Bicycles help keep people mobile

Leg power: Residents commuting to work on bicycles in Manila in this file picture. — The Straits Times/ANN

The lowly bicycle has helped millions of Filipinos cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, allowing frontline health workers to get to hospital to save lives, fishmongers to go door to door and many others who just want to get some much-needed sun and exercise.

“They say we Filipinos are resilient. For this pandemic, I don’t think there’s a more fitting symbol of that resilience than the bicycle,” said Melvin Ayensa, 58, an artist and a long-time bike-riding advocate.

The bicycle is now ubiquitous on Philippine roads, with hordes of cyclists racing alongside cars, buses and trucks each day, trying to get to where they need to be.

It wasn’t really a choice that was freely made. When Covid-19 began spreading across the island chain early last year, President Rodrigo Duterte decided that the best option was to emulate China.

So, in March last year, he ordered a hard, sweeping lockdown around Metro Manila, home to a third of the country’s population.

Checkpoints ringed the region that encompassed 16 cities, triggering traffic mayhem.

The checkpoints created bottlenecks that trapped those trying to get to work and back home.

It was not a problem for most of the population who were ordered to stay home. But there were still millions who had to report for work because they were essential – doctors, nurses, cashiers, butchers, janitors, security guards, garbage men, truck drivers – and most could not afford their own cars.

They had to commute but there were very few buses, jeepneys or ride-sharing motorcycles on the road.

The authorities had ordered most to stop operating and the few buses allowed to ply their routes were restricted to ferrying just 30% of their regular capacity. So most commuters had to wait for hours on the road or just walk all the way.

At this point, many rediscovered the bicycle. It was cheap and cost almost nothing to maintain. It didn’t require petrol to run, just a pair of strong legs.

“It sure beats walking,” said Renate Viloria, 37, a nurse who has to cycle 6km to get to the hospital where she works and back to her apartment.

The proportion of people using bicycles jumped from 49% before the March 2020 lockdown to 77.5%, according to a study by the Institute for Labour Studies.

A typical cyclist in Metro Manila would be male, about 35 years old, working in the service sector, with an average income of 20,000 pesos (RM1,600) to 30,000 pesos (RM2,400), the study found.

More than half said they used their bicycles to get to work. Two in five rode for recreation and to run errands, while one per cent said they pedalled for health reasons.

Before the pandemic upended everything, Joseph Tejero, 43, and his wife ran a small stall at a public market selling fish.

But when shelter-at-home restrictions were imposed, people stopped going to the market.

So he outfitted his bicycle with a sidecar carrying two styrofoam coolers with two pails, each filled with fish, a weighing scale and a chopping board, and rode to his customers’ homes instead.

It is hard work, he said. He has to wake up early in the morning to get to a wharf where fresh fish is unloaded by 3am. He buys what he needs and sets off on his regular route, covering about 15km.

Usually, he makes 1,000 pesos (RM82) on a good day, less than what he earned at the public market. Sometimes, there is fish left in his pails.

“That would be our dinner later, and maybe lunch the following day,” he added.

Still, he said, it helps that money is coming in.

For those more fortunate, cycling became a way to be healthier or just to escape the tedium of being cooped up inside their homes all day, seven days a week.

The government is now looking at encouraging people to stick to their bicycles after the pandemic rather than go back to commuting or driving. — The Straits Times/ANN

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