Non-Motorized Transport is a Need, Not a Choice for Urban Poor

Father taking his son to school on a pedicab in Manila, Philippines.
Father taking his son to school on a pedicab in Manila, Philippines.

By Julia Nebrija

Safer walking and biking would help make life more livable for vulnerable populations. Approaching NMT as a right to mobility gives a new sense of urgency to the agenda.

In all Asian cities, ‘invisible’ bikers ride bicycles everyday to go to work, run errands, peddle livelihoods. These are not the organized, loud-mouthed advocates or the spandex racers. Rather these are the urban poor who rely on affordable, accessible transport like walking and biking to meet their everyday needs.

We’ve all heard the rallying cry for non-motorized transport (NMT) – it’s good for the environment, good for our health, making for happy people and a happy planet. These are central benefits of putting our gas-guzzling vehicles aside and going back to our best resource, our own energy.

This approach focuses policies and investments on incentivizing mode shift: how to get people out of their cars and onto their feet. What is less emphasized is the fact that walking and biking are the most inclusive forms of transport. It’s free to walk. A bike can be a low investment, especially when purchased second-hand. There are no parking fees, no gas fees, and little maintenance, which is why it is a crucial form of transportation for the urban poor.

Transportation, even good public transportation, can be too expensive for some. Where I live in Metro Manila, commuters spend 20% of their income on transportation. The documentary Kadena (which means chain in Tagalog)  shares the story of Roger, a slum dweller who bikes everyday to work to save $60 a month on fares. His neighborhood is isolated from formal public transport. A motorized commute would therefore involve a pedicab and two jeepney rides to reach his place of employment. If he commutes this way, he has to leave early in the morning to account for traffic and other unknowns, and his journey will take 1-2 hours. On a bicycle Roger reduces his commute time and cost. He can be sure that he won’t be late for work and lose his job.

But Metro Manila’s streets are congested with vehicles and bad drivers. Roger has seen his share of encounters. He is lucky to have survived the day he was hit by a taxi, unlike Lorelie Melevo, a 31-year-old single mother of 2 who died instantly after being run over by a truck while riding in a bike lane.

Pedestrians are also at risk. In Metro Manila, 46.2% of road fatalities are pedestrians who are frequently struck by motorcycles. Like many poorly managed cities, sidewalks in Metro Manila are disappearing – either being eaten up as places to live, park cars and vend, or simply not built. Metro Manila has 1,706 barangays, the lowest administrative level and geographic boundary. Within these barangays, people need to walk their children to school, walk to the market to buy food, or walk to points of transportation. Often they can be seen walking in the roadway. A child with his crisp white uniform and backpack as large as his tiny body, holding his mother’s hand as cars speed closely past them.

Walking and cycling are both dangerous, but they are still the most accessible options for those who do not have the means for alternatives or who live in underserved areas.

This is not only tragic, but to not invest in pedestrian and cycling infrastructure is also a missed opportunity. Walking and biking provide quick, cheap connectivity for cities that change faster than planning, investment procurement, and implementation can manage. Everyday in Metro Manila, new communities, new places of work, new hot spots pop up without waiting for a new bus or train stop to be built. Investing in well-designed streets to walk and bike helps ensure that they can be accessed without private transport. 

Globally, cities are rediscovering the importance of walking and biking to connect people and places. A city-wide bike share system can be rolled out in just 90 days, and a bike network can be built in two years. These investments are also a fraction of what it costs to build highways or a new rail line with more trains. Like buses, they can also cover more routes like buses and meet a wider number of destinations.

A transportation mode is only useful if it’s also resilient. For cities like Metro Manila that are prone to typhoons, flooding, and earthquakes, walking and biking are key when transportation system fails or road networks are blocked. Bicycles are being touted for their utility in disaster response. People can walk and bike in the face of an oil price surge, sudden economic crisis, or loss of a job. Non-motorized transport allows us to stay flexible in uncontrollable circumstances.

The benefits of non-motorized transport are particularly relevant in the Asia and the Pacific, where extreme poverty, food costs, natural disaster, climate change, economic crises and other shocks put 1.75 billion at risk everyday. Walking and biking can play a role in making life more livable for vulnerable populations.

Across the region, walking and biking are already prevalent modes of transport. In India and the People’s Republic of China, cities report high walk and bike mode share with between 33% (Mumbai and Bangalore) and 53% (Beijing) of trips taken by active transport.

Taking a rights-based approach expands the focus beyond the incentivizing mode shift to meeting transportation needs of all people in a city regardless of age, income, gender, race, or geographic location. The Inclusive Mobility Network in the Philippines is advocating for policies and investments that ensure “every person should be able to carry herself/himself, if not all the way, then part of the way.”

Approaching NMT as a right to mobility gives a new sense of urgency to the agenda. When it’s a right, it becomes a priority to design cities for people to walk and bike everyday, so we can protect those who need it most. In the process, we will build beautiful, sustainable cities that will work for us all.