The Senate approved recently a bill requiring safe pathways on public roads nationwide for non-motorists. These lanes will reportedly be exclusive to those who walk, bike, or use non-motorized transport to get around. Certain streets can also be designated as exclusive to cyclists and pedestrians, while parking spaces must be constructed for bicycles and other non-motorized vehicles.
In early 2019, a year before the COVID-19 pandemic started, I wrote that our future would involve some form of pedaling, noting that there are more to bicycles than just personal transport. After all, one can pedal a bicycle to also pump water, generate electricity, mill or grind grain, or sharpen knives — it is a simple machine that has countless applications.
But I also advocated for national rules to cover electric and non-motorized or mechanically propelled transport, even those pedaled by humans, that are to be used on public roads. And this was based on the premise that anyone using the road is expected to be familiar with and to abide by the rules of the road, and anything used on the road is expected to be roadworthy.
The just-approved Senate bill is a step in the right direction. By mandating the designation of safe pathways nationwide for non-cars and non-motorcycles, then we can presumably have better order on roads and better safety for all road users. What the Senate bill lacks, however, is a vision towards regulating users and their personal mobility transport or devices.
Cars are tested for safety prior to registration. Insurance is required of all car owners. Drivers are tested and licensed before being allowed on roads. Registration, insurance, and license are renewed periodically. Neither registration and safety check and insurance, nor testing and licensing, currently apply to owners and/or users of personal mobility devices like bicycles and scooters, and their electric motor versions.
By international convention and national law, bicycles can legally “share” the road. Now, with the Senate bill, they also get their own designated lanes on public thoroughfares. Yet, bicycles are not subject to any form of road users’ tax. Nor are registration or licensing required. In my opinion, anything that runs on an electric motor or any other type of motor, or a combination of pedal and motor, and used on public roads should be registered, and its user licensed. To do so, requires a national law.
For anything that is pedaled and runs only on human power, we should also consider some rules to apply, with corresponding penalties for user violations. We should have some national guide regarding the use on public roads of all “modes of transport” other than cars or motorcycles, electric or otherwise, even those drawn by animals or pedaled by humans. The main consideration is public safety.
Consider what other countries have at present, and pick up what we may deem best practices. In Japan, for instance, bicycles are registered when purchased, primarily as a protection against theft. The retailer puts a police registration sticker on the bicycle and gives the buyer the registration card.
In Switzerland, children under seven years old can use bicycles on roads only if accompanied or supervised by a person of at least 16 years of age. Also, personal liability insurance can cover damage caused to third parties in an accident involving a bicycle. Bicycles can also be covered by household insurance. But a pedal-assisted electric bicycle or e-bike requires a motor-assisted bicycle registration plate. And this registration is renewed yearly. Licenses are also issued to those who use motorized bicycles, which can use only specially designated cycle lanes. Safety helmets are also required for e-bike users.
In Denmark, a bicycle is required to have one white light in front and one red light at the back; reflectors on wheels, pedals, and on the frame; a functioning bike bell mounted on the handlebar; and, functioning brakes on both wheels. And bicycles are subject to the same traffic rules as cars. Cyclists cannot carry another person on a one-person bike, unless it’s a child in a child seat; cannot use a mobile phone while cycling; and, must use hand signals. Violations are fined.
Denmark does not license cyclists, but a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) system has been in place in Demark since 1942, which provided all bicycles in Denmark with a unique code composed of a combination of letters and digits embedded into the bicycle frame and consists of a manufacturer code, a serial number, and construction year code. Since 1948, it has been illegal to sell bicycle frames in Denmark without an embedded VIN.
As for road use rules, the present national rule is “one vehicle-one lane,” which means no splitting lanes. And this applies to all types of vehicles, including motorcycles. The same must apply to bicycles. Motorcycles, bicycles, and scooters should not be in between lanes, in between cars, and in between cars and sidewalks or curbs. They shouldn’t be on sidewalks either. More important, they should never counter flow.
Any motorist or pedestrian will tell you that these rules are practiced more in breach. However, by just designating safe pathways, bike lanes, and exclusive lanes, such misbehavior will not be curbed. More than safe pathways, we also need national regulation to counter and penalize misbehavior, and to ensure safety on our roads for all, and not just for cyclists.
Such regulations cannot just be local, anymore. There are now thousands of bicycles and scooters, electric or otherwise, on our streets — used for delivery, for going to work, for making short trips from home — and all these are unlicensed, unregulated. We even see children on bicycles and scooters, and skateboards, on sidewalks and public roads. There is no national law regulating them.
And this is where I lend my support to House Bill 8156, which proposes a framework for a national law for bicycle use. And, as I am unclear which laws or rules cover the use of motorized bicycles, motorized and non-motorized scooters, and skateboards on public roads, I hope the bill can eventually be expanded to cover all types of personal mobility devices. There should be a unified national code for all types of land transportation.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council