When Aurora Lim watches her husband, Erwin, head off to their sign-making business in Pasay City from their home in Quezon City, a part of her is terrified for the journey that awaits him.
Now if he were taking his car for the 19-kilometer trip, which would typically take two or so hours through morning gridlock, you’d say she’s overreacting. But Erwin doesn’t use his car to go to work – he instead rides a bicycle.
Many of you would say Erwin is crazy. Why on Earth would he eschew his car for a bike – an inherently unstable vehicle that leaves him so exposed to the elements, his skeleton functions as the crumple zone – to go long distances in the city, even if he does ride through less-congested side streets?
“On a bike, I can get from my house to my office, and vice versa, in one hour,” Erwin said in a phone interview. “Regardless of the congestion I encounter, I can do that one hour consistently.”
Good but deadly
The World Health Organization (WHO) said in its 2015 Global Status Report on Road Safety that non-motorized means of transportation, such as walking and cycling, are ways to not only reduce road congestion and urban pollution resulting from rapid motorization, but also to fight obesity and non-communicable diseases by promoting a more active and healthy lifestyle. The WHO also said this push for fewer motor vehicles is particularly important in low- and middle-income countries like the Philippines, where pollution and less-active lifestyles are causing greater health-related expenses and putting more burdens on the healthcare system.
“Biking is good, fun, healthy and environmentally friendly, but it can be deadly,” Philippine Global Road Safety Partnership Secretary General Alberto Suansing told Fast Times in a phone interview.
The WHO report – quoting data from the Department of Public Works and Highways Traffic Accident Recording and Analysis System (TARAS) – said 30 out of the 1,513 recorded road-crash fatalities in the Philippines in 2013 were bicyclists. This may seem like a small number, but to the friends and loved ones of those dead cyclists left behind, it’s far too big.
Indeed, the death of single-mother-of-two Lorelie Melevo in January this year after she was mowed down by a dump truck in Marikina City has created uproar over the poor state of bike safety in the country, with bicycle-safety advocates pushing for the passage of seven pending bills in Congress meant to better protect Filipino bicyclists. Melevo was run over as she was pushing her bicycle along a designated bike lane. The truck’s driver, Jonathan Silverio, was charged with reckless imprudence resulting in homicide and damage to property.
The ideal bike lane
Suansing said a big part of the problem is that the country’s road networks have little to no infrastructure for bicyclists, in contrast to the national bike lanes in Switzerland. The WHO said in its report that separating high-speed vehicles like cars, trucks and motorcycles from vulnerable road users like bicyclists and pedestrians is vital in reducing crashes and fatalities.
For instance, the report said cyclist deaths in Denmark went down by a third after cycle tracks were constructed alongside urban roads. Using the TARAS data, a similar solution could translate into saving 10 Filipino cyclists’ lives a year.
In the Philippines, only a few major thoroughfares have bike lanes that are typically separated only by colored road markings and can thus be accessed by other vehicles. Meanwhile, bike tracks like the ones along Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City and EDSA are merged with the sidewalks and, for the latter, are fenced off.
Erwin Lim said although these are better than zipping between fast-moving traffic, these are still inconvenient for cyclists because the sidewalk bike tracks have too many pedestrians and obstructions, which make it difficult to travel quickly. Aurora, who also bikes on public roads and is a member of several biking groups, said Fast Times in a phone interview that the government should invest more in cycling infrastructure, such as putting up larger bike paths and setting bike routes.
A matter of mindset
Although all three believe that better infrastructure would protect bicyclists, they said a change of mindset among motor-vehicle owners is needed to truly make our roads more inclusive and safe to cyclists.
“Cyclists and motor vehicle drivers have the same rights on the road,” Suansing said. “In other countries, even millionaires ride bikes.”
Indeed, Erwin and Aurora said they and other cyclists are often discriminated on the road, with larger and faster vehicles either cutting them off or bullying them.
“On the roads, I have to move aside because I’m small and slow,” Erwin said. “For other road users, I’m just a pakalat-kalat [scattered]bicyclist and deserve no road courtesy.”
“Drivers make me feel like I have no rights to be on the street,” Aurora said. “It seems to stem from an old mindset that biking is only for low-income workers.”
But urban sociologist Rae Echaveria said this animosity toward bicyclists isn’t necessarily a class issue because bikes require a significant amount of upkeep to maintain their usability. He also said the poorest residents and commuters still rely on motorized public transportation like buses and jeepneys – perceived to be significantly cheaper than maintaining a bike – or use motorcycles, which are seen as more sturdy, cost-effective and practical than bikes.
“The use of bikes as an everyday alternative for transportation is still a fresh concept for Filipinos,” he said in an e-mail to Fast Times. “Unlike in the Netherlands and Denmark, where most of the population use their bikes everyday to do even the most routine tasks, such as going to work or buying things in the market, most of us perceive that bikes are used for leisure purposes. This means that it should only be driven in short distances around private areas like subdivisions and parks instead of being used for everyday transport.”
As a result, he said it isn’t surprising that our road infrastructure has failed to adjust to the growing clamor and interest on biking on public roads.
“The issue here is the lack of a general consensus and awareness regarding the benefits of bike usage, its perception as a leisure vehicle and the lack of viable infrastructure like ample signs and exclusive bike lanes in our sidewalks,” he said. “We tend to place bikes last in urban spaces because in our culture, bike use was never a priority.”
Getting to know each other
Erwin, Aurora and Suansing all said that to change this mindset, information campaigns are needed to help motor-vehicle users and bicyclists to better understand each other. They also said better enforcement of road-traffic rules will benefit all road users.
Here are some other tips from them:
1. Wear proper safety equipment. Make sure that you wear a helmet and pads. Also, equip your bicycle with lights and high-visibility markings to help other road users see you, especially at night;
2. Cut the antics. Suansing said roads are not stunt tracks or raceways and irresponsible riding sends the wrong message to motorists. It’s also illegal, with Section 51 of Republic Act 4136 or the Land Transportation and Traffic Code punishing cyclists who hitch onto other vehicles;
3. Be mindful of vehicle blind spots. Even with side-view mirrors, most car drivers cannot see objects in their rear quarter (the areas near their rear fender). Keep out of these spots and make yourself visible; and
4. Whenever possible, use designated bike lanes or paths. Many cities and municipalities have begun putting up spaces for bicyclists, especially since bicycles have no chance in a collision with a larger vehicle. Make sure to stick to these lanes to give courtesy to faster-moving traffic.
For motor-vehicle users:
1. Mind your surroundings. As with standard defensive-driving measures, it is vital to keep an eye of what is going on around you. Make sure your driving position and mirrors are set for maximum all-around visibility and remember to check what’s around you before changing lane or even before opening your door;
2. Chill out. Aurora said it is sometimes safer for a cyclist to ride in the middle of the road because of obstructions near the gutter, such as pedestrians and parked cars. Honking at a bicyclist won’t help him or her go faster. Remember that he or she doesn’t have an engine to help him or her move along;
3. Keep out of bike lanes. By design, bike lanes share road space with larger vehicles. Avoid blocking these off; and
4. Ride a bike. Erwin and Aurora said they are extra aware of bicyclists when they are driving because they understand and sympathize with what cyclists are going through. Also, biking is not only a great form of exercise, but it’s also a way to avoid road congestion, save on fuel costs and lessen air pollution.