By Pinky C. Serafica

Any cyclist will have love stories of their bikes taking them on multi-day dates, or daily romances to and from work and markets, or weekend flings with buddies and kids. Any padyak (pedal tricycle) driver will have tales of hauling anything from people, produce, cabinets (seen one!) and dog-cat-chicken-fish-pig-goat-and-do-i-hear-carabao?.

Touring, commuting, training, gallivanting, hauling. But in times of crisis, bikes take on extra roles: linking, life-saving.

Bikes are often the first to break through floods, landslides and earthquakes to reach ground zero. Powered entirely by human strength, will and that ancient memory of tribal survival, bikes ride the supply-chain disruption of fuel and electricity that usually marks a crisis.  The first to breach, cyclists then bear the crucial information back about people surviving but needing food, medicine or rescue; and to the survivors–hope, that there are souls who know of them now and help is imminent.          

In times of crisis, bikes take on extra roles: linking, life-saving.

A week after a state of public health emergency was declared in the Philippines due to a local transmission of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), commuters were still out jampacking the already crowded buses, jeepneys and railways. With community transmission looming, by March 16, an enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) covered the entire Luzon island, shutting down all public transportation to get people off the streets. In Metro Manila, that delinked 13 million residents to get them to stay home. 

This left women employed in hospitals like Jamie Blanco and Le Ann Catindig worrying about yet one more thing – how to get to work. Blanco recounts, “Naglakad po papasok. May shuttle bus naman ang (The Medical City) pag uwi. Pero sa umaga, hindi kami kasama sa ruta ng shuttle ” (We walked to go to work. The Medical City has a shuttle that we ride going home but our place is not part of the bus route in the morning.) Her work as stocks clerk at the Intensive Care Unit of The Medical City (TMC) is crucial while Catindig is with the radiology department. 

Home is a 4-kilometer uphill walk from Rosario in Pasig City to the hospital until they found the Facebook page of Life Cycles PH. They posted their request for support, and received a bike each.

Conceived from experience with the University of the Philippines’ bike share program, and born a day after the COVID-19 lockdown in Luzon was declared , Life Cycles PH quickly became as Keisha Mayuga calls it,  a “community.”  Led mostly by women, Life Cycles’ “idea was initially to collect funds to donate bikes through our page,” says Mayuga, an urban planner and bike advocate. From the cash donations, Life Cycles PH bought bikes and gear and donated these to hospitals, one of which was TMC. This was how Blanco and Catindig got their bikes.

Wala po silang hiningi kahit ano. Kahit nga po (yung offer naming) tubig, hindi rin po,” (They didn’t ask for anything. We offered water but they even refused that, too) Blanco remembers the quick exchange. 

From bike donations, Life Cycles PH birthed a modified bike share system where health workers and other frontliners were matched with lenders, many of whom were strangers. “It does take up a lot of trust within our community. We have guidelines to create accountability, but ultimately, the set-up is made by the lender and borrower.” Lenders can download a waiver template from the page but the exchanges, says Mayuga, “doesn’t pass through us anymore.”

Some of the bikes are not just the common, gathering-dust-in-the-garage variety. Many are branded like Ruel Gatchalian’s Bianchi Nyala who lent it to Ynohtna Zeraus (most likely someone’s Facebook account name in reverse). Gatchalian, a multi-media specialist at the Asian Development Bank, had never met “Zeraus” until he posted his bike’s availability in the Life Cycles PH page, and the borrower, who works as a merchandiser in a mall, responded.  Gatchalian banked entirely on trusting a stranger in a time of crisis. 

Mayuga says Life Cycles PH’s FB page showing “photos of lenders meeting up with frontliners have been a great way to check in with the community and ensure accountability.” The lent bikes as with the lenders who were from all ages and sectors, came in all kinds and function – commuters, hybrids, folding, hardtails, city, mamacharis and BMXs.

Mayuga, being a bike commuter herself, appreciates that many of the bikes are not extra junk but loved and even currently used but because of the lockdown, the owners thought they are more useful for frontliners. “They are a lot of security issues at play. What if there are damages or the bike gets stolen? We decided to experiment with just a list of guidelines, and the community grew organically into having people doing checks themselves,” she says. 

The borrowers took to the bikes quickly. It was that or walk to reach essential places of work, and back – in the concrete jungle heat or risk failing to make it safely before the curfews. In the first 72 hours of confusion following the ECQ, health workers expended their energies lining up in checkpoints for hours, and then walk round trip back to the same blockade. 

Powered entirely by human strength, will and that ancient memory of tribal survival, bikes ride the supply-chain disruption of fuel and electricity that usually marks a crisis. 

With the restrictions of the ECQ, “bikes are so ideal,” Mayuga says. Cyclists get to their destinations “practicing social distancing,” she says, and there is almost no cost in fuel compared to shuttles except for the “one-time investment” for buying the bike from donations. The “cyclists’ health, not just physical but mental, too” Mayuga enthuses, is the premium value added. 

For Blanco though, the last time she biked was years ago in high school and even with almost empty main streets, she huffed panic and puffed willpower to get to the hospital with Catindig. “Kinakabahan nga po kami nagba-bike pero sanayan lang din po” (We are nervous biking but we know we’ll get used to it.) She also did her homework and googled and youtubed how to work the gears.

After years of not riding, health workers Blanco (in gray) and Catindig commute by bike to go home. Photo: Jamie Blanco

It takes more than muscle memory though. Many women keeping healthcare and the supply chain lubed are biking again after years of not riding, and road safety is an issue that Life Cycles PH takes seriously. Mayuga and other bike commuters posted how-to’s on the Life Cycles PH page while some lenders briefed their borrowers on bike commuting basics. 

Female bike commuters who knew the risks of the road gave safety tips to other women and “one of them even rode with a nurse who will be borrowing her bike to make sure she is comfortable with the ride,” Mayuga shares.  Bike commuting in Manila is often seen as the ride of blue collar workers who often pedal without the essentials and blings: helmet, safety lights, visibility vests and, spandex shorts.

Steadily, a bike at a time, “we also want to highlight that bike commuting is not just for men–construction workers, janitors but for all (whether you are) women, nurses, doctors. This is the best time to dispel the notion that it’s unwomanly to bike commute,” Mayuga (left photo below in aqua helmet) tells of the advocacy behind Life Cycles PH bike-share and donations platform. (Editor’s note: The author herself, wearing pink in the photo, is a cyclist and cycling advocate.)

Even those without bikes to lend but know how to tinker and repair have offered their services to lenders and borrowers. With many bike shops closed, their skill was welcome. In the online community, extra tires and wheels, bike pumps and other parts to revive bikes not used often also pass hands. In a crisis, the quickest action, most practical and easiest to install solve clear needs, and this is where bikes prove its mettle. 

The renewed interest in bikes for crisis and urban resilience is seeping in the comments section of Life Cycles PH’s page. Blanco and Catindig are biking this mind shift, and in the last weekend, already pedaled for 3 hours and not to work, “exercise din namin. Makakatulong din for the environment” (for our exercise. It will also help the environment).       

Life Cycles PH had no labor pains. “We haven’t had any trolls in the 1.7 thousand plus members, thankfully,” Mayuga jokes about the membership that’s growing by the hour as volunteers either donated cash or lent bikes. “What makes it more inspiring is also seeing the stories of people with successful matches. It creates a ripple effect that makes others want to help out, too.” WWW

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Pinky Serafica is a development communication / behavior change communication specialist at the Asian Development Bank. Manila-based, she regular travels to Asia and the Cordilleras in Northern Philippines where she integrates the other layers of her lives being a cyclist, trekker, advocate of sustainable lifestyles and mother.       

Photo credits: Pinky Serafica (banner), Jamie Blanco, and (Facebook pages of) Ruel Gatchalian, Keisha Mayuga and Life Cycles PH