Facing traffic and pollution, Philippines city invests in bicycles

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ImageDuring the Martial Law years in the Philippines (1970s to early 1980s), there was a story widely shared (discreetly) about a popular TV variety show host who was made to ride the bicycle all day in a military camp. According to accounts, he apparently displeased the rulers at the time for making a quip about the government's running slogan that goes, "sa ika-uunlad ng bayan, disiplina ang kailangan."Loosely translated, it means, "for the country to progress, discipline is what is needed."

What the TV host jokingly proclaimed was – "sa ika-uunlad ng bayan, bisikleta ang kailangan" ("what the country needs for progress is the bicycle"). True or not, the story fascinates me to this day. First, because some people just can't take a good joke. More importantly, because I thought the TV host must be a real visionary! He may have foreseen the traffic and pollution conditions some 15 years in the future and the need for cheaper alternatives for mobility.

Some 20 years later, the idea of bicycles as a mainstream means of transport resurfaces. When the Philippine government and the World Bank started to prepare an urban transport for Metro Manila, serious discussion of a pilot bikeways project took place. But where to pilot this idea in a metropolis notorious at that time for horrendous traffic jams and poor transport system? One would need a city where the leaders are not only willing to experiment, but also fully committed to make the cycling project work.

Marikina City, a medium-sized city at the eastern edge of Metro Manila, with a population of 500,000 was identified for the demonstration project. Known for its cleanliness, peace and order and steady economic growth, the city was ideal as it already started to think about bike lanes. In the late 1990s the city mayor already constructed jogging lanes, initially along the riverbanks (after relocating informal settlers living in the area), then transformed the jogging lanes into bike lanes when he saw that some residents were using the jogging lanes as bicycle routes.

The World Bank mobilized an initial grant to prepare the feasibility study, and later a large Global Environment Facility grant ($1.3 million) for the implementation of a pilot bikeways project. The project was to help build a network of more than 60 kilometres of bikeways (along existing roads and river banks), connecting residential areas to schools, factories, hospitals, market areas, shopping malls and public transport terminals, including to the Light Rail Transit stations. The project also introduced pedestrianization measures and facilities around schools and market areas and provided bike parking facilities. It also financed street lighting in parts of the network to make cycling safer at night. An aggressive education and public awareness campaign was also supported to encourage more bicycle users, educate motorists about safety of cyclists, and equip the city traffic management personnel with knowledge about the program for them to properly enforce rules in the cycling network.

The project, which started in 2001, seems to have achieved its demonstration effect. From a survey done in 2006, the share of bike trips to all trips in the city increased to 9.5%, from 4% in 1999. Bicycle ownership also grew. The city felt the project was making such a big difference that it ended up putting more money ($1.8 million) into the project.

But the effort paid off. Marikina earned several awards for implementing the project. After surmounting implementation problems, such as motorists resisting the construction of concrete barriers (to separate motorized traffic from bikers); households and shops resisting the need to limit entry and exit points in the frontage of their properties (to avoid friction between cyclists and outgoing/incoming traffic to and from these households/shops); and issues of acquiring rights of way (especially to the LRT stations).

It was rewarding to be involved in this pioneering project. And I look forward to participating in scaling up – hopefully more Philippine cities implementing bicycle projects.

Do you know of any similar projects working to increase bike traffic in Asia? Share them in the comments below.

Image credit: tristanjohn at Flickr under a Creative Commons license.


Chris Pablo

Senior Urban Development Specialist, West Bank and Gaza 

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