[OPINION] It’s time to create a true Pinoy bicycle

Alex Silva
[OPINION] It’s time to create a true Pinoy bicycle
'One often neglected topic, in the context of finding long-term solutions [for sustainable transport], is the importance of a local bicycle manufacturing industry'

In the discussions about the role of cycling in the promotion and building of sustainable transport and mobility, one often neglected topic, in the context of finding long-term solutions, is the importance of a local bicycle manufacturing industry. While advocates are encouraging people to ride bicycles, we should also be asking if the available bicycles will serve us well – in our coming and going from point A to B with our bags, groceries, children, and tools of trade; in sunny or rainy weather; on streets with potholes and sharp debris. 

There’s a call for building a cycling culture in the face of the climate crisis and ongoing pandemic, but will it be a sustainable and healthy culture if our bicycles are mass produced, designed for a different purpose (such as sports), or intended for a different user (tall people) and made in big factories overseas? 

A clear vision, sound policies, and infrastructure are key elements for building a cycling culture, but equally important is the design of bicycles we will be using. The history of bicycles in the Philippines is a history of waves of booming and waning fashion dictated by what the overseas market and culture export to us – from road bikes, to BMX, to mountain bikes, to fat tires, and the most recent, gravel bikes and electric bikes. Common to all of these is that they are designed for sports and recreation. (READ: [OPINION] Breaking the wheel: The rise of bicycle-riding)

There’s one kind of bicycle we get that is designed for everyday use, and that is the city bike from Japan that we mistakenly call the “surplus bike.” This is incorrect – these were used and thrown away as garbage. This situation is also problematic because spare parts for the Japanese bikes are difficult to find. While there are also available bicycles made for commuting such as the branded folding bikes, these are not affordable to the common people. 

A local bike manufacturing industry implemented through local community workshops, similar to the backyard industry producing jeepneys and tricycles, will be more conducive to innovations and customizations which are required by a variety of users. Makers directly interacting with users is a good guarantee of the bicycle’s serviceability. Local workshops will not only be ideal with regards to creating more appropriate designs, but will give rise to economic activity for the community. Implementing it on this scale will require smaller investment as opposed to the big box factory model, and will therefore be more affordable to small entrepreneurs and cooperatives. It will also be easier for government and private funding institutions to support. 

It should be emphasized that the partnerships and collaboration among the local community workshops, concerned government agencies (ex. TESDA, DOST etc), private funding institutions (micro-credit banks) and the academe (schools and universities with its engineering knowledge and resources) is a must. This is to avoid the experience of the backyard industry for jeepneys and tricycles, which was left unregulated and neglected and resulted in low standards of comfort and safety. (READ: [OPINION] Diary of a wimpy biker in Metro Manila)

The local workshops can start with framebuilding. Of all the parts of the bicycle, it is the frame which is the biggest factor for how it will be appropriate for the intended use. Of all the parts of the bicycle, the frame is the one we can easily manipulate (ex. steel or bamboo as a material) in the context of the tools and skills available to us. We are also fortunate that we are in the time where tools have become smaller, cheaper, and more easily available. We also do not lack skills and ingenuity. Filipinos are all over the world creating and building. Again, we have the history of the jeepney and tricycle to prove that.

While there are existing bicycle framebuilders, they mostly cater to a small population of a cycling sub-culture, like the “fixie” riders. One encouraging development is the effort of the members of Cargo Bike Philippines in exploring, adapting, and building the design of cargo bikes, which is experiencing a revival all over the world.

The climate crisis is upon us. Pandemics will be a new normal. A bicycle is without a doubt a tool for a more resilient society. The bicycle is a 200-year-old technology. Filipinos have already sent a satellite to space. There’s a Japan bike and there’s a Dutch bike. How about a Pinoy bike? It is high time to make our own bicycles. – Rappler.com

Alex Silva is a maker and designer at the Compact Utility Bike. When not busy thinkering with bicycles, he is looking for answers why “human power” is not included in the discussions about renewable energy and why the designs of cargo bikes which existed in Europe in the 1930s did not reach Asia. When he is not in Batangas, he is in Tokyo.