Climate Solutions

Filipinos are cycling their way through the pandemic

MANILA — Before one of the longest lockdowns in the world, millions in this congested Philippine capital region suffered a hellish daily commute.

Trains broke down regularly, and roads were so clogged that the cost of lost productivity was estimated at about $72 million daily.

When public transportation ground to a halt because of the coronavirus pandemic, cyclists from all walks of life and bikes of all shapes and sizes took to the road.

But Filipino cyclists are up against more than just weather and pollution.

Last month, cycling advocates called on the government to spend more than $16 million to build about 190 miles of bike lanes protected from aggressive drivers.

And they beat back a plan by officials to require cyclists to wear clear face shields — in addition to masks — as a covid precaution by arguing the shields could hinder vision on the road.

Celine Tabinga, an analyst at the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities, said policymakers need to consider ways to accommodate alternative forms of transportation instead of harboring “the wrong perception that cycling is not safe.”

Despite the pandemic, Manila still has the second-worst traffic congestion in the world.

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Many cyclists brave urban hazards because they have no choice. Noel Olid, a radiology technician at the Philippine Children’s Medical Center, is among the workers who resorted to cycling during lockdown.

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Bicycles “take up the parking lot now — security guards, engineering, personnel, including the women,” said Olid, who used an old bike. He is unlikely to return to using public transport even after the pandemic. Biking is cheaper, he said, but most of all, “I control my own time.”

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Noel Olid, right, and his friends Rochie Cervera and Ryann Tempongko prepare to commute to work.

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Foliage grows near unused jeepneys in Manila.

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

William and Sugar Ang, a couple working at a social enterprise that employs local artisans, were already cycling before the pandemic.

After the lockdown, they persuaded around nine other colleagues to start commuting by bike.

Most are neighbors, and they typically travel together.

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

On the road, Sugar is an assertive navigator, calling out to her companions when to go. Their model of choice is a mountain bike, to navigate Manila’s many bumps and potholes.

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

William and Sugar Ang bike to and from work everyday.

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Commuters wait at a bus terminal in Quezon City.

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

An open-air bus in Quezon City carries passengers divided by plastic sheets.

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Eric Cadiz runs the bike shop Weird Cycles in Lipa City, about an hour south of Manila, where he builds bamboo bikes to order.

He says the charm of a bamboo bike is its accessibility, affordability and the fact that it can be built in just two days.

“That’s why they call it the people’s bike,” he said.

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Eric Cadiz makes bikes out of bamboo in Lipa City.

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Valerie de Guzman is a bamboo bike enthusiast.

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Valerie De Guzman, who manages a Facebook group for bamboo bike enthusiasts, said membership grew from about 100 to more than a thousand in the past year.

What she loves the most, she says, is finding out where the materials are from, and who put them together — “the story behind each bike.”

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Cyclists carry their rides over a pedestrian bridge to get across the 18-lane Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City.

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Cyclists squeeze between buses in Quezon City.

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Arthur Azcuna used to compete in motocross, but an accident in 1999 left him paralyzed from the waist down.

His siblings in the United States introduced him to handcycling, which he uses as cross-training for his main sport, archery.

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Now a Paralympic athlete, Azcuna says the road can be doubly daunting for people with disabilities.

As a precaution, he wears bright colors, has a flag and lights strapped on his bike, and always carries his phone in case of emergencies.

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Azcuna has gone as far as Tagaytay — an uphill city around 40 miles south of Metro Manila — while handcycling. Once, he busted a tire on a utility hole.

“It’s a bit scary on the road, but I’m used to it,” he said. “I know what I have to do on two wheels.”

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Arthur Azcuna was paralyzed from the waist down after a motorcycle accident.

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Azcuna attached flags and LED lights to his handcycle.

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

A 2020 survey by Social Weather Stations, a nonprofit research institution, found great support for walking and cycling among Filipinos, with almost 90 percent saying that public transport and pedestrians should be prioritized over private vehicles.

Last month, the Department of Transportation promised to establish about 90 miles of bike lanes by the end of this year. It cited the survey as “proof that the face of transportation in the country is indeed changing.”

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

For Azcuna, the heightened awareness regarding cycling is progress. Though it’s unclear whether traffic will return to pre-pandemic levels, he thinks cyclists are there to stay.

“They’ll see the benefits — maybe they’ve gotten stronger, or gotten less sick,” he said. “You really feel lighter on a bike.”

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post

Martin San Diego for The Washington Post