(Editor’s note: This article has been updated as of August 16, 2021)
The Philippines, like most countries, has been under a prolonged state of community quarantine that aimed to prevent the further spread of the CoViD-19 pandemic.
Now, nearly 18 months into various levels of quarantine and a slowdown in nearly all business operations, the Philippine economy is still struggling to get back to its feet. Then there has been the emergence of new and more virulent Coronavirus strains, specifically the Delta variant, which underscores even more the importance of strictly observing health protocols such as physical distancing, frequent hand washing, and proper wearing of personal protective equipment such as masks and goggles.
For those who can’t afford to own their own personal motorized vehicles, however, going to work presents a sizeable obstacle, especially since the country’s mass transport systems—already stretched to the limit pre-pandemic days—will still have to transport less people to comply with social distancing rules (eg jeepneys which used to carry 20 passengers can now carry only 10; trikes which could be packed with up to 4 passengers can now only carry 1).
In such instances, the bicycle presents the only viable transport option for most middle-to-low-income workers. Though many of them were already bike commuters long before the virus outbreak began, a lot more were content with cramming themselves into any available real estate there was in the woefully inadequate mass transport systems, especially in the highly urbanized centers. But now, they are faced with no choice but to either walk the entire distance, or to pedal it.
Judging from the noticeable rise in the number of bicyclists in the streets of Metro Manila nowadays, they must have chosen the latter.
The national government, as well local governments, has taken due notice of the marked increase in the number of bike commuters and has taken concrete measures to ensure their safety. According to the online news site of the Philippine News Agency (pna.gov.ph), as of July 27, 2021, the country already has a total network of 497 km of bike lanes, mostly spread out in Metro Cebu, Metro Davao, and in the National Capital Region, which has the most extensive network at 313 km (https://www.pna.gov.ph/articles/1148452). Putting up dedicated bike lanes certainly adds motivation for more commuters to try going to work on pedal-powered two wheels.
The bicycle is among the most efficient mechanical inventions, enabling its user to cover great distances using only the power of the human muscle. It also brings great health benefits to those who use the bicycle regularly.
However, there are real risks and dangers involved when one rides the bicycle, and these dangers are exacerbated if you’re a new cyclist, and you’re about to ride in the cities. So, whether you’re a worker forced to bike or someone who chooses to bike to work out of curiosity, the experience, or the thrill, of it, here are some basic reminders so you won’t become another tragic statistic in accident reports:
Barest minimum safety requirement: Helmet, shoes, bright, reflective clothing (daytime) and headlights and red blinkers (at night). Before you even bike out of your house, make sure you’re wearing proper protective equipment for bikers. You also need to be visible to everyone on the streets, especially to motor vehicle drivers.
Know your fitness. If you know you have heart disease, stop, and get your doctor’s go-signal first. Even then, be very conscious of your limits, and don’t attempt to cross those limits. If you’re not the athletic type and haven’t been engaged in any strenuous exercises, gauge your personal fitness by biking around your neighborhood first.
Heat can be a killer. Heat stroke is serious and swift, and it can strike down even seasoned cyclists. The best way to avoid heat stroke is to avoid cycling in the hottest times of the day (typically between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.). But if you can’t help going out within that period, make sure you stop and drink fluids every 15 minutes you’re on the saddle, and wear light-colored clothes that deflect the sun’s heat away from your body.going out within that period, make sure you stop and drink fluids every 15 minutes you’re on the saddle, and wear light-colored clothes that deflect the sun’s heat away from your body.
Don’t text while biking. When you need to, stop biking and move to the side. Even if your cellphone is safely mounted on the handlebar, don’t look at your phone unless it’s giving you directions on Waze.
Don’t bike alongside big vehicles like trucks and buses. Big vehicles have blind spots on their right and left sides. These are the places that their side and rear view mirrors can’t cover. If they suddenly make a turn and they can’t see you, they won’t be able to stop before you get pinned down by the tires.
Bring ID and emergency contact number with you always.
Don’t bike over floods, especially if the streets are unfamiliar. The wet season is upon us, and nowadays there are sudden torrential downpours. Flooded streets, even shallow ones, can conceal open manholes or deep potholes, and they can cause major injuries to you and great damage to your bike if you run into them at speed. The rule of thumb is, if you can’t see the street, don’t bike over floods. But if you must bike on them, let a car go first and follow the path of the rear wheels at a safe distance.
Do not assume motorists will give way to you. Just like how motorists drive defensively, you must bike the same way, too. At intersections, always assume that oncoming cars won’t give way to you, unless their drivers show obvious signals to let you pass. Always try to stick to designated bike lanes (if there are), and always follow traffic lights.
Never counterflow. In our left-hand driving culture, motorists and pedestrians have developed the habit of training their attention to traffic coming from the left. If you counterflow, you become that rogue traffic coming from the right, which throws motorists, pedestrians, and other cyclists off, impairing their ability to judge how to safely avoid you, if even they see you coming.
Use hand signals to turn. If you’re turning left at an intersection, raise your left hand and stretch outwards to the direction you’ll be taking before making the turn. Do the same for your right hand when turning right.
Don’t bike on sidewalks, unless local ordinances expressly allow you to. Sidewalks are strictly for pedestrians. Some economic and commercial hubs have constructed sidewalks that allow both pedestrians and cyclists. Follow the designated marks for bikes.
Barest minimum troubleshooting equipment: Air pump, spare interior tire, tire levers. Flat tires are inevitable, no matter how expensive your bike setup is. So always bring with you an air pump, a spare interior, a patch kit, and a couple of tire levers.
Take note of the nearest vulcanizing and bike repair shops on your way. What’s so neat about bikes is that when they suffer a breakdown, you don’t need a tow truck to bring the vehicle to the nearest repair shop. Knowing where the bike shops are along your route can save you anxious minutes asking passersby where the repair shop is.
Here’s probably one of the most valuable lessons I myself have learned from my almost 40 years of being a cyclist (in the cities, countryside, and on trails): Enjoy the experience, but don’t become overconfident. Cycling is a balancing act, literally and figuratively. You get that freedom from traffic, but that doesn’t give you freedom to weave recklessly through traffic. You get to save thousands of pesos from fuel and car maintenance costs, but that doesn’t mean you scrimp on the maintenance costs of your bike. You might be in control of your time when you’re on your bike, but that still doesn’t give you control of what other road users would do when they cross your path. On your bike, the only things you have control of is the machine, yourself, and perhaps the oncoming 100 feet of space in front of you in the next 2 or 3 seconds. That’s all.
Watch this SMNI news report on the inauguration of the 313-km bike lane network in Metro Manila: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vm8ZoQBjL-s
Happy bike commuting!