How prepared (or unprepared) is Metro Manila for micromobility?

·13 min read
How prepared (or unprepared) is Metro Manila for micromobility?

On July 12, Skyway Stage 3 started to impose toll fees on motorists after nearly seven months of free use since its opening. The 18-kilometer stage 3 of the elevated highway was constructed supposedly to decongest major roads like EDSA and C5, but that doesn't seem to be the case if Monday's bumper-to-bumper traffic is any basis.

It should be obvious by now: constructing more lanes doesn't solve traffic – it only worsens it. The concept of induced demand explains this: the more supply (highway lanes) there is, the more demand (motorists) will follow.

But what if instead of creating more highways like the P44.86-billion ($894 million) Skyway Stage 3, we create more infrastructures that encourage not only commute but also "micromobility," the catchall term that refers to the use of lightweight vehicles like bikes and e-scooters? Will the induced demand still be at play?

The more important question: How fit or prepared – or unfit or unprepared – is Metro Manila for micromobility? And is it here to stay?

Using lightweight vehicles on Manila’s roads

Jilson Tiu is one of those who started biking at the onset of the pandemic early last year, when private motorized vehicles were not allowed on the roads and when public transportation modes like trains, buses, and jeepneys halted their operations. Lightweight vehicles such as bikes and electric scooters, however, were granted a pass.

Tiu needed not to be an experienced biker to see and pinpoint several flaws in the layout and design of Metro Manila’s roads that pose hazards to bikers like him.

“The design of the city is mostly anti-pedestrian. Roads in Metro Manila are not ready for lightweight vehicles due to bad urban planning, destroyed pavement, and lack of pedestrian-friendly infrastructures,” Tiu, who relied heavily on biking to fulfill his job as a photojournalist amidst the pandemic, said.

The design of the city is mostly anti-pedestrian.Cyclist and photojournalist Jilson Tiu

Tiu also realized how the street signs and stoplights were put there for cars and not really for lightweight vehicle riders. “Most pandemic cyclists, myself included, don’t have enough idea what road rules and regulations are because, in my case, for example, I don’t drive a car; for others, it’s their first time to use public roads,” he noted. “Motorists are not forgiving to bikers and e-scooter riders. They just pressure us to move aside.”

Transport planner Elijah Go Tian said that while bikes and e-scooters provide a convenient alternative to the country’s rather inconvenient transportation system, Metro Manila’s urban design remains unfit for micromobility yet, especially before the pandemic.

“There was no protection for the bike lanes – there were no proper bike lanes, to begin with. There were some in Pasig’s business district, Marikina, and Commonwealth, but they were not protected,” Go Tian explained. “Bike lanes should be protected. Otherwise, they would be very dangerous and would not invite more people to go out, use their bikes, and use these bike lanes.”

The problem in our transportation culture

Metro Manila’s road design is catered mostly to motorized vehicles, particularly private cars, and not so much on the public transportation system.

“We didn’t have designated busways that were really segmented away from foot traffic. Our bus stops were poorly designed; not all were shaded and some didn’t have significant markers that designated them as official bus stops. That’s why people got used to just standing anywhere as they hail a bus,” Go Tian said.

He also noted that the public transportation modes’ “boundary system” – in which public utility vehicle (PUV) drivers earn money for the day based on how many people got on their jeeps or buses – needs to be changed. “The boundary system is very unsustainable; you have jeepneys hogging up certain lanes, and you see them piling up on areas where they know there are a lot of waiting commuters. This causes traffic congestion and possibly road conflicts,” he said. Therefore a service contracting system must be established. This ensures PUV drivers a standard and steady income that doesn’t rely on the number of passengers.

Tiu gives Metro Manila’s commuter- and pedestrian-friendliness a score of 3 or 4. “Our roads are filled with cars with single passengers inside, making our roads inefficient for commuters. I have seen that our infrastructures are for rich people who have cars; they don’t consider giving the working people a more convenient and comfortable commuting experience.”

Let’s give space now to the majority or the 88% who don’t have cars but can afford to commute or to cycleTransport planner Elijah Go Tian

The government has always catered to the demands of people who use cars – or just almost 12% of the country’s population. “That 12% are the ones who tell bikers, ‘You’re taking away the space for cars!’ But for the past 20, 30, 50 years, we’ve been building roads for you! I think that should be enough. Let’s give space now to the majority or the 88% who don’t have cars but can afford to commute or to cycle,” Go Tian said.

If the government is really keen on solving Metro Manila’s traffic woes, it should do two things: improve public transportation modes and encourage the use of lightweight vehicles like bikes and e-scooters.

“The more you provide something that will promote a certain mode of transportation, the more people are going to use it. If you open more lanes for cars, for example, expect to really have more cars on our roads,” Go Tian said. “The government should start investing in alternate modes and that’s the public transportation and active mobility. This is not us being anti-cars; rather, this is us asking the government to give more road space back to the majority: the 88% of people who don’t have cars.”

Go Tian stressed that about 80% of our roads are for private cars while only 18% are provided for public transportation. The remaining 2% meanwhile, are for pedestrians and lightweight vehicle riders. “It must be ratioed to the number of people that use a certain mode. Only 12% of people in Metro Manila have cars, so why are they given 80% of the road?”

The pros of micromobility

When travel restrictions were imposed last year to stop the spread of the coronavirus, motorized vehicles were prohibited from plying on the roads. Essential workers, however, were allowed to go out with their bikes or e-scooters. Later, even non-essential workers could go out already, too, but again, they could only use the handy bike or e-scooter. This particular policy had introduced micromobility to many.

Eugene Martinez has been using an e-scooter more than he uses his other vehicles (he’s got a car, a motorcycle, and a bike) since 2018, way before the global pandemic. “I realized that I could just use my e-scooter particularly for short errands like going to the market, going to the bank, or bringing my kid’s lunch to school,” Martinez said. “These are the errands that would cause you so much inconvenience if you bring a car only to do something so quick.”

If every parent ... used an e-scooter instead of motorized cars, we would have avoided traffic congestionEugene Martinez, Electric Scooter Club of the Philippines

Martinez also added, “I also thought that every household should have an e-scooter. If you think about it: if every parent who brought lunch to their children in my kid’s school used an e-scooter instead of motorized cars, we would have avoided traffic congestion there and lessened car emissions altogether, too, right?”

He created the Facebook community group Electric Scooter Club of the Philippines, which has dramatically grown last year. The community is now 19,000-member strong. “We’ve welcomed more members last year, most of whom were new users who were asking questions for beginners,” Martinez said. “We couldn’t blame them. Just like me and many other members of the community, they also needed a convenient alternative transportation mode, and e-scooter gives them just that.”

For Tiu, meanwhile, biking has really enabled him to attend to his job as a freelance photographer and photojournalist in the city during the world’s longest lockdown.

“Let’s say you’re hitting three to four places for shoots and meetings. If you have a bicycle or an e-scooter, you could hit all those places quickly,” he said. “You can hit a lot of places in a day, you don’t contribute to road congestion and global warming because you don’t consume fossil fuel, and you hit your exercise goals at the same time. Best of all: you are free to move around without spending on anything.

“Metro Manila became small when I learned to use the bike for my daily commute,” Tiu added.

Car maintenance can go really expensive. A full tank of gas for a hatchback car alone can cost you more or less P1,500 per week, or P6,000 per month, or P72,000 per year. This amount doesn’t include yet what you have to shell out for car wash and everything else.

In contrast, when you look at online shopping apps, a good bike costs from P5,000 to P12,000 only while a decent non-professional e-scooter can cost up to P50,000.

Go Tian encourages people to see and try if micromobility can also work them. “Having more bikers and e-scooter riders on the road can push the government to see that there is enough data already, hence there’s a need to focus on it. This will help push infrastructures and policies, and that will help push the whole transportation culture to embrace active mobility,” he said.

Do I need to register my bike or e-vehicle?

Davao City Transport & Traffic Management Office required bike owners in Davao in June last year to register their units, while Land Transportation Office (LTO) initially announced three months later that e-scooters and e-bikes will be required to be registered while the drivers will need a license. These proposals drew flak particularly from bikers and e-scooter riders who had no choice but to rely on micromobility during the lockdowns.

Martinez and his community of e-scooter riders have a recommendation: public transportation agencies such as LTO and Metro Manila Development Authority should categorize lightweight vehicles first instead of requiring all of them to be registered.

For example, because the professional e-scooters are usually “road-worthy” and have enough energy and power (they can run up to 120 km/hr) to traverse through highways and major roads, they should be required to be registered; their drivers, meanwhile, should have a driver’s license. Non-professional e-scooters (those that can run up to 30 km/hr), on the other hand, should be allowed for short errands – like going to the market or the bank – in peripheral streets and shouldn’t need registration anymore.

Despite the negative comments on the proposals, Martinez asserted the benefits of having a registered e-scooter. “Not only it allows you entry in major highways, but it will also help you a lot to look for your stolen e-scooter if you have it registered,” he said.

“Also, registration of e-scooters can help make the unit more affordable. The reason why a car can be bought on an installment basis is that you are required to be registered as the owner of that car, right? E-scooters, usually, cannot be bought on an installment basis because you are not required to be registered, so how can the seller be sure that you’re going to pay the next balance?”

LTO Enforcement Service Deputy Director Robert Valera confirmed to Yahoo Philippines that, as of this time, there is no enacted policy just yet that requires bikers to register their bikes. "They are not classified as motorized vehicles, hence we don't have jurisdiction over them," he said.

For the e-vehicles like the e-scooters and e-bikes, meanwhile, Valera affirmed that there’s a new administrative order already, signed just last June 21, that identifies the types of e-vehicles that are required of registration.

The administrative order titled "CONSOLIDATED GUIDELINES IN THE CLASSIFICATION, REGISTRATION, AND OPERATION OF ALL TYPES OF ELECTRIC MOTOR VEHICLES" said that two-wheeled electric vehicles that can run up to a maximum speed of 25 km/hr are not required of registration and driver's license.

The only e-vehicles that are required of registration and driver's license are the three-wheeled electric vehicles that can run up to a maximum speed of 26 to 50 km/hr, as well as the two-wheeled electric vehicles that can run more than 50 km/hr. Basically, e-vehicles that run beyond 26 km/hr should be registered already.

What else needs to be done?

To make Manila a more micromobility-friendly city, the government should focus on infrastructures and policies at the same time. One cannot be more prioritized over the other because if we have infrastructures but we lack enacted policies, then what’s the point of having the infrastructures there?

For infrastructures, that is providing more protected bike lanes, ideally a greenway strip instead of just traffic cones. It’s very doable, transport planner Go Tian stressed, but he added that we have to change a pretty large amount of EDSA, for example, if we really want to create a biking corridor where bikers feel safe. Design, after all, dictates behavior.

“It’s not that expensive to create bike lanes as compared to building a new bridge or maintaining a road for cars. It’s more about political will. Our leaders should see already that biking is not just a recreational sport or hobby anymore. It can be the norm here, as it is in many other countries,” he said. “I think we are heading toward that direction already, but I also think that we can speed up a bit more.”

Meanwhile, for the policies, the government should consider doing further studies and stakeholder consultations and holding more discussions with the actual users of the bike lanes to come up with sustainable solutions.

“People will be shifting to biking or to using the bus or train because it’s going to be more convenient for them already,” Go Tian said. “They’ve got a safer way of commuting or using their bikes or e-scooters already. They can say, ‘This is not so bad. I don’t have to be in the comfort of my car anymore because everything else is cheaper and comfortable, too.’”

A rather underestimated value of having more bikers and e-scooter riders on the road is the flourishing of local businesses. As Go Tian explained, “You don’t experience the city that well when you’re inside your car. You experience the city when you’re walking or commuting because you actually spend time looking at your surroundings and not just on the road, right? So you can see the local bakery or the local coffee shop that you probably wouldn’t have noticed if you were in your car. So, yes, active mobility helps promote local businesses and, in the long run, the economy.”

Go Tian is hopeful that adopting sustainable solutions for all helps not just the bikers and e-scooter riders but, really, everybody else. “If we can get it right, the economy can flourish. People will also have more spending power because they have more money to spend instead of wasting it on, say, the maintenance of a car.

“This is the right time to set a standard and good long-term plans. I believe we can do it.”

Juju Z. Baluyot is a Manila-based writer who has written in-depth special reports, news features, and opinion-editorial pieces for a wide range of publications in the Philippines.

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