From Interest Group to Advocates: How this Community of Bikers is Taking the Wheel for Social Change

MANILA, Philippines—The focus on cycling gained significant ground when public transport was put on an unprecedented stop during the COVID-19 lockdown, leaving many citizens, especially employees, in limbo as they try to figure out how to go about getting to their daily source of living. But, as the pandemic has shown, the worst of times also has the power to bring out the best in people.

Interest groups like First Bike Ride (FBR) have become bridges in educating the public on the societal merits of biking, no small thanks to its growing community of cyclists from enthusiasts, to professionals, down to aspirants from all walks of life, industries, and backgrounds.

Founded by freelance journalist Lester Babiera, FBR is built on a mission of strengthening the bike transport market’s visibility and to amplify its core message of inspiring people to consider cycling as a primary mode of city transportation. This is done by sharing stories from the biking community to a broader audience, aimed at sparking conversations on its many benefits, particularly on its impact on health, sustainability, as well as urban planning and infrastructure development.

Lester Babiera

A newbie biker himself, the initiative was born out of a dire need of exercise. Nailed to the confines of his room, plucked from life busied by everyday trips to the outdoors due to the pandemic, it took two long months for Babiera to buy a bike and take his first bike ride. A year later, the pandemic-bred movement became a fully-realized vision that became a precursor to pushing the group’s advocacies.

Babiera tells Rank Magazine, “It took me two months to finally be convinced to get a bike. Thanks to my friends who encouraged me. I realized that if I want to encourage aspiring bikers, they need to have a friend too—someone who’ll push them to ride a bike. The reality is that not everyone has that kind of friend.”

“You see, some experienced bikers can be intimidating when they start bringing up expensive brands, the science of speed and upgrades, among others. I want aspiring and newbie bikers to be comfortable in shifting to the bike lifestyle. So, I created First Bike Ride to be [that] friend [for them],” he added in jest.

Biking as a mode of transport, more so a lifestyle didn’t come without questions on safety, security, and even feasibility in a city where heavy-duty vehicles are king. Babiera shares, “I was having my first bike ride outside my comfort zone and I was so scared because I thought that big roads in Metro Manila were dangerous. The ride was from Manila to Quezon City and eventually, I went to Marikina. The experience was surprising, it was easy because there are bike lanes and motorists are generally helpful to bikers. And then that’s when I realized: I want to use this opportunity to get more people into cycling because it’s easier to bike now in the city.”

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With transport advocates now pushing to install proper infrastructure conducive to biking in Metro Manila and beyond when the need became more known and pronounced, we see more and more protected bike lanes that separate people on bikes from the chaos of city traffic with concrete curbs, plastic bollards, or other means—and sometimes with additional safety measures such as special bike traffic lights, as well as painted crossing lanes at intersections. It goes without saying that seeing this rise in demand for change, it’s only a matter of time that local officials and significant institutions would be pushed to pay attention and pave the way for the development of urban infrastructure to build better roads—not just for bikers.

“I wanted to use this opportunity because the popularity of bicycles is rising, and we have more bike lanes as of the moment. People are more confident about riding a bike now. Sadly, most of the bike lanes are temporary. So, if we get more people to shift into the [biking] lifestyle and maintain this, these bike lanes and other infrastructure can be permanent.”

However, while the rise in popularity of biking continues, the call for a transportation shift pushed by FBR and similar groups and movements is not without its hurdles. In 2020, to mark World Bicycle Day, a group of volunteers called Bikers United Marshalls put up makeshift traffic cones fashioned from six-liter water bottles to create a bike lane on Commonwealth Avenue, one of the busiest thoroughfares in Metro Manila. In turn, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA), the agency governing road traffic in the region, removed the installed cones and even fined the group for doing so without a permit.

“I believe that having more bikers will eventually make government agencies and abled groups recognize the need to make the roads better. [And] yes, I believe that bikes can be a solution to our traffic problems.”

In addressing the ever-present problem on city traffic, Babiera notes how road etiquette and adherence to rules significantly aid in alleviating the toxicity of said transportation issues. He says, “I also saw that motorists became more educated with road rules, they slow down and they generally start sharing the road with other users. So, if we get more people to bike and it becomes consistent, the government and concerned agencies will keep on making our roads better. I believe that cycling is one of the best ways to decongest traffic, discourage people to use cars (since they take up a lot of space on the road that cause heavy traffic) and it’s a good support for the improvement of public transportation.”

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This, in huge part, fuels the community built by FBR. He explains, “I’m a car driver and it’s very frustrating to drive here in Metro Manila and in some parts of the Philippines. I recognize that as a car driver, I’m part of the big traffic problem. I was hesitant to use bicycles before because I thought it was dangerous. I want people to have the same realization. If I get to influence a few drivers to use bicycles instead of their cars, I already consider that as a success. But I’m not saying that people should not use cars [altogether]. I’ll still drive a car in certain circumstances but if I can use a bike, I’ll use a bike.”

Apart from its impact on urban planning and development, Babiera highlights that, in its simplest sense, biking makes everyone a friend to the environment with zero toxic emission from cars that has long been a known fact to be harmful to the atmosphere. Practically, biking is also a good social distancing practice amid the continuing threat of the COVID-19 virus. He emphasizes, “Riding a bike is one of the best transportation options: it’s sustainable, healthy, easy and it is a big help in having a good flow of traffic.”

Even as the pandemic saw biking, with the communities and movements like First Bike Ride that have sprung up in support of this as a viable primary form of transport for many, the shift to a more sustainable form of transportation still looks like a long road ahead.

A bike may seem like a small answer, but the significant impact that stems from its use might very well lead into reforming and reimagining a better, more sustainable society in the future.

You may follow First Bike Ride on their official website on Facebook and Instagram as you start your own bike journey.

The original article written by Pete Villalino was first published on www.rankthemag.ph on November 13, 2020 with major revisions on January 12, 2022.