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Gridlocked Philippine capital tries to embrace bikes amid pandemic

Bicycle commuters cross the EDSA-Aurora intersection in Quezon City. — PHILIPPINE STAR/ MIGUEL DE GUZMAN

By Arjay L. Balinbin, Senior Reporter

ENZO C. PAYOT, a 32-year-old casino dealer from near the Philippine capital, started biking seven kilometers to work in October after getting infected with the coronavirus.

“After getting the virus, I was traumatized and avoided the jeepney,” he said by telephone. “So I bought a bike.”

City dwellers from Paris to Tokyo and Manila — notorious for its traffic jams — are hopping on bikes as governments around the world cut public transportation to contain the pandemic.

Global bicycle sales have surged to a point where even Taiwan’s Giant, the world’s biggest bike maker, has struggled to meet demand.

Traffic congestion in Metro Manila eased to 53% last year from 71% a year earlier as President Rodrigo R. Duterte locked it down amid a coronavirus pandemic that has sickened 1.15 million and killed almost 20,000 people.

But it was still the fourth most congested city in the world, with a 30-minute trip taking 53% longer, according to Amsterdam-based TomTom International B.V.

Many Filipinos started riding bicycles as public transportation was shut during the first lockdown in mid-March last year. The government also began creating more bike lanes.

A law that provided a stimulus package cited the role of bicycles as an additional mode of transportation, allotting P1.1 billion for a national bike lane project.

Of the total, P800 million will be used to build more than 338 kilometers of bike lanes in Manila, the capital and nearby cities, while P150 million will be used to build a 140-kilometer bike lane in Cebu City in central Philippines. A 60-kilometer bike lane worth P150 million was also planned for Davao City, Mr. Duterte’s hometown.

A poll by the Social Weather Stations in November showed that 87% of Filipinos thought bicycles and pedestrians should be prioritized over public vehicles.

The government had built 296 kilometers of bike lanes as of April, complete with pavement markings, bollards, curbs and solar studs, Transportation Secretary Arthur P. Tugade told an online news briefing last month.

The vision is for every local government to have its own bike lanes that will be interconnected to create a network, Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) Chairman Benjamin de Castro Abalos, Jr. told the same briefing.

The state seeks to build 535 kilometers of bike lanes in Metro Manila, Cebu and Davao by yearend.

Mr. Tugade said the government’s push for the use of bicycles would likely continue after the pandemic.

“Active transport,” which is part of the government’s pandemic response, would help people keep social distance and make them more physically and mentally active, said Dasha Marice S. Uy, program officer at the Health department.

“A lot of people feel less stressed when they bike,” she told the briefing. “They become happier and more productive as well. Physically, they will prevent the most common lifestyle diseases that we see in many Filipinos like diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.”

The main EDSA highway is enforcing “road dieting” by reducing the size of car lanes and allotting a lane for bicycles. “It’s still the same number of vehicles on the same road, but you now have space for the bike lanes,” Mr. Abalos said.

The MMDA is also installing more closed-circuit television cameras to monitor the highway.

The Transportation department is also building 34 bike-sharing stations within the buffer of the EDSA corridor.

Transport expert Rene S. Santiago doesn’t seem to share the government’s enthusiasm for bike lanes.

“Once the pandemic is over and public transport goes back to normal, there will be very few who will bike to work,” he said by telephone. “That has been Marikina City’s experience. They were the first to build bike lanes.”

He also doubts that cycling will become part of the public transport culture in the Philippines under the so-called new normal.

“Ask any Filipino if they learned to bike when they were kids. Most of them bike for leisure — the rich ones who buy expensive bikes and form groups,” Mr. Santiago said in Filipino.

“There’s nothing wrong with that. But bikes are unlikely to become a normal transport mode. Once the typhoons and floods come, they will all disappear.”

“Infrastructure will be wasted, he said. “We’re used to that. We have so many projects that get wasted.”

Mr. Santiago said the bike lanes on EDSA are a bad idea and hazardous, noting that bike lanes should be built on secondary roads where there are fewer cars.

“They look at The Netherlands as a model,  but the Dutch have a different culture. They learn how to bike early, they have cool weather and their sidewalks are good,” he said.

“Some bike lane proponents are green advocates who are sincere, while others are Europe copycats suffering from colonial mentality,” Mr. Santiago said, adding that the government should prioritize sidewalks instead.

“Most of us walk. Even after you take your ride, you walk. So the majority of trips that are not served properly are sidewalks,” he said. “If you really want to improve active transport, sidewalks should be given the highest priority instead of bicycles.”

Aldrin O. Pelicano, MNL Moves founder, an urban planner and bike advocate, begs to disagree.

“People will go back to regular transport modes if there are no alternatives,” he said in a Zoom Cloud Meetings interview. “The very important question is, what are we doing right now?”

While he lauds the government for building bike lanes, he doubts whether the public was consulted about the matter. “Even their design guidelines have room for improvement. But we still appreciate their effort.”

He said people would only embrace bikes as a permanent mode of transportation if there is interconnection. “The network should be complete and connected, not piecemeal. The design should also be safe and comfortable.”

Mr. Payot, the casino dealer mentioned at the outset, said car drivers should learn to respect cyclists on the road.

“They might be unaware of how bikers help reduce traffic congestion, or maybe that’s just how they are,” he said.

“Sometimes a car or motorcycle will try to get close to you in the bike lane. Sometimes a taxi will park on the lane waiting for a passenger or a vendor will stand in your way, forcing you to get out of the lane and cheat death.”

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