OPINION: Bicycles, bayanihan, and beyond

Aldrin Pelicano

Posted at Apr 21 2020 02:48 AM

The COVID-19 pandemic and the response of governments worldwide have exposed deep inequalities globally, shining a strong light on the devastating limitations of health care in the Philippines, along with the fragility of our social and economic systems.

Steadily, helping hands have come together to help officials – largely local – reduce the load and extend support to workers in the health and sanitation sector as well as communities affected by the quarantine and supply chain disruptions. Truly, acts of citizenship and shared leadership rise during times of crisis, reminding many yet again about the human instinct to respond first with solidarity and empathy in the face of extreme difficulties.

But the crisis is also a time for new thinking, and advocates of inclusive mobility can certainly contribute to the rethinking challenge. The “new normal” brought upon us by COVID-19 carries insights that indicate the many ways cycling can recreate a metropolis more resistant to external shocks while promoting a more resilient workforce and more autonomous neighborhoods where local commerce can flourish.

The Philippine government has placed entire country under the state of public health emergency and extended the lockdown period in Luzon until the end of April. Apart from the obvious boost to flattening the curve of infections, it should provoke us as well to think of the many ways development and mobility are intricately linked. 

Just as critical to see are the many opportunities made available by the crisis. Together, these opportunities demonstrate the possibility of de-linking local development from infrastructure improvement strategies driven almost wholly by the needs of motorists, even as the Mobility Coalition asserts that “fewer than 20% of households” in the National Capital Region alone have access to a private motor vehicle.

The Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) regime has made visible Filipinos truly essential to the economy: health care workers, pharmacists, grocery store employees, garbage collectors, cooks, local market vendors, food delivery riders, cashiers, security guards, and barangay tanods. 

They stand at the frontlines of the struggle against COVID-19. But because public transportation was suspended and alternative transport services severely restricted, countless frontliners have been forced to walk several kilometers daily to and from the hospitals, groceries, community markets, drugstores, and kitchens they serve. 

This was the context that prompted urban planner and bike commuter Keisha Mayuga and her group of friends to organize Life Cycles PH over Facebook immediately after the implementation of the community quarantine in Metro Manila. 

Within days the group grew to include friends of friends from the local cycling community, its Facebook Page getting well over 5,200 likes. Mayuga said the initiative is “rare evidence of the internet’s ability to connect passionate and competent strangers who want to make things a little better” for others.

As of April 5, Life Cycles PH has raised almost Php 1.89 million, turned over 417 bicycles to frontliners, matched more than 317 lenders and borrowers, and delivered to 23 different institutions. 

Yet the real difference for the group has been the ‘social capital’ generated from individuals coming together, from the small team led by Keisha that jumpstarted the effort to donors who contributed generously to the funds collected, and the very people eager to lend their bikes while searching for frontliners keen to borrow them.

American sociologist Robert Putnam defined ‘social capital’ as the connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. The definition deserves pause. 

Activities by Life Cycles PH and other groups in the cycling community continue to take place despite limited mobility. The experience goes against common knowledge indicating a decline of social capital as the difficulty of getting people together increases. Clearly this is not the case given the desire of people to help frontline workers amid the pandemic.

Among core Life Cycles PH volunteers, I helped coordinate the needs assessment of private hospitals in Pasig City where the group's base of operations first started. Phone calls I made in our first week resulted in the delivery of 12 bicycles to two hospitals, with staff coming from within the city and neighboring localities and towns as well. 

I was also asked a few weeks ago by Tern Bicycles Philippines, a longstanding partner of MNL Moves, the bicycle advocacy group I founded in 2018, to facilitate lending bikes, too. I drove to Quezon City, picked up the bikes, had them tuned up and ready for use, then reached out to nurses working at a private hospital in Pasig via the Life Cycles PH Community in Facebook. 

My act is a tiny contribution to the achievements of the volunteer-driven cycling community. And more continue to help frontliners acquire bicycles and personal mobility devices such as electric scooters. Because small things add up and everyone matters.

Largely due to limited movement imposed by the quarantine, challenges for advocates persist. Life Cycles PH for instance can only deliver bicycles with the help of hospitals receiving bike donations in terms of moving across cities and checkpoints and the certifications issued by city government partners. 

In the meantime, as frontliner requests for bikes continue to rise, Life Cycles PH announced their intention to raise P1.57 million more to deploy 314 additional bikes for 23 hospitals.

Given the emergence of more neighborhood efforts, the question of formal institutional involvement has become even more crucial for sustainability reasons. As a bike advocacy group, MNL Moves has called on national officials (particularly the Metro Manila Development Authority or MMDA) and local government units to support the growing number of transport cyclists in Metro Manila.

The current ECQ period presents an opportunity to adopt "sanctioned" tactical urbanism to build pop-up bike lanes in Metro Manila using low-cost materials such as cardboard cylinders, wooden crates or boxes, and orange cones and plastic barriers.

Local governments and MMDA can easily establish a Metro Manila-wide bicycle lane network consisting of national and local roads during and after the COVID-19 emergency period. 

Government should likewise invest in different types of bike infrastructure such as conventional bike lanes along the Circumferential Roads (EDSA, C5), cycle tracks or protected bike lanes along the Radial Roads (Shaw Boulevard, Ortigas Avenue), as well as bicycle boulevards.

This helps ensure the safety of the growing number of frontline workers cycling to work and the public making supply trips via bicycles. It is also an opportunity to use the bike lane network to help test and learn more about approaches that can help establish permanent cycling infrastructure in Metro Manila.

Bicycles were explicitly stated as an accepted mode of transport by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases. This is a good move. We have already informed our officials that they are not alone and that other cities have established admirable precedents. Bogota, Melbourne, New York, and Mexico City are among the cities around the world that now promote bicycling as a proven ‘social distancing’ transport choice to combat the pandemic. As we speak they are building more bike lane networks.

Pasig City Mayor Vico Sotto signed an Executive Order last March 25 declaring biking as an essential means of transportation under the ECQ. The City Council supported the measure by passing a similar resolution five days later. By encouraging bicycle shops to stay open, ordering the improvement of existing bicycle infrastructure, and treating walking as a viable means of transportation, the Pasig City government reflects the kind of leadership the public needs. Because cycling has a strategic role to play in local transport resilience, with or without an emergency setting. 

Past the current crisis, and in anticipation of future ones, it's time we take steps in harnessing the immense social capital and resulting civic solidarity produced by our extraordinary times. Let us remember the acts of citizenship that have kept countless Filipino households afloat and alive, and the bicycles that have carried many to the places of their calling.

We need to deliver enduring, meaningful change, based on abundant lessons taught by this crisis. If we pedal forward as one, we shall arrive together at a common destination, surviving and thriving amidst whatever crisis may confront us in the years ahead. 

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Aldrin Pelicano is the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities’ advisor on inclusive mobility. An urban planner, he set up MNL Moves, a growing community that promotes cycling as transportation in Metro Manila. 
 

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.