One problem with many roots is also one problem with many solutions

During a weekend ride, Cathy Chico, an associate development manager working in tech and an avid cyclist, almost fell off her bike at a section of Marcos Highway, a national road that spans cities. 

It was raining, and she could barely see the ground, slightly flooded as it was. Despite the careful speed she was maintaining, her wheel still got caught in a metal grille whose lattice was as wide as her tire.

“Thankfully I wasn’t in cleats but flats,” Chico recalls, referring to the different kinds of shoes cyclists use. If she wore the former, the speed might have made her injury worse.

Aeshyah Tan, an Adidas Girls Can Run athlete whose main sport is trail running—on uneven ground often in mountains, frequently trains for such events in the city, in crowded places in an already crowded Metropolis: train stations, waiting sheds, the works. 

Despite having to share the limited public leisure spaces, Aeshyah Tan, from Adidas Girls Can Run-Philippines,
loves running too much to give it up.

Due to the lack of public leisure spaces, rush hour spaces become the de facto locations for people like Tan looking for outdoor workouts. 

For Tan, what’s supposed to be an urban road run often veers closer to a trail run: “Ang dami lubak, sobrang dumi, kasama na dun ‘yung side na daan na ‘di runnable kasi either may naka-park na sasakyan or wala talagang side na madaanan (Many roads have potholes and are dirty, and there are parts that aren’t runnable because of parked cars or total obstructions).”

Runners and cyclists already have to contend with poorly-designed and hazardous road infrastructure, but for women on the road, there is a gendered component as well. Chico and Tan must brave not only bumpy roads but also leering eyes, flapping mouths, and undue attention–even harassment.

Chico, who describes running as her baseline sport, drives all the way to the University of the Philippines, roughly two hours to and from her home in Pasig City, just to run as she feels safest there: where she can wear the outfits most conducive to training without worrying about anything else.

Whether cycling or running, “I’d change my outfit depending on the environment, the route,” Chico tells NewsNarratives, “despite the year-round humidity and heat in the Philippines. “It’s not good for the laundry bill, but safety first, I guess.”

Despite these challenges, both Tan and Chico love their sports too much to give them up.

Without discounting the validity of concerns from athletes on-the-road, other groups, however, talk about other urgent concerns. 

Regardless of gender, cyclists should feel safe and welcome to share the road ahead of them, as well as foster camaraderie and respect. Cathy Chico, who bikes and runs, feels safest where she can wear outfits conducive to training.

A tale of two cyclists

Chi Señires, one of the moderators of the Facebook-based support group Pinay Bike Commuter Community (PBCC) that co-organized educational campaigns highlighting street harassment, was surprised when cycling was described to her as a sport. 

“I personally don’t see it as just a sport,” shares Señires, a user design IT professional by day, admitting that her interview with NewsNarratives felt “kinda awkward at first” as her relationship with cycling was more of an everyday necessity to get to and from work or to run errands.

This distinction might seem subtle, but some bike commuters see bike enthusiasts who drive their bikes on car racks as part of the general public that needs to be educated on road safety and road sharing.

Nonetheless, Chico, Tan, and Señires share and face similar challenges, albeit at different frequencies. 

Far too many women on the road must brave not only catcalling but also actual intimidation. While the two may seem distinct, their effects are the same: both essentially tell women that they don’t belong and are unwelcome where they happen to be.

Even storm drains or manholes can make streets unsafe for cycling. Regardless, cyclists carry on, including Chi Señires, who moderates Pinay Bike Commuter Community along with others in this Facebook-based support group, as cycling for her is more of an everyday necessity to get to and from work or to run errands.
Lower left photo by Leandro Mangubat

More than sexuality, it is ultimately about power and control, a manifestation of unconscious attitudes towards women in public and civic life. This also extends to online spaces, as some Facebook groups dominated by men circulate photos of women cyclists and runners that focus on their appearance.

The abuse is subtle, as men ask for pictures with women, only to have the comments sections flooded by a man’s male friends commenting about his having “scored.”

 “Change the way you dress, hide your bodies,” some might say out of goodwill, but Chico insists that sports attire “is practical, but sadly sexualized,” leaving women to “adjust in order to reduce crimes perpetuated by men.”

Trawling through the women-only PBCC, Señires shares that the moderators sometimes deal with instances of internalized misogyny from members.

Señires and the mods at such instances try to gently help individual women expressing such thoughts see how these harm women as a whole, emphasizing the need to shift the onus of accountability.

PBCC, after all, was started after a road safety forum for Filipino cyclists unfortunately saw male members laughing at females who tried to start conversations, while also making unwanted advances on them. Señires and the other moderators also saw the need to emphasize commuting over simply cycling.

In an October 5, 2021 video titled “EXTRA Safety Measures I Do As A Solo Female Cyclist,” Katie Kookaburra, a UK-based YouTuber focusing on cycling tips, asserts that “despite being told from such a young age that we should be scared to go out and do things on our own, doing things on my own makes me feel so much more empowered.”

The burden of safety 

As roads are shared among motorists, athletes, pedestrians, and bike commuters, the burden of safety is often placed on the most vulnerable travelers, in this case pedestrians moving between public transport systems, and cyclists, instead of the more privileged, the car owners.

NewsNarratives talked to Mikka Ferrer, a state economic development specialist and also a road safety expert from Cycling Matters, a local advocacy group. Ferrer bikes for both sport and livelihood.

Ferrer believes that the problem starts with culture: “We need more conversations that revamp how Filipinos see motor vehicles. For one, we tend to equate car ownership with success, and that affects not just how drivers behave but how law enforcement implements existing laws.”

Those motor vehicles on the sidewalk that Tan mentioned—existing laws, such as Republic Act 4136, state that driving or parking on sidewalks is illegal.

Additionally, most roads are presently designed to maximize vehicular volume and speed, rather than non-motorist safety and convenience.

“Roads in the Philippines really are designed to be for motor vehicles first, and humans have to adjust around it, instead of it being the other way around,” PBCC moderator Señires asserts. “We share the road, yes,” Chico, the management developer and multisport athlete, adds, “just not in the ways we want to.”

In September 2020, the Department of Public Works and Highways published Department Order 88 Series of 2020, prescribing guidelines on the design of bicycle facilities along national roads. Item C, Section 2.1.6 states that sidewalks may be converted to shared pathways for cyclists and pedestrians to use.

Tan, the Adidas athlete and trail runner, meanwhile is forced to use bike lanes when she runs, but this leads to near-misses with both athletic and commuting cyclists. While she is thankful for these lanes, she also points out that these often end up as parking spaces, to the detriment of pedestrians and cyclists alike.

Ferrer, the road safety expert, echoes this, asserting that “pedestrian infrastructure isn’t designed intuitively,” citing how even if pedestrian lanes exist, these are often PWD-unfriendly or hard to use when the rainy season hits.

She adds that “this trickles down to how the rest of road infrastructure is designed, not considering the most common mode of transportation: Walking.”

In July 2020, the Department of Interior and Local Government released MC 2020-100, a memorandum circular directing local governments to “maximize the use and value of street space be measured by the flow of people, rather than the volume of vehicles” while ensuring that “people of all ages and abilities” can safely use active transport to access the locality’s services.

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, non-motor transport seemingly became more urgent overnight as most public commute options were closed to prevent contagion.

Meanwhile, Philippine legislators have so far filed two bills, a Bill of Rights for Commuters in 2019 and a Magna Carta for Commuters in July 2022. As of this writing, neither have been passed.

As of August 2022, nine surveys, conducted since 2020 by the Social Weather Stations reported that for every Filipino car owner, there were four bike owners. The primary purpose for bike ownership was for livelihood, such as market visits and commutes to work; next came sport and leisure.

“For as long as success indicators on the national level revolve around cars,” Ferrer believes, the infrastructure will follow suit. But for her, there are good starts, for example, big investments in high-capacity transport modes, like an expansion of Metro Manila’s railways. 

“At the end of the day, however, if train stations and bus stops are hard to access, there will be less incentives for citizens to shift to these modes of transport,” Ferrer cautions, emphasizing that “pedestrian infrastructure is the base” of development.

Biking requires less initial and annual expenses than driving. And compared to commuting via motor vehicles, cycling has a significantly smaller carbon footprint. Other countries practice hybrid commuting, where cyclists can take their bikes onboard trains.

Bad roads, cracked sidewalks, and street harassment—what were once taken as a given part of daily life in the Philippines, specifically in urban centers—were now challenged as something that could be changed.

Marikina’s protected bike lanes in Marikina Heights, currently open to the public

Replicating the Netherlands model

The Netherlands was on track to become a highway capital by the year 2000. Postwar urban design blueprints reveal Amsterdam as a dizzying labyrinth of freeways crisscrossing, where one could barely see city blocks, parks, or pedestrian lanes.

Neighborhoods, plazas, and canals were bulldozed to make way for motorways as the country rebuilt from the second world war.

In 1972, however, this changed as the number of car-related deaths as well as the increasing pollution mobilized activists and, eventually, the general public, pushing the Dutch government to not just pass laws, but overhaul both the infrastructure and implementation of road rules.

Roads were designed to shape user behavior and expectations, according to a presentation from the International Sustainable Transportation Engagement Program by the Texas State University. An emerging policy principle likewise reveals that infrastructure design shapes public behavior.

Today, all Dutch provinces are conducive to cycling. Can these be replicated in the Philippine setting?

The Dutch example shows that lasting change is the product not only of activism spurring government action, but also the willingness of the public to embrace new frameworks.

For as long as the majority believes that “progress” is defined by car-centric infrastructure and heavy, high-rise urbanization, then roads and, by extension, commuter behavior will skew in a certain direction.

In some ways, there are parallels with the Netherlands in the 1970s that can further the cause of road safety in the Philippines, if advocates are also willing to adapt these to the local context.

For one, the Philippines was able to create 500 km of bike lanes in Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, and Metro Davao by 2021, in parallel to what the Dutch managed in the first years after the protests of 1972.

Local initiatives such as the Mobility Awards also began recognizing Philippine leaders from both government and private sectors who have promoted active mobility among their communities, colleagues, and customers.

Also, the Netherlands pedestrianized what were once roads for automobiles, and initiatives like Fatima Avenue’s pedestrianization in Valenzuela City can be replicated in other Philippine cities.

Citing the need for usable, wider sidewalks, connected and protected bike lanes, and more public transport options, Señires cites MC 2020-100: “Move people and not cars.”

The Dutch were able to designate mono-functional roads exclusively for non-motor traffic.

Iloilo City has recently been highlighted for its protected bike lanes, and closer to the Metro, Marikina City maintains the no-motor-vehicles around Marikina River Park, which is not only for leisure but which bikers and pedestrians use to and from work and school on weekdays. Pasig City in 2021-2022 rolled out protected bike lanes.

Compromise was key for the Dutch as automobiles and highways weren’t entirely eliminated, but designed in such a way that they co-existed with alternative modes of transportation.

Citizens were given leeway to choose driving while being simultaneously incentivized to choose hybrid commuting in daily life.

If the discourse goes beyond the current Cars vs. Everyone dichotomy, then everyone–motorists included–may just be able to truly, equitably, and safely share the road.

Some advertising and communications strategists who worked on the 2022 Philippine national elections talked to NewsNarratives on the condition of anonymity and shared their observations that Filipinos today are largely frustrated with “us vs. them” rhetoric, and discourse revolving around working together, as an “us” instead of “an Us versus a Them” resonates more. 

This could apply to gendered violence as well. Men are increasingly seen as allies, and while culture can still evolve to the point that men don’t need to hear other men to listen, a start can always go a long way. Ultimately, the social norms we build around males and masculinity have to be reworked.

Cycling Matters road safety expert Ferrer also believes in the visibility of women on the road. “Once the novelty of a woman cycling to work or whatnot is gone,” she shares, “the unnecessary attention will be gone, too.” As the kids say these days, let’s normalize this.

She shares that, as she cycles around the city, “I try to show that I own my space on the road, knowing my hand signals, having complete gear, exuding general confidence, but of course, the ideal situation is that women don’t have to know these things to be safe.”

“I think ultimately the motorists should be the ones responsible for making roads safer,” Ferrer emphasizes, no matter if we know the hand signs or use lights and helmet and what clothes we wear.

“Regardless of gender, [we] can’t stand a chance against a one-ton metal machine not following traffic rules and thinking they’re the priority,” she says, adding that “the narrative on making roads safer places the responsibility on [the motorists] and not on the non-motorists.”

Most men who harass women don’t realize what they’re doing is actually wrong; instead, they think it’s actually a compliment to catcall. A 2015 Anti-Harassment law was updated in 2019 to include online spaces as well as more relationships, like students sexually harassing teachers.

Ferrer wishes to remind men to stop pitting themselves against girls or against one another. “There’s this ‘palakasan’ culture among men—thinking girls automatically wanting to be the strongest, when in reality, a lot of them are just happy to be there enjoying the ride or run or simply getting to and from a place,” she explains.

On the other hand, she encourages girls to celebrate the sight of women on the road, especially those they see in activities that are traditionally “for men.” “Encourage or invite them to your rides, runs, and activities, or simply just to walk or commute together. Go with them if it’s their first time. Acknowledge each other on the road,” Ferrer tells girls.

She stresses the need for women to avoid thinking that they cannot do something just because it is dominated by men. “Just [by] showing up in a space makes a big difference in the narrative—in the long term,” she adds. “[It] doesn’t matter if you’re ‘slower,’ as long as you finish what you set out to do and as long as you get to experience joy, freedom, and [the] convenience of being able to do something on your own terms.”

If advocates can leverage these insights, more public sympathy—and with it the passage and full enforcement of laws—may be gained for a cause that stands to benefit everyone.

Once, Señires was bike-commuting to work in Bonifacio Global City, a central business district often touted as one of the most developed central business districts in Metro Manila.

The sun was up, making the flyover’s elevation seem higher. At the interchange, a car slowed down to make way for her, and her apprehension quickly turned into relief. As she parked at her office, the same car was parking nearby, and as she walked by, its passengers gave her a thumbs up. They were smiling.

It was the most genuine smile she’d seen on the road. She hopes to see more.

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