Five things North American cities can learn about cycling from Manila

While cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen have adopted the bicycle as the future of transportation, it’s simply not the case for other places in the world. But there’s just as much to learn from those who lack as there is with those who prosper. So today, let’s take a look at the Philippine capital city of Manila.

As someone who bikes to work and has had to ride through EDSA (the capital’s busiest and most infamous highway) on a daily basis, believe me when I say that it wasn’t the leisurely ride that one would expect from the more developed areas of the world. Here, you’d be hard-pressed to find a portion of the metropolis that isn’t overcrowded. You’d think a city this congested would automatically resort to alternative means of transportation, and while Daydreaming in Paradise details that car sales have dropped for the first time in 7 years, Manila still has a long way to go. To its credit, the Philippines has taken a step in the right direction when it comes to making its cities more bike-friendly, so let’s see what lessons we can learn from Manila about cycling.

Manila isn’t not one of the world’s bike havens, but it has things to teach other cities. Photo by Christian Paul Del Rosario from Pexels.

Safety

Rappler reports that 1,127 people on bicycles died in crashes from 2005 to 2013, averaging to about 125 fatalities per year. As a response to this, the Philippines passed House Bill 8911, which mandates a 1.5-meter minimum overtaking distance from cyclists by motor vehicles in 2019.

Now consider how you may have taken safety for granted. Collisions happen all the time all over the world, and it can happen to you even in an environment that does its best to protect you. While you can’t control everything on the road, there are some things you can: Check your breaks, check on your tires, and most of all, remain alert at all times.

Bask in Nature

Because of the sub-optimal conditions afforded to cyclists in Manila, they’ve been forced to look for alternative spaces to scratch their cycling itch. For instance, the holiday town of Tagaytay is a two-hour car ride from Manila, and in it is one of the most breathtaking cycling trails in the world. The Twin Lakes Mountain Bike Trail is a 2.5 km that goes deep into a lush forest, all while giving you one of the best views of Taal Lake that you would have missed had you not gone on this trail.

Why not take your cycling away from the city once in a while? Go on a hike or a camping trip and bring your bike with you. While some cities are great for cycling, there’s just something about the great outdoors that cities will never be able to replicate.

Photo by Marfil Graganza Aquino from Pexels.

Ride on Sundays

In Manila, cycling is tantamount to a luxury. Some people set aside one day and head out to a trail or a park, and just take cycling as an opportunity to relax and unwind. Could you say that you’ve treated cycling the same way?

If you find yourself getting a little tired of cycling, why not try and view it as a treat? Use Sunday cycling as an opportunity to have fun instead of the usual slog that it may have turned into in your daily life.

Community Building

When things go awry and no one does anything about it, communities must rise to the occasion. This is what the National Bicycle Organization (NBO) is all about. The NBO organizes events and bicycle lessons in the Philippines in hopes of fostering a more bicycle-friendly city.

Remember that cycling doesn’t always have to be a solitary experience. Gather up some friends and take a ride together. What better way is there to build a community than a shared passion for cycling?

Remember why you do it

Considering how hard it is for cyclists in Manila, you’d have to wonder why anyone would still do it. Well, the short answer is: They like it. Despite all the hardships that cyclists go through, enthusiasts keep on and do it for the love of it.

You may have taken advantage of the experience of cycling, reducing it to nothing but a means to get from Point A to Point B. Think back to the times when you enjoyed doing it — this way, you may end up enjoying your daily rides more than usual.

Mandy Johnson has been a digital nomad long before the term became a buzzword for aspiring remote workers around the world. She spent four years living and working in the gridlocked traffic of beautiful Metro Manila, a daily puzzle that she sometimes solved with pedal power. When she’s not chasing after deadlines, she’s scouring the edges of the metro for new places to explore with her trusty mountain bike.

Urban transportation is being disrupted, but it isn’t big tech that’s doing it

The idea that big-tech will revolutionize urban transportation is fading more every day. Photo by Tom Babin.

The cry went out as soon as the news hit Twitter: “No! Now I’m going to have to buy a second car!”

That was the response from a co-worker when the news broke recently that Calgary, where I live, was among the handful of North American cities being abandoned by car-sharing company Car2go. When the company launched in Calgary in 2012, it was an unexpected hit. A car-centric oil town with middling transit, the fact car-sharing was an immediate success here (it was reported that Calgary had the second-highest number of Car2go members in North America) had people re-assessing the city’s culture of obligatory car ownership. 

Yet it was short-lived. The announcement of the company’s withdrawal from Calgary hit many people hard, particularly those living close to downtown who had come to rely on it as a second (or even first) vehicle. I felt that pain. Although my family has yet to cast off the yoke of the second family vehicle, I was a regular Car2go user and its convenience had always been a source of inspiration for that day when my family too could own one less car.

But the timing of Car2go’s change came at an interesting time, and it’s easy to see the withdrawal as a harbinger of a bigger change. Or if not a harbinger, at least a symbol of an imagined future that is getting more and more unlikely. 

As recently as a year ago, it was easy to envision a future in which technology truly changed the way we get around our cities. We seemed to be on the cusp of changing that old 1970s image of car-clogged freeways spewing carbon and chasing pedestrians away with a new future of transportation in which self-driving electric robot cars whisk us down safe, clean free-flowing streets. 

Uber was winning its fights against the taxi establishment. Tesla was rolling out cars with auto-pilot. Ford was investing in car-sharing and putting out ads like the one above. Silicon Valley companies were dropping off cheap and clean scooters all over our cities.  

Those days seem like a mirage now; an embarrassingly naive vision of an impossible future. Let’s count the ways in which this futurism bubble has been burst recently: 

You might be forgiven for cynically thinking that we just spend a decade and billions of investor dollars to figure out what society learned 80 years ago: Urban transportation is really hard, and perhaps impossible to make profitable. So far, we’ve yet to find a system of mass transportation that can survive without public subsidies (yes, that includes the private automobile and its subsidies in the form of the billions we spend to build a road network almost exclusively for them.)

Yet something else has been happening at the same time. Despite all of these problems, our cities are changing. But it has nothing to do with technology. 

Increasingly, cities are finally realizing that cars are ruining their downtowns and are doing something about it. After a cycling renaissance under its last civic administration, New York is turning some streets over to transit-only, and announced plans for congestion pricing, whereby all vehicles entering downtown would pay a fee, similar to other programs that have been in place for years in cities such as London. Madrid has banned many types of vehicles from its downtown in a bid to reduce carbon emissions. Paris is heading down the same path. Other cities, such as Stockholm, have already banned cars

Bike-share programs like Montreal’s Bixi are different than dockless programs in many ways, including the support and subsidization of the municipal government. Photo by Tom Babin

And although it’s still unfathomable to see Calgary take such measures in the short-term, my old-fashioned bicycle commute has slowly but surely gotten better in recent years. After the much-ballyhooed construction of a cycle-track network a half-decade ago, and a subsequent stalling of new infrastructure, tiny investments in improving bike infrastructure are finally paying off and making my commute safer and easier. By next year, it will be possible my ride to work will be nearly 100 per cent on bike paths and separated bike lanes.

So while it’s painful for many people to see that techo-upotian transportation future fade from vision, perhaps there’s a future vision that had always been there but had been nearly forgotten beneath the hype of transportation tech. This new/old vision is built on the idea that people, not cars, need to get around a city and that public investments are perhaps best made on the public. 

We’re a long way from achieving that vision — most of our cities still treat transit like welfare, investments in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure are still bedevilled with petty arguments, and it’s still nearly impossible to live in many parts of the continent without a car. As future visions, it’s not as sexy as the one Silicon Valley trumpeted. But this is the only one proven to work. 

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

Testing the best ways to get around a city: Bike, e-bike and e-scooter

It’s an urban challenge we’ll all run into at some point: You need to get across the city quickly. What’s the best way?

To answer that, I decided to test three transportation options.

  1. My own bike.
  2. A dockless shared e-bike from Lime.
  3. A dockless shared e-scooter from Lime.

This isn’t only about speed. I’m also factoring in things such as costs and the all-important sweat factor. Any predictions?

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

A single-speed bike may be the key to your ultimate bike commute

It’s the forgotten step-child of the bike-commuting world, overlooked in favour of flashier models loaded with extras, like, you know, gears and shifters.

But there’s something magical about the simplicity of a single-speed bike. Lacking derailleurs and all the associated mechanics that come with them, single-speeds are the kind of bike you never have to think about. They rarely need maintenance. Your gears never go out of tune. Your derailleur never clicks in maladjustment. Your cassette never gets clogged with mud or ice. It just works.

But is all that worth the trade-off of never having a second gear? That was the question that drove the latest video in my commuter-challenge series. The goal of this series is to give you information about different kinds of bikes so you can make better decisions about your bike life. So far, I’ve tested the speed, effort and overall ride of a number of bikes: Road bikes, city bikes, electric bikes, mountain bikes. This time, the wild card was the single-speed.

Check it out below. You can see the other videos in my series here.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

Bike racer or city cruiser: Who has the best bike commute?

Is going as fast as possible the best way to commute to work on a bike? That’s the question we’re testing in this video, thanks to a guest appearance by former pro cyclocross racer, current coach and all-around amazing guy Mark McConnell, aka Hot Sauce (go check out his website here.)

Here’s how we tested the question. Mark, in athletic clothing and riding a fast bike, agreed to commute as fast as possible. Following the same route, I commute in my work clothes on my comfortable three-speed city bike. Who will have the better commute? Watch to find out.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

My summer mission: Photographing utility-box art in my city

More than a decade ago, the City of Calgary commissioned artists to paint utility boxes. You’ve seen these nondescript grey things that electricity runs through, even if you’ve never consciously noticed them before. I hadn’t. They are part of the overlooked underpinnings of city infrastructure, like telephone poles or storm drains.

But dozens of artists have painted them in Calgary as part of this project, and, one day, while perusing the city’s open data site (I don’t have a lot of hobbies), I came across a list of the commissioned painted boxes and their locations. After a little spreadsheet work and some Google magic, voila, I had a map of every one of those 68 boxes.

This isn’t all of the painted boxes in the city. Apparently, the map hasn’t been updated in some time. But still, I kind of like these utility boxes. And I like maps. So I decided that I would make it my summer project to visit each of the points on this map on my bicycle and take a look at the art. And since I’m there, I’ll snap a photo and post it to Instagram, in a style inspired by Behind Handlebars. By the end of summer, hopefully, I’ll have a gallery of 68 artfully painted utility boxes.

Even as I type this I’m struggling to come up with an answer for the inevitable question that will follow: Why? Beats me. Ask me when I’m finished.

If you lead an empty life and want to follow along, Instagram is your best bet. And I’m taking a bit of time away from my usual blogging and vlogging this summer as a creative recharge, so this may be all you’ll get from me for a while. Enjoy your summer.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

Why multiuse pathways sometimes suck for cyclists

Why would a person on a bike choose a road over a pathway designed specifically for cycling? After being yelled at by a motorist for riding my bike on a road adjacent to a shared multiuse pathway, I decided to bicycle commute home using only pathways to show the good, the bad and the ugly about multiuse pathways.

The results show that the good and the bad about pathways. The good? For recreation, they can be fantastic: usually placed in beautiful places and rolling through parks, they are looping routes that allow for connections to nature and slow, easy rides perfect for hauling a picnic or visiting relatives.

For transportation? Not so much. They tend to be indirect, full of gaps, and rarely get you directly where you need to go. And as some followers have also pointed out, they tend to have slow speed limits and be full of pedestrians, both of which slow a commute.


Check out the video below for more.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

City bike, road bike or e-bike? What’s best for bicycle commuting?

What’s the best bike for commuting? This is the second video in which I test different types of bikes on my commute. This time, instead of a mountain, road or city bike, like I did last time, I tested these bikes: A slow, comfortable city bike, a light and fast road bike and a pedelec , a.k.a an electric pedal-assist bike.

Which one is best? I measure my commutes on all of the bikes and compare the numbers.

If you don’t want to watch the video, here are some of the numbers:
City bike: Riding time: 66:61, average speed of 20.2 km/hr
Road bike: Riding time: 58:65, average speed of 22 km.hr
Electric bike: Riding time: 56:31, average speed of 24.6 km/hr

Speed, however, is not the only factor in bike commuting. In the video, I also examine a number of other factors around bike commuting, such as comfort, costs and the sweat factor.

I hope this video helps you become a better bike commuters.

Also: You’ll probably notice that my math is weird on some of the calculations. I have an accumulated time of 58:65, for example, which should be expressed as 56:05. The larger point I’m trying to make still stands, but, yeah, I messed up.

Here’s my first bike commute challenge.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

Why it’s time to stop building painted bike lanes

Two thing caught my eye recently and led to the question: do painted bike lanes suck? In fact, the question might go even farther: is a painted bike lane more dangerous than nothing at all?

You know what I’m talking about. It’s those bike lanes that are created just with a strip of paint and nothing else. No protection or separation from passing motors vehicles as all. Just a strip of paint.

The first came when I saw a talk recently by Dr. Jennifer Dill from Portland State University, who has done a ton of research into urban cycling. And one of the things she did recently was to survey people’s impressions of different types of bike infrastructure.

One of those question was to ask people if the presence of a different types of bike infrastructure made them more likely to ride a bike in a city. She asked about things like painted bike lanes, bike paths or protected bike lanes. And among the lowest results was painted hike lanes. People didn’t like them. They just don’t feel safe in them.

One of the vehicles that passed my while riding in this painted bike lane. Photo by Tom Babin.

Which is interesting. Bike lanes are explicitly designed to accommodate cyclists, but most people perceive them as unsafe.

But maybe that’s just perception. Are they actually unsafe?

A different new study looked at this question. It looked at passing distance. Basically, the researchers hooked up a device to cyclists that measures the distance of passing vehicles. They sent those cyclists riding on different types of roads to see if drivers gave the cyclist more space when there was a bike lane.

What do you think happened? Yep, researchers found that motorists passed cyclists closest in two situations: Around parked cars, and in painted bike lanes.

I found this bizarre. Not only did people perceive painted bike lanes as among the most unsafe types of bike infrastructure, they are probably right.

So I did a little experiment and recorded one day of my bike commute. I then examined the video to see if this research bears out. Guess what? On just one day of commuting, I found that research is probably correct. The closest calls with cars came around parked cars and in painted bike lanes.

Which leads to a natural question: If painted bike lanes suck so bad, why do we build them? My theory? Because they are easy. Even though they do nothing to help cyclists, they are cheap, easy to implement and make cities feel like they are helping.

But it’s time to move on. Let’s drop the painted bike lanes in favour of infrastructure that actually works. Separate bikes from cars and people will ride bikes. It’s simple. Now, we just have to do it.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 


Can a cargo bike fit your urban life? Maybe this one can. Plus, it’s electric!

True cargo bikes are amazing. They can haul just about anything, including furniture, children and that Tinder date you just swiped on. But their size can sometimes be limiting for those living smaller urban lifestyles. That’s why I wanted to try out this bike, the Tern GSD S00, a kind of smaller and more portable cargo bike. With features of a folding bike and a great Bosch electric pedal-assist motor, this is a pedelec that may just fit an urban life.

Also check out Power in Motion. This Calgary company loaned me this bike, and they do the most amazing overviews of all their bikes on YouTube. Great info (and they make amazing heated clothing too, for you winter riders).

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

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