Pedal power to the people!

All creatures, yes, including us humans, were born to move. Mother nature gave us a powerful set of legs and ingenious brains to help us figure out for ourselves how we could move about more efficiently.

Thus, we should ask, has mankind ever invented a machine that epitomizes efficient mobility? If you answered with the invention of cars, you’re a long way off. Non-motorized mobility was given a big boost when German baron Karl von Drais created a steerable, two-wheeled contraption in 1817, known by many names, including the “velocipede” and “hobby horse”. The universal name “bicycle” was adopted afterwards. Naturally, the contraption underwent a number of modifications and modernization, such that today we see all sorts of bicycles befitting various types of uses, whether for road or off-road travels.

However, ever since the invention of cars, bikes have traditionally taken the back seat in our mobility options. Even today, with the spike in popularity of motorcycles, bikes are seen as the “poor man’s commute”. Still, the bicycle keeps its place in our society as one of the lifestyle essentials. In fact, today, our government has allotted a record number of streets with bike lanes. So, yes, if bicycles are merely the poor man’s commute, why does the government dedicate such a substantial portion of the city’s streets to our bike commuting brothers?

The onset of the pandemic in early 2020 certainly helped the bicycle’s cause. Suddenly, public transport commuters became deathly afraid of co-mingling inside crowded buses, trains, and jeepneys. So, those who were able bought themselves a bike and started pedaling their way to and from work. Then the series of fuel price increases was an added push for some vehicle owners to leave their cars in the garage for a while and give the bike-to-work plan a chance.

More than being just a practical and safe solution to a persistent pandemic, the bicycle has become a statement of “revolt”, a form of “rebellion” against things that hold us back. Covid-19 restricted your movement? There’s the bike. Spiking fuel prices eating into your grocery budget? Let the bike take that all back for you. It’s an inexpensive but effective way of empowering yourself, unhitching you from profit-driven industries. I joined the Tour of the Fireflies several years ago (during the time of Mia “Kalyetista” Bunao more than a decade ago) to help promote zero emissions mobility and clean air. I also wanted to engage in an exercise activity with a group.

In 2005, I, and two other fellow writers, tried bike commuting to cope with high fuel prices. It was the fourth quarter of the year, and high gas prices and bus fares were pushing a growing number of commuters to take alternative means of transport. At the time, some car owners were switching to motorcycles. Others were pedaling their way to work instead of taking a bus or jeepney or driving a car. To encourage people to use a bicycle, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority launched a 3.6-kilometer pedal-only lane in Quezon City in September. The lane traversed Xavierville Avenue and other secondary streets, connecting Edsa and Katipunan Avenue for bikers. White and pink lines marked the pilot bikeway. No other bike lane had been set up by the MMDA. As a result, people were pedaling in the metropolis too dangerously close to cars, jeepneys, buses and trucks. Our trio wrote about our 3-day, 120 km experience in the Inquirer, showing the pros and cons of bike commuting (without bike lanes, mind you).

Today’s bike lane situation paints a different picture. Early this week, I asked Transportation Asec Goddes Hope Libiran updates on the bike lane network. She enumerated the following: Metro Manila already has 313.12 km of bike lanes, Metro Cebu 129.47 km, and Metro Davao 54.74 km. Early this January, I personally got to experience how it was to use a portion of these bike lanes. I was scheduled for a rabies shot at an animal bite center around 6 kilometers from where I lived (Yes, sometimes my cats do bite and scratch me, so I need to be protected), and I found my van’s rear tire utterly deflated. I wasn’t in the mood to get down and replace the tire, so I decided to use my electric bicycle. This bike looks like any other bicycle, except that it has an electric motor and a Tesla battery to help assist my pedaling. When I got onto the Alabang-Zapote road, the bike lanes were very clearly marked, with reflective paint demarcating the line between motorized and non-motorized vehicles. It was the nighttime rush hour, yet the traffic was surprisingly light. I made it to the bite center and back home safely. My bike commute was without stress, and I’m certainly grateful for the efforts the Las Piñas government and the city’s bike advocates have poured to make this a reality.

As much as I love biking, I’m also anticipating the time when personal mobility, electrification technology, and sustainable transport merge in the country. I had a brief taste of this merger in 2016 when I test drove the 3-wheeled electric vehicle Toyota i-Road, which could go for 50 km in one charge. This would be ideal as a city commute, blurring the line between the motorbike and the compact car, but clearly retains all the scooting fun of the former. Its “active lean” technology won’t let the rider tip over to the side when negotiating turns.

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The left and right front wheels move up and down independently, synchronized in response to the driver’s steering. The vehicle automatically selects the optimal lean angle when cornering. You can enjoy the refreshing sense of being one with the machine.

It felt as easy to use as a motorbike, but without fear of getting wet in rain, and there’s no need to wear a helmet. Since the vehicle itself maintains balance, stability is assured not only on curves, but on slopes and uneven surfaces. The i-Road combines the potential of both cars and motorbikes. Though the i-Road is not yet accessible in the Philippines, you may very well bet your bottom dollar that other mobility and tech companies are racing to come up with a similar vehicle.

So now, I just wish for a safe, enjoyable bike commuting experience—without kamote riders and drivers—in the relative safety of bike lanes and other infrastructure to support the practice, such as trains allotting at least one section to park for bike commuters and their rides. I also wish that the local governments open up all gated subdivisions for bikers, at least.