and after the pandemic. However, as early as now, there are signs of wavering commitment among our government agencies, as evidenced by how quickly the bike lanes in Edsa seem to have been abandoned. Given this tilted policy terrain, how can we sustain what my colleague Segundo Eclar Romero called an “emergent bike culture”?
First of all, as Howie said, we need to keep using our bikes — and consider using one if we haven’t already. Having more people cycling will contribute to the bicycle economy, normalize bikes as part of our roads, and encourage more people to join the movement. I am especially calling on our public officials to bike, as it will make them more effective advocates and policymakers.
Second, we need to keep demanding for inclusive bike infrastructure — from bike parking (which is still difficult to find) to dedicated bike lanes. There have been welcome commitments from LGUs, but we need to be more forceful, and supportive of the bicycle activists and NGOs who are at the forefront of raising cyclists’ concerns. As the urban transport planner Danielle Guillen reminds me, there must also be equitable access to bikes, which remain unaffordable to many Filipinos.
Cyclists, of course, are not exempt from the rules of the road, hence the need for education. But far more often, they are on the receiving end of vehicles not following those rules. Thus, we also need an enabling environment for cycling, one that treats bikes on equal footing with other vehicles. “The keyword here is respect,” Joint Task Force (JTF) COVID Shield chief Guillermo Eleazar said last month, adding: “Just like drivers of trucks, buses, and private vehicles, bicycle riders also have the right to use the roads.”
Such statements notwithstanding, however, the fact that Howie — himself a COVID-19 survivor — was apprehended by police for taking off his mask to drink water, and that some LGUs are even thinking of requiring people to register their bikes, speaks of how unreasonable or misguided our policies can be in their inception and implementation.
Even so, with more and more people taking to the streets with their bikes, our current situation remains an opportune moment for bicycling. Despite the uphill climb ahead, we must pedal forward a bike culture that can revolutionize not just our transport system but also our way of life.
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