Today is National Bicycle Day.
Then President Rodrigo Duterte signed Proclamation No. 1052 in November 2020 declaring the fourth Sunday of November as National Bicycle Day to highlight the importance of nonmotorized transportation “as a means of fostering sustainable development and promoting environmental health that is conducive to the physical health and well-being of Filipinos.” The proclamation cited Republic Act No. 8749, or the Philippine Clean Air Act of 1999, which mandates the state to provide a comprehensive management program for air pollution, including promoting nonmotorized transport.
That the proclamation was signed in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of how bicycles provided a reliable transport alternative at a time when public transportation was limited and private vehicles were banned from the roads. In fact, a biking culture flourished over the pandemic, local governments started providing bike lanes to ensure the safety of bikers, and there was so much promise that bicycles—a cleaner, healthier mode of transport—will be preferred even when routines, including traffic, return to normal.
But whatever gains may have been achieved at the height of the pandemic needs to be sustained. From how things appear, however, returning to normal may also mean bike lanes are no longer for the sole use of bicycles but can also be used for motor vehicles especially when there are traffic jams.
It is hardly surprising that motor vehicles are given priority by policymakers but it should never be normalized, especially considering the data: based on nine national surveys conducted by the Social Weather Stations from May 2020 to April 2022, there are more bicycle owners than car owners. The pollster said that for every car owner, there were four bicycle owners; in the National Capital Region, more households owned bicycles than cars and motorcycles, and the same was true even in rural areas, where motorcycles are more commonly owned. Why then do cyclists need to beg for bike lanes and for their safety and security on the roads?
The rising popularity of bicycles is bolstered by data from the Bureau of Customs, which reported that bicycle imports jumped by 112 percent in 2020 to 2.1 million units from 1 million units in 2019. Back then, the government pushed for promoting cycling as a mode of transport to address the public transport shortage, and pushed for building protected bike lanes.
Within nine months, the World Bank noted in a report, the government achieved building 500 kilometers of bike lanes along national roads. “This multi-sectoral effort went a long way in raising the profile of cycling as a reliable and sustainable form of transport. Importantly, it also empowered and inspired local governments and communities to add on to the new network by building their own bike lanes,” it said. This 500-kilometer network is broken down as follows: Metro Manila, 313.12 km; Metro Cebu, 129.47 km; and Metro Davao, 54.74 km. Last year, the Department of Transportation has already requested Google to include bike lane routes in the dashboard of Google Maps to help cyclists on their daily commutes.
This only shows that things can be done when there is political will. Perhaps a model for local government units is Iloilo City, whose I-Bike Program promoting bike culture won this year’s Galing Pook Award. The city, which dubs itself the “bike capital of the Philippines,” has built an 11-km bike network that has improved connectivity with establishments and made it easier for locals to bike and walk safely. The city has won the gold award at the Bike Lane Awards 2021, which recognizes “exemplary efforts” of local governments “that have pushed for active transportation through the establishment of new infrastructure and the implementation of various support programs in the last two years,” and the country’s most bicycle-friendly city at the Mobility Awards 2021.
All these are good developments in a country that has traditionally prioritized moving cars instead of people, and where bicycles are considered a “poor man’s ride.” But the government must improve the infrastructure to ensure safety for bikers, since most bike lanes were merely carved out of existing lanes used by vehicles. Facilities such as parking for bikes and connectivity to offices and commercial establishments must also be put in place. More importantly, there must be proper law enforcement: Bikers must wear the necessary protective equipment such as helmets, and motor vehicles should not be allowed to enter bike lanes.
There is still a long way to go before the Philippines can consider itself bike-friendly — this would need a major shift in mindset that has been biased toward car ownership as well as education for all road users to learn to share space and respect each other’s rights. The infrastructure has already taken shape, the government must continue to work on policies to complement it.