Bicycles can fix Manila’s transport and pollution woes


  • Environment
  • Thursday, 23 Jun 2016

When a fire tore through Roger Sarsua’s neighbourhood in a slum of Metro Manila, the Philippines, one of the first things he rescued, as smoke engulfed his house, was his bicycle.

“I was still pretty lucky because I was able to save my bicycle,” the father of six said in Kadena (Chains), a documentary that chronicles his life as a cycle commuter in this city.

Sarsua logs a 48km round-trip daily, from home to his workplace, Mondays to Saturdays. Aside from sidestepping the city’s traffic gridlock, Sarsua saves more than 3000 pesos (RM270) a month on transportation costs.

“For three million people living in slums around Manila, that amount of money is crucial,” says Julia Nebrija, a Manila-based urban consultant for the World Bank and an ardent bike advocate.

A speaker at the Velo-City Global 2016 cycling conference in Taipei earlier this year, Nebrija talks about the power of cycling to transform cities.

For folks like Sarsua, cycling is the cheapest and best mode of travel. Yet, bike infrastructure and support are sorely lacking in the megacity of Metro Manila which has 24 million inhabitants.

Manila has the world's worst traffic according to a Waze survey. Photo: Reuters
Manila has the world's worst traffic according to a Waze survey. Photo: Reuters

World’s worst traffic

Eighty percent of city folks are commuting via inefficient, fragmented public transport, Nebrija explains. During rush hours, commuters wait two hours or more just to board the jam-packed 16.9km Metro Rail Transit (MRT) or the 33km Light Rail Transit. Buses only serve major roads, so to get to the stations, commuters have to use other “connectors” such as jeepneys and pedicabs (trishaws).

“Some days, to travel 10km, you have to use a combination of all these ‘connectors’,” says Nebrija, also the founder of the Inclusive Mobility Network which advocates sustainable transportation.

“It’s extremely tedious, time-consuming and exhausting.”

It doesn’t help that Metro Manila has the “worst traffic in the world” according to Waze’s Global Driver Satisfaction Index released in 2015.

In March 2015, CNN Philippines reporters did an experiment to find out how long it would take to travel 20km in Metro Manila. Three reporters set out at 6.30am and reached their destinations in two hours and 15 minutes by bus; 41 minutes by train and one hour and 22 minutes by car respectively. And that was on a “good” traffic day.

When Manila is flooded, bicycles and trishaws can still get through. Filepic
When Manila is flooded, bicycles and trishaws can still get through. Filepic

On a “bad” day, when there’s a road accident or flash flood, traffic gridlock lasts up to six hours and the city “becomes paralysed,” as one Manila daily described it. The city’s traffic jams cost US$57mil (RM233mil) a day in potential income, according to The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)’s estimate.

“The hours spent on commuting instead of with families or enjoying other things are not quantifiable,” says Nebrija, a Filipino-American.

A healthy economic growth of 5.8% GDP and a rising middle class has resulted in 25,000 new cars on the road each month. The World Health Organisation has declared the number of road fatalities and deaths by air pollution as a public health crisis in the Philippines.

Nebrija adds, “We’re a few decades behind the people-oriented planning that other cities are enjoying today.”

Cheap and effective

What’s the solution to worsening traffic jams and pollution?

“Biking has a huge role to play in solving transportation needs,” Nebrija asserts. “It is affordable and accessible to everyone, including those with limited mobility. Investing in cycling infrastructure is feasible, cost-effective and takes a shorter time compared to erecting a highway or a new train line.

“For the same price of constructing a flyover (highway overpass), we can invest in 400,000 bicycles, 100,000 pedicabs (trishaws) and build 800km of bike lanes,” says Nebrija who commutes by bicycle or public transport.

Last year, she embarked on a fact-finding mission, traversing Metro Manila by bicycle. Many locals hop on their bikes to cover short or long distances to work, shop and school or for social outings, she discovered.

“Bicycles can replace short or long trips taken by other modes,” she notes. Bicycles also provide the “last mile connection” – how to get from the MRT or bus stop to your final destination.

She adds that when the streets were flooded after a major typhoon in 2012, bicycles were one of the best ways to move around.

Different modes of transport in Metro Manila. Photo: Third World Studies Centre, UP

In a 2013 survey, 87% of the Philippines labour force (mainly construction workers, messengers and low-income earners) or 37.9 million Filipinos used bicycles as the primary mode of transportation.

“People are using bicycles but unfortunately, they are doing that at a high risk due to the lack of support,” observes Nebrija.

To date, Metro Manila has six unprotected and disjointed bike lanes built on sidewalks, totaling about 20km, along major roads. In January, a 30-year-old single mother of two was killed whilst cycling on an unprotected bike lane. She had just dropped off one of her kids at school.

Her death triggered a Change.org petition for more and safer bike lanes in the Philippines. From 2005-2014, there were 196 cycling deaths; one cyclist is killed per week and two are injured per day, according to statistics from the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA).

Bike advocate and urban planner Julia Nebrija believes cycling is the solution for Manilas gridlock. Photo: Julia Nebrija
Bike advocate and urban planner Julia Nebrija believes cycling is the solution for Manilas gridlock. Photo: Julia Nebrija

“Safety is a major barrier to new users and it’s no wonder people who can afford it choose other modes of transportation,” says Nebrija.

But she laments that there’s no major transportation policy. Various agencies are involved but there’s no clear leader or strategy. Current projects in the pipeline include extensions of the rail network and a bus rapid transit network in the coming year.

Community change

But thanks to the spirit of barkada (“a group of friends”), grassroots movements are alive and kicking in Metro Manila.

“Filipinos love doing things in groups, we love cycling and we want to change things,” says Nebrija.

Manila-based advocacy groups like National Bicycle Organization, Firefly Brigade, Tiklop Society, Manila Fixed Gear and Share the Road Movement organise monthly mass rides, teach people how to ride safely on the streets and raise money for helmets and bike racks.

The Firefly Brigade, a cycling advocacy group, and a Greenpeace polar bear, mark a previous World Car Free Day in Manila. Filepic
The Firefly Brigade, a cycling advocacy group, and a Greenpeace polar bear, mark a previous World Car Free Day in Manila. Filepic

They also promote cycling education for school kids, host bike festivals, work on influencing policies and propagate cycling issues via the media. These groups have more than 15,000 “likes” on their respective community Facebook pages.

The Tour of the Fireflies, an annual bike tour around Metro Manila, has been held for 16 years. The recent one on November 2015 had 15,000 participants.

A nationwide movement, Share the Road, holds periodic events where major roads are blocked off to illustrate how buses, private vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians can share designated spaces.

Recreational cyclists are on the rise, and cycling-related news is making the headlines as traffic worsens in the past two years. All the hard work is gaining traction.

“For the first time, the Head of the MMDA is saying that we have to think about moving people, not vehicles,” says Nebrija.

The Office of the President is handing awards to leaders of the road-sharing movement.

This less-abled cyclist was seen in Manila using his crutch to propel himself along. Photo: Julia Nebrija
This less-abled cyclist was seen in Manila using his crutch to propel himself along. Photo: Julia Nebrija

A Bike Ordinance was passed in Quezon City (part of Metro Manila) and it requires all businesses like malls, banks and restaurants to provide bicycle parking.

Advocates have also contributed to the proposed Sustainable Transportation Bill.

“It’s important to find partners for this effort in all sectors – everyday citizens, government agencies, private sector – you have to build a community to build change,” says Nebrija.

“This is the story of how bicycles give millions of people equal access to a better life.”


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