Road culture in the new normal

While we have stayed indoors, the coronavirus pandemic has been transforming the landscape of our shared spaces in ways we never expected. Nowhere is this more palpable than in our roads.

Road traffic everywhere has its distinct pace, rhythm, and rules. No one knows this better than the tourist who must navigate the streets of a city for the first time. Whether traveling on foot, on a bicycle, or in a motor vehicle, a visitor would find a map useful. But not even the best city map would be able to tell what the streets are like, or what kind of traffic there is on the road, at any given time.

Over the last five months that we have been on lockdown, public transport has practically disappeared. The passenger jeepneys and buses that used to dominate our roads are gone. In addition to private cars, the number of motorcycles on the road has increased exponentially, reflecting the growing popularity of delivery services.

And so have bicycles.

In the absence of public transportation, many commuters are turning to bicycles as an inexpensive mode of transport. Finding the roads less crowded than usual, more commuters are discovering the healthful and practical benefits of cycling to and from work. But many of them, particularly those new to biking on city roads, are totally unprepared for the kind of road culture that exists in our country.

It is a world where the hegemony of the motor vehicle is virtually unquestioned, where two-wheeled vehicles are consigned to the margins, and where the lowly pedestrian does not belong. It is a way of life ruled by the arrogance of speed and size, and the anonymity of tinted windows and windshields. It is a place where we forget our generosity, lose our sense of community, and set aside that wellspring of all virtues — courtesy.

To its credit, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) has, even before the pandemic, actively sought to reconfigure the city’s road space by designating special blue lanes for motorcycles and green lanes for bicycles. In addition, where they are feasible, the MMDA has carved secure bike lanes separate from road traffic. But, all these amount to little without the radical reorientation of a road system designed almost entirely for cars.

Motorcyclists saw this for themselves when inexpensive “underbones” and scooters from China and Taiwan began flooding the country more than 10 years ago. Riders had to fight for every square inch of road to assert their right in a domain in which they were seen as inferior citizens. Light and agile, these bikes allowed their riders to weave in and out of slow-moving traffic, hitting the side mirrors of irate car owners who could do nothing but shout curses from inside their cages.

To avert anarchy and restore a semblance of order to this contested space, the authorities designated a motorcycle lane on every major thoroughfare but fell short of making it exclusive to motorcyclists. While it hasn’t worked as originally intended, it nevertheless served its purpose. The designated lane recognized motorcycle riders’ right to share the road. Other motorists are now more conscious of their presence, instinctively moving their vehicles a little so these small bikers could find a narrow path between cars.

It may be harder for bicyclists to fight for the same right. Motorists, and perhaps cyclists themselves, may find it more reasonable to demand that segregated cycling paths be built exclusively for bicycle users. These are certainly safer than having bicycles share road space with motor vehicles. But, even if enough of these protected bicycle pathways are built and interconnected, they will not necessarily make biking safer for the many who have turned to it as a mode of commuting during this pandemic.

We would still need to reorient our road culture in order to make room for bicycles in our streets, as crowded as they already are. The reason for this is that most of our existing roads permit only, at best, the marking of narrow bicycle paths with paint or orange cones. Cyclists would still find it necessary, at certain points, to move to the inner lane to make a turn.

As a motorcyclist myself, I have always found this to be the most intimidating part of riding on a wide multi-lane highway like Commonwealth Avenue. Quite often, there is not enough time to switch gradually from one lane to the other. Filipino motorists do not instinctively slow down to make it easy for a slower vehicle to weave into the flow. In recent weeks, I have seen obvious newbies on bicycles making a dangerous swerve into the inner lane in a desperate effort not to miss the U-turn slot. I can only imagine how many new bicycle riders will die during this transition.

Many of them take the open road with barely any understanding of the basic rules of driving. Most motorists are not used to seeing them on the road, much less sharing space with them. One cannot imagine anything more fatal than this blend of ignorance, blindness, and uneven speed.

In the mid-1980s, China, a bicycle culture, transitioned to a car culture. In the 1990s, Vietnam’s roads were flooded with scooters and motorbikes, before ceding space to cars. In both instances, two-wheelers had claimed the streets ahead of cars. Yet, a steep rise in accidents marked the transition in both societies.

In a span of 50 years, we have done the opposite—going from cars to jeepneys to motorcycles and now to bicycles. If our road culture cannot keep up with these disorienting changes, we may be facing a pandemic of road accidents.