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Dreaming of the Potential of Bikes in the Philippines

‘The biggest potential of bikes isn’t in sports or leisure, but in mobility.’
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I’ve never met Christian, not in the real sense of the word, but I find myself asking him questions about him and his son, Ian. They live in San Mateo, Rizal, and have been traveling by bicycle to Pasig for Ian’s cerebral palsy therapy. The problem is that Ian, now six, has outgrown their kid carrier bicycle. I’ve been asked to help write a call for donations so that Christian can have a compact utility bicycle built. It doesn’t take too many questions, and soon after we post the call, some money comes in. It isn’t enough, but work on the new bicycle begins in August.

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The plan is to build the compact utility bicycle or CUB using Christian’s existing bike and a car seat found in a surplus shop. The first challenge is how to get the bike to Tanauan, where the workshop is. Once the bike is at the workshop, measurements are in order. Ian is 41 inches tall, 23 inches from his waist to his feet, 12 inches from his knees to his feet, and eight inches wide at the waist. There’s a nice child seat made with light material, perfect for a bicycle. But not for Ian. He can’t sit with his legs apart, Christian explains.

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We can customize it, says Alex, full of ideas. We can even build it so that both Ian and his sister Chloe can sit in the cargo area, he adds, sending a rough sketch that shows the two children facing each other. “This will be fun. They can play while riding,” Alex says. I’m reminded of Disney’s Maurice, an indefatigable inventor. Two weeks later, the frame is ready. Alex sends a video so we can see the bike being tested on an empty street, a worship song playing in the background. And now, let the weak say I am strong. The funds aren’t enough, Alex says, but the next thing he asks is what color to paint the box. By the end of September, the CUB is complete. It looks both familiar and strange. You can see the usual bicycle parts—the wheels, the seat, and handlebar, but right in front of the seat, instead of the usual frame, is a spacious box with two seats. The bike is customized blue and yellow because the kids like Doraemon.

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Christian brings the CUB home from Tanauan. It takes 11 hours, pedaling slowly through the night. From time to time, he stops to buy a drink at stores on the roadside. The tires go flat three or four times, and it is nearly dawn when he arrives in San Mateo. That same evening, Christian, Chloe, and Ian take the CUB to the river park. The bike isn’t fully paid for yet, but in November, an NGO offers to fund the rest of the cost. Alex, who is based in Tokyo, is in Manila, just in time for the annual Tour of the Fireflies. We could all finally meet each other, but I don’t make it.

I still don’t know Christian, but we are Facebook friends. Because his profile information says so, I know that he studied architecture, but I can’t tell what he does for a living. His posts are mostly photos of his wife and children, and here and there, various quotes about love with landscapes in the background. It seems that his wife works as a nurse or a caregiver, and while she works, it’s Christian who takes care of the kids. Christian, Ian, and Chloe go everywhere with the CUB. The river park seems to be their favorite spot. We greet each other Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. He greets me on Mother’s Day, though I don’t recall mentioning my daughter. I suppose this is what being Facebook friends is—knowing things about each other. I like seeing their photos. The kids are always smiling widely, in that way that adults can’t.

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At the Tour of the Fireflies, they catch the attention of Kevin and Rosan, two Dutch students interning at the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities. The students are researching non-motorized transport in Metro Manila, and write about Christian as an example of how traffic in Metro Manila can be a bit better. No sooner than their article is posted on Facebook, an angry comment appears. Hiding behind a fake name and a painting for a profile picture, the attacker says the idea is madness, the suggestion inane, and the article a waste of space. They list reasons not to bike in Metro Manila—the lack of bicycle lanes and parking, poor air quality, and no green spaces. It’s a common reaction to biking in Manila, and it sometimes makes me envious of places like the Netherlands where biking is so commonplace they don’t even think about it.

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It’s Alex who sends me a link to the article and tells me to look at the comment. “They lack imagination because they’re angry,” he says. I don’t really know Alex, but I know that imagination is something he has plenty of. I first came across one of the CUB prototypes on Facebook. The post said they were looking for volunteers to test the bike. I’d never tried a cargo bike before, but I figured, it’s a bicycle. How hard can it be? I sent a message to sign up to test the prototype, and when my turn came, I asked my partner, Ricardo, to pick it up from the ICSC office in the Scouts area.

I wasn’t sure if it was the best idea—he’d only learned to bike three years ago, and he’s one of those people who grew up in the South and get lost once they exit South Luzon Expressway. Despite my doubts about his sense of direction, I figured that between the two of us, his chances of making it back in one piece were higher. Apart from his daily 30-minute ride to his advertising job, he’d gone on a weekend ride to Antipolo, which is much farther than I’ve ever been. I’d been biking to work since 2011, but I rarely go beyond a five-kilometer radius. I once attempted to bike from Makati to Diliman, but I turned back at Greenhills. It was the middle of the day, in the middle of summer, and my Japanese surplus bike (a junk bike, Alex correctly calls it) was heavy. I hadn’t attempted again after that.

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You need to practice riding the CUB before you set out, I remind Ricardo. I had the feeling he wasn’t as confident as he tried to appear, but he had recently decided that he wanted to be a positive force in the world, so he was eager to go on this mission, impossible as it might seem.

The thing about the CUB is it’s longer than the usual bicycle, because of the cargo space between the seat and the handlebar. As I learned soon enough, the steering and balance are a bit different, and even the weight of the lengthy bike takes some getting used to. The CUB, Alex is careful to mention, isn’t an original idea, but modeled after the classic Dutch cargo bike. He explains that not only is its design adapted to Asian cities, where the streets are narrower and busier, but it’s also a better fit for Asian people, who are generally smaller than Europeans.

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 “There’s a disconnect between the design of the bicycles that we get here and the potential that we see in countries where bicycles are used as transportation,” he says. I think of Cambodia, where almost everyone bikes, despite it being hot and dusty, and despite the lack of bicycle lanes or parking. Most of the bikes you’d see on the road aren’t in good condition, although bicycles are the country’s third most valuable export.

Living in Tokyo with his family, Alex was accustomed to using a mamachari, slang for mom’s bike—utility bicycles with baskets and child seats at the front or back. “For our first and second child, we used mamachari, and we found it lacking,” shares Alex, who wanted something better for their third child.

Alex was convinced that the European Long John or bakfiet, which translates to box bike in Dutch, had a better design. Since such bikes were not readily available, he decided to build his own. Back in the Philippines, Alex had already tried his hand at designing and building custom bikes together with a partner, Danny, the main builder who would do the welding and construction. And so he set out to build his first prototype of the CUB. The prototype we were going to test was version three of the CUB, and Alex had already completed version four, which was to be the production model.

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 “I got lost,” Ricardo tells me when he gets home with the CUB. The people at the ICSC office seemed confused when he said he was there to pick up the compact utility bicycle. It took some explaining before someone said, “Ah! The bike with a box!” Ricardo practiced biking up and down the street before entrusting his way to Google Maps. Apart from getting lost a few times, there were no untoward incidents. Thanks to its unusual look, the CUB gets special treatment on the road. Usually, drivers act as if bikes are invisible, but the CUB was a head-turner. Perhaps drivers were so busy staring that they ended up giving way.

Trying it for the first time on our street, a couple of neighborhood kids demanded to know what it was. Instead of answering, I offered them a ride, and though I couldn’t see their faces, I knew they had the same wide grins I’d see on Ian and Chloe. Handling the CUB wasn’t as easy as I’d imagined, but it wasn’t difficult, either. After a few minutes, I had gotten the hang of turning successfully without dismounting. Over the next few days, we took it to the grocery and to school. With its spacious box, it was the perfect grocery companion, but I thought it was not that different from my Japanese junk bike, which had a front basket as well as a rear rack. Its heavy steel frame was sturdy enough for me to transport up to 10 kilos of food, on top of my own weight. I suppose the CUB could carry even heavier loads, and the main difference is the box is safer. As the people at ICSC told Ricardo when he picked the bike up, it’s a great bike for children and animals.

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This is part of Alex’s vision for the CUB, for it to become a start in answering the lack of a local bicycle industry. This is important if we want more people to bike in the future, he explains. “The biggest potential of bikes isn’t in sports or leisure, but in mobility. For the day-to-day things—going to the store, bringing kids to school, going to work—not weekend biking in Nuvali,” he says, adding that that’s nice, too, but the bigger impact on society and environment comes from biking for mobility. Biking for the people. This is partly why the CUB isn’t being mass-produced.

I haven’t met Alex, but we talk for almost two hours when I call to ask a few questions for an article I plan to write. The connection is terrible, and much of it is me apologizing and asking him to repeat himself. At some point, one of his children says hello, and I say hello in return. The interview began with one question—how did he get the idea for the CUB? By the time the child says hello, we’ve talked about e-jeeps, the need for a system that allows people to purchase bicycles on loan or installment, the mystery of why the two-wheeled cargo bike didn’t make its way to Asia, why 20-inch wheels are ideal, and Alex’s days as a student activist. It’s become one of those interviews where I know I’ve gone off-track, but there are stories more important than the story.

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I don’t even know what the story is yet. Alex tells me that he feels a bit like he’s running a scam, because he’s come up with an idea—the CUB—but when people want one, it isn't available. One of the first questions I ask is how much it costs to have one made, and this, too, is a question without a ready answer. Alex wants to lower the cost and lessen the production time, so one of the first steps is building a bigger workshop. Then there’s the lack of capital. So far, Alex has been funding the prototypes with his personal savings, as well as additional funding from friends who support his idea.

There is, of course, the easy route. There is an offer from someone with connections to a factory in Taiwan, but that is the opposite of what Alex wants. “The way I see the bike is, it’s a very good tool, but it could also be harmful—it could also be produced in a harmful way,” he says. You could have a factory and cheap labor and flood the market with that kind of model, he says. “To go that way is just to be part of the problem, but there’s this other way, which I know is difficult or impossible—but I like to try,” says Alex, who wants the CUB to be produced locally, providing local jobs and a truly sustainable mode of transport for people. It’s people, too, that the CUB needs, Alex says. The team so far is very small, and there’s much to be done, from drafting plans to putting up a shop. Before I know it, I’ve become part of the team. “How’s that,” he laughs, and I reassure him that my editor is used to my getting involved in the things I write about. I tell him I should finish the piece in around two weeks, and he tells me to take my time, since the CUB isn’t quite ready yet.

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Eight months later, I find myself listening to the interview again. I still haven’t written the piece. Alex was about to complete the bigger workshop in Tanauan when Taal Volcano erupted in January. Instead of launching production for the CUB, his efforts went into prototyping a rocket stove to cook food for evacuees, and the workshop served as a one-time community kitchen before the evacuees were able to return home.

“I’m thinking of post-Corona scenarios. These circumstances reaffirm the need for the CUB—a local community workshop providing livelihood, building resilient communities. Technology that will help people not only while making it but while using it,” Alex says on the phone in May. We talk for a bit before he has to help his wife make empanadas, their temporary business while the pandemic has put things on hold. Before the pandemic, they worked as cooks at a food business, a Tokyo restaurant that serves Filipino and Japanese dishes. It seems even more unlikely now that I’ll be meeting Alex in person anytime soon, but I feel like I know him enough. By the time we hang up, I’ve agreed to help make a website for the CUB.

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Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought much of the world to a stop. Almost everything is closed, people are confined to their homes, and public transport has shut down, leaving frontliners to walk. I find myself checking up on Christian, who is conducting cerebral palsy therapy for Ian at home. I wonder where the CUB prototypes are, and I learn from Alex that in reality, only one prototype is being used, while the other three are kept unused in the shop. “It’s sad because a lot of people tell me it’s the perfect bike for this time,” Alex says. There’s a small silence in our conversation, and in that small silence I begin to think of the lonely bikes gathering dust in the empty workshop. But then Alex says something else, and so we continue making plans. I imagine the bikes being exactly where they need to be, bringing someone to where they need to go.

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Carmela G. Lapeña
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