When I first started cycling in Metro Manila over 10 years ago, the city was a very different place for anyone using a bicycle to get from A to B. Like many foreigners, I initially lived in the sanitized version of the country called Makati, and used either taxis or company shuttles to get wherever I needed to go.
It didn’t take long, however, to realize that using private cars was incredibly inefficient, and I must have lost days of my life being stuck in traffic commuting. The solution was as simple as it was obvious to me: Get a bicycle.
Back in Europe, I biked to school when I was little and often cycled to work after that, so what would be more natural? Apparently, nothing about my idea was normal, and it made me look like a suicidal alien freak.
“You want to do what? In Manila? Are you crazy? You’ll die!”
These were the most frequent comments I received from friends and colleagues, but of course, I went ahead with my plan anyway. And it worked beautifully.
Instead of taking one hour by taxi or Grab to get from my place in Mandaluyong to my office in Makati, it only took me 15 minutes—even on a payday Friday night.
It was also perfectly safe, as I was basically cycling through one giant car park during rush hour. The only two noteworthy crashes I ever had during my thousands of kilometers of cycling on metropolitan roads were going down a wet concrete ramp into my condo car park, and T-boning another cyclist of all things. Both were minor.
Back then, cyclists definitely didn’t have it as easy as today, and they were made to feel like second-class road users most of the time. I had to battle places trying to charge cyclists for parking, get my noodle out to fight for minimum overtaking distances, and put up with many other things that developed countries had long left behind.
The idea that there could be protected bike lanes on most of the main roads here would have been outrageous not too long ago. “Taking precious space away from cars? Burn him at the stake!”
Returning to these same streets on my bike for the first time after the pandemic was an amazing revelation. A lot of good progress has been made, and it can be felt across the city.
The very spot in Makati where a few years ago I was chased away by an angry security guard for daring to lock my bike to a lamppost, now features new bike parking racks. There are bike lanes all across the megalopolis, and businesses are slowly starting to see cyclists as first-rate consumers (rather than second-rate citizens).
While it’s sad that it took a global pandemic to shift this megacity in the right transport direction, it is great to see these positive changes.
Of course, there is still a long way to go, and not everyone has gotten the message yet. Two examples: At the condo complex where I live, a few years ago I was welcome to park my bicycle in one of the common spaces in the underground car park—mainly because I was one of the few people cycling there. Now that more people travel this way, there’s suddenly a new rule that bikes are no longer allowed inside and must be parked outside, where they are exposed to the weather.
Then, there is the posh hotel in BGC where I recently attended a conference. Naturally, I was cycling, and it even has a bike rack now. But upon asking if I could use the shower and changing facilities in the gym (keeping in mind that the conference where I was a speaker spent big money there), I was told that it was for guests only. The result: I had to change in the comfort room. A five-star bathroom, sure, but still not exactly a five-star experience.
In the first case, a carefully worded letter is going to the condo association to request that they create a space for cyclists inside, while the hotel also got an e-mail to request they change their policy.
And that’s the thing: To change the culture and make Metro Manila the Amsterdam of Asia, we all have to do our bit when it comes to educating individuals, businesses, and government officials. We can’t expect them to know what’s best on their own.
Also, just bike lanes and somewhere to park are a great start, but they’re by far not enough. We still need the additional infrastructure that makes cycling viable on top of that, which is what I’m trying to create with Bitrago, and once we have that, we need to complete the biggest challenge: Go after the private car itself. I don’t think we’re ready to slay that dragon yet, though.