It was the Christmas break but I had agreed to meet, at my residence, members of a student organization called UP Bike Share to discuss an important project they were formulating.
Our vice chancellor for community affairs arrived early and as we discussed the meeting agenda, I noticed three bikes coming up the driveway.
“Good,” I told the vice chancellor, “the students are practicing what they preach.”
Then I saw several more bikes coming in and remarked, “What a big group of students, and how nice to see them all using bikes.”
But when I went out to check I found out that these were not the students but a group of custodial workers who had dropped by, taking a chance that I would be home, so they could talk to me about some urgent workplace concerns.
Since the students hadn’t arrived yet, I agreed to meet with the workers right away. And after our meeting, I complimented them for using bicycles, telling them we hoped to make the University of the Philippines Diliman even more friendly for bike users. Of the eight who met with me, only one arrived on a motorbike. All the others cycled in.
All of that reminded me that bikes are catching on, across classes. For the upper classes, bikes are both countercultural and fashionable. The costs of their bikes run into tens of thousands of pesos; add a few more thousands for their gear, and their bikes can be even more expensive than a used car.
Many bike simply to keep fit while others see biking as recreational. On weekends you’ll see cars racing down SLEx, bikes loaded behind or on top, as they head to Laguna, Cavite, or Batangas, where they chase the thrill of driving against the wind, on countryside trails. Others take their biking even more seriously, with entire bands of bikers making their way up and down grueling “cardio” trails that test the limits of the heart.
The group UP Bike Share reflects a countercultural trend, a lifestyle choice to use bikes instead of cars as part of a commitment to a greener environment. The Firefly Brigade was one of the earliest biking advocate groups and last year had its 16th annual Tour of the Fireflies that takes its members around Metro Manila to encourage more people to use bikes. The UP Bike Share is new, but taps into the older groups for ideas as well as assistance for biker safety training.
There’s a tendency to think this biking “mania” is recent, but we had a Tour of Luzon that started as early as 1955 and evolved, taking on other names like the Marlboro Tour (huff, puff, huff, puff). Today it is known by a more sosyal-sounding Le Tour de Filipinas.
The Tour of Luzon had quite a following, especially among the middle- and low-income groups, but the enthusiasm came from being a spectator rather than one of the cyclists. Today, I think the number of bikers has increased, including those from lower-income groups, like the custodial workers who met with me. Bikes have become more affordable, with a flood of cheap imports from China, as well as used ones sold in “Japan surplus” stores. The latter bikes are quite sturdy; many are made in Japan but others are also from China.
It’s a matter of economics for low-income bikers. For those who live kilometers away from their workplace, bikes cut down on transportation expenses. The savings can be significant when you consider how transportation expenses take up a large percentage of a daily wage, or, for students, their daily allowance.
Not only are the bikes more economical, they are also faster, and more efficient, for getting through the traffic—again important for workers and students.
Motorists vs bikers
So far I haven’t been using the adjective “safer,” which is what bikes can be. All things being equal, if a bike hits another bike, the chances of serious injury are low. I studied in Amsterdam, which has a huge biking population, and I don’t remember hearing of any death resulting from two bikes colliding.
Unfortunately, our roads don’t just have bikes. They have to compete with cars, jeepneys, trucks and buses, and simple physics tells us that if a car or truck hits a bike, the consequences can be dire.
Which was what happened last Tuesday, when 30-year-old Lorelie Cruz Melevo was killed at around 7 a.m., right after she had taken one of her two children to school. Melevo was a solo parent, making the story of her death even more heartrending. She was hit by a truck. The driver claimed that he hadn’t even noticed the biker.
Melevo was cycling on Mayor Gil Fernando Avenue in Marikina, on a bike lane, one of several for which the We Want Bike Lanes in RP Movement had fought for years. The movement began in 2010, after Alfredo Padilla, a 70-year-old construction worker, who was on his bike, was killed by a truck in Pandacan, Manila. The bikers’ group was successful in getting bike lanes established for Manila, Marikina and Quezon City.
With Melevo’s death, bikers are pushing the envelope, pointing out that a designated bike lane, even if painted in a different color or labeled “For Bikes,” will not be enough. They want barriers so cars and trucks don’t go into the bike lane and endanger the lives of cyclists.
We’re going to see more battles of this type in the years ahead, as more people take to bikes. Over at UP Diliman we do have bike lanes, but we still recognize the need to put in more safety measures… and to provide safety education for bikers and for motorists.
We should be pushing to have this kind of education integrated into school curricula. Biking safety should be introduced early. In countries like the Netherlands, parents have no problems letting their very young children bike in the streets because the kids have been trained well.
The bigger problem we have in the Philippines is convincing motorists that bikers have their rights. Discrimination against bikers follows class lines; motorists tend to be more careful if the biker looks upper-class. I’ve been told by some bikers, women especially, that they’re sometimes even bullied by motorists.
So the race continues, one that pits motorists against cyclists—and I should say here that “motorists” include people on motorbikes, whose numbers are also increasing, together with more risks of collision, injury and death.
The government must recognize that encouraging bicycles and bikers, especially through safe bike lanes, will help to solve so many of the problems we have, from reduced pollution, to a healthier, fitter population. What we should be teaching in schools is getting people to look at bikers as everyday heroes who challenge the norms, preaching good health and saving the environment.
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