Filipino cyclists reclaim Manila streets as they defy ‘unknown’ stigma

“It’s always like a war on the streets, just to get home,” Amarnani said later, after driving 6 kilometers on potholed roads to reach her husband and two young sons home.

Come rain or shine, she is determined to fly the dangerous streets of Metro Manila. A yellow reflector hanging from the back of her bike reads: “Working Mom, pass with care.”

But Amarnani is far from the only woman braving the chaotic streets of the Philippines’ capital region on two wheels. Despite the near-total lack of protective infrastructure and the persistence of patriarchal and societal stigma, more Filipina women are choosing to get in the saddle, pedaling toward greater representation – and safer, more inclusive roads for all.

Jaramia Amarnani, 41, braves hostile drivers and cycle lanes full of motorbikes in the Metro Manila area. She has a sign on the back of her bike that says “Working Mom, Pass With Care.” Photo: Jhesset O. Enano

Bike Pandemic Explosion

When Covid-19 shut down public transport systems around the world, major cities around the world, from New York to Jakarta, experienced an explosion of bicycles. The amount American consumers spend on bicycles and bicycle accessories increased 620 percent from March 2020 to 2023, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, reaching about $8 billion a month nationwide.

Interest in cycling – both for commuting and for leisure – increased. Bicycle production and supply struggled to keep up with the sudden demand.

Metro Manila, home to 14 million people, was no exception. With fewer cars on the road and virtually no public transportation options, many commuters he went out on a bicycle for the first time.

Pop-up bike lanes were created along major arteries. Transportation advocates have pushed for infrastructure and policy changes amid hopes that the metropolis will not return to pre-pandemic congestion.

Traffic congestion costs the country up to 3.5 billion pesos ($62 million) daily, according to a 2018 CNN report.

Gasoline vehicles also contribute to carbon emissions, making cycling – whether on an e-bike or a regular bike – a three-in-one environmental solution: offering less congestion, better air quality and a concrete response to climate change.

As pandemic restrictions have eased, however, vehicles are returning to Philippine roads, and bike commuters like Amarnani are once again being pushed to the gutter, literally and figuratively.

A jeepney awaits passengers in Manila.  Photo: Bloomberg

A jeepney awaits passengers in Manila. Photo: Bloomberg

However, the bicycle boom proved that there was potential for a great cycling culture in the country. National surveys conducted between May 2020 and April 2022 found that there were four bicycle owners for every car owner.

The Philippine government’s first bike count from January to December 2022 recorded up to 1.7 million bike trips along three of Metro Manila’s main highways, amounting to about 41,000 trips per month, on average.

While seeing more Filipinos on bikes is already a major leap in the right direction, mobility advocates still notice a gender gap among cyclists. This is a trend that is also evident in many other nations, according to studies by the US-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

Keisha Mayuga, a sustainable transportation advocate and researcher, said it is still common to find many Filipina women who do not know how to ride a bicycle, as they were not allowed to do so as children. While attitudes are beginning to change, many families retain a fear of letting their daughters ride bikes.

“It’s seen as dangerous and unpleasant for many households and that thinking is passed on to the next generation,” she said, adding that safety is “always the number one barrier for women.”

Without protected bike lanes, accidents have become commonplace on the streets of Metro Manila. In 2021, government figures showed that almost 2,400 cyclists were involved in road accidents in the capital region, 33 of which were fatal.

Despite a national law passed in 2019 against gender-based sexual harassment in public places, many women still report incidents of verbal and sexual abuse. Female bikers are no exception to this as they find themselves being catcalled or followed by men while riding their bikes, or even being grabbed by motorcycle riders.

Community building

Amarnani never even thought about cycling. But in 2014, after spending countless hours stuck in traffic and facing long queues while pregnant, she decided to give commuting by bike a try.

“I got the courage because I had to go home to my children,” she said. “The need to take them home was greater than my fear.”

After taking maternity leave for her second child, she bought her first bicycle – a motherfucker (“mom’s bike” in Japanese) that are famous for their practicality.

It used to take her an hour and a half to complete her short commute to work by car or public transport, but by bike that was down to just 15 minutes.

As a working mother who is still nursing a baby, she was able to quickly bring her depleted breast milk home and spend more time with her family – hours she would normally lose to boredom and irritation in traffic.

In 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, Amarnani noticed a surge of interest in bike commuting among women, especially young professionals and students.

Spurred by the news of a female doctor who was killed by a huge truck while cycling home from work, Amarnani and other female cyclists started a Facebook group called the Pinay Bike Commuter Community. pinay is slang for a Filipina.

Through word of mouth, members have created a women-only online space where members are encouraged to share their experiences on the road, whether they are first-timers, veteran bike commuters, or just curious about how to pedal to work through the Metro Manila. dangerous roads.

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It was also a response, Amarnani said, to her own experience of feeling unwelcome as a woman in other cycling communities when she first started on two wheels.

In the Facebook group, members can feel free to ask any questions they like, not only about cycling but also about concerns only women face. From cycling tips on your period to advice on avoiding saddle sores and cracked nipples, all questions are welcome and answered.

Now with more than 6,500 members, the group has also become a safe space to share experiences of sexual harassment.

Members of the Facebook group have had discussions about how to defend themselves if they are groped or catcalled while walking their bikes, and often share tips for bike routes that are poorly lit or with aggressive drivers and should be avoided.

Amarnani changes into business attire as soon as she reaches the office.  She says many colleagues were surprised to hear she was cycling to work.  Photo: Jhesset O. Enano

Amarnani changes into business attire as soon as she reaches the office. She says many colleagues were surprised to hear she was cycling to work. Photo: Jhesset O. Enano

Courage on the road

Despite these dangers, however, the female cycling community continues to grow in urban areas, a reflection of how more Filipino women are reclaiming the outdoors.

Karen Crisostomo, a 58-year-old transportation advocate who has been biking to work for 20 years, said better infrastructure, such as protected bike lanes and decent lighting, would encourage more women to consider cycling as a transportation option.

“We’ve made some steps forward, but in terms of mindset, we’re still in the first step,” he said.

Amarnani knows there is a long road ahead. But for now, she says she finds joy in seeing more women discover the “liberating” feeling of being on a bike.

She said it means freedom, not only from punishing traffic and over-reliance on cars, but also from people’s expectations of what women and mothers should or shouldn’t do.

“Now there’s a sense that even when I’m alone on the street, I represent all the women they’ll see later on the street,” she said. “They shouldn’t be surprised anymore. We will stay here, and there will be many of us.”

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