The pandemic changed how we travel—it’s time to make it better

For everyone on the road
by agu paiso | Mar 9, 2022
PHOTO: Shutterstock

The light turns red just as the jeepney executes a perfect ‘Schumacher chop,’ cutting across my lane to pick up a solitary commuter. I’ve driven in Metro Manila long enough to anticipate such moves, and slowed the car down, giving him the space he needed to make his boundary.

Such incidents are commonplace in the city. Whenever I get ‘chopped,’ I’m taken back to my Social Science class in college. My classmate Jasper was giving a brilliant speech on how the jeepney is a reflection of the Filipino people. Endearing characteristics like festive paint jobs, colorful indoor lighting, and the bayanihan spirit of passing one’s fare forward to the driver seem to pay homage to our good-time vibe and get-along mentality. Jasper also pointed out that the mirroring wasn’t all positive. Jeepneys can be smoke-belchingly loud, unruly kings of the road, and, thanks to our (lack of) transportation infrastructure, a necessary nuisance...the good-time vibe was gone, and the get-along mentality replaced by getting ahead, just like Formula 1 racers rushing into turn one.

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The light turns green, interrupting my trip down memory lane, and I’m returned to the here and now—as another jeepney honks, or rather moos, at me to get my ass into gear.

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Much has changed since Jasper’s speech almost 30 years ago (yes, I’m dating myself here). The number of road users has grown, and while optimists may argue that this is a sign of progress—of more people traveling and more goods being transported—it has far outpaced any improvements in road capacity. There is also a proportional increase of those who disregard the most basic rules of the road (speed limits, for starters), or even common courtesy (turn signals are used for a reason).

The result? Congestion due to the “sheer volume of vehicles,” as reporters are wont to say. Traffic has become part and parcel of everyday life, affecting productivity and being, quite literally, a waste of time. There’s literally a dozen or so things I’d rather be doing than inching my way through traffic. To be clear, I’m hardly a pessimist, but sometimes reality isn’t all smooth driving.

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As if things couldn’t get any worse, the pandemic hit.

The lockdown gave weary drivers, worn-out commuters, and our stifled streets some well-deserved relief—a welcome side effect (see, I’m not all doom and gloom). The first two weeks were blissfully, strangely, quiet. As if someone pressed the mother of all pause buttons.

Then weeks turned into months, and it became clear that some societal, lifestyle, and behavioral adaptations have to be made before a return to ‘normalcy’ is attempted. An optimist would call these changes “blessings in disguise”—we are a resilient people after all. (Now, I’m not here to wax poetic about vaccination requirements, mask mandates, physical distancing, political platforms, and the like.)

One such adjustment was the work-from-home model, and the realization that employees can still be productive even if they weren’t physically present at the workplace. Those who absolutely had to be at work found ways around the limited commuting options available—sales of personal mobility devices (aka electric kick scooters) and bicycles boomed. To accommodate these ‘new’ types of road users, the LGUs shoehorned PMD and bicycle lanes into current infrastructure—much to the delight of cycling advocates and maybe to the chagrin of existing road users.

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Full disclosure: I’ve been riding bikes longer than I’ve been driving cars, and I think all road users should be treated with equal respect. What’s particularly concerning for me is that this new generation of road users are unaware of the rules of the road (note, I use ‘unaware’ versus ‘disregard,’ since it is assumed that a licensed driver is aware). They seem to think they are still pedestrians, when in fact, once a cyclist is on a road, they are considered, for all intents and purposes, a car, and the respective laws should apply. However, now is not the time for me to open the cans of worms that are labeled ‘education’ and ‘enforcement.’

One of the takeaways since lockdown began, I think, is that private and public transport must now coexist with ride-sharing platforms, delivery services, motorcycles, personal mobility devices, and non-motorized means of conveyance such as bicycles and soles of feet. Unfortunately, roads haven’t gotten any wider—but we can always broaden our view and put ourselves in the shoes of our fellow road users. As cliche as it may sound, the “share the road” mantra is not exclusive to cyclists.

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So, now we are in the new normal. Alert levels have been lifted, and more people are moving about, sometimes with pent-up vengeance. The rush hour has returned, and here I am, once again inching my way through traffic. A group of bicycle commuters pass me on the bike lane, their rear lights blinking, teasing me as they ride off into the distance.

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