Of buses and bicycles
STREETLIFE - Nigel Paul Villarete (The Freeman) - May 5, 2020 - 12:00am

Every time he speaks, Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, Colombia (1999-2002, 2016-2019), who jumpstarted the now biggest Bus Rapid System (BRT) in the world, always has this story to tell: “Imagine something terrible happens in a district in your city – a terrorist bomb threat, a nuclear bomb …, etc., and you have to evacuate 200,000 people in a few hours, what will you do?” His specific question is, “what mode of transport will allow you to carry as many inhabitants to safety as fast as possible?”

Or let’s make it local and say, there’s a nuclear contamination threat in Quezon City, or a tsunami reaching Mactan in four hours. What’s the fastest way to move the largest number of people? And he would concede the answer, “by bus, of course.” For compared to any other mode, the bus is the obvious choice when both capacity and flexibility is concerned. In other words, when faced with a crisis, which requires fast and huge movement of people, the bus is the most efficient mode.

Now, here’s the catch. It’s not only during crisis, disasters, calamities, or pandemics like COVID-19, that the bus is efficient. It is in all times, including normal times. We’re forced to accept it when difficulties come because we’re thinking of the public, not of ourselves. In normal times, everybody thinks of their own circumstances and what’s best for them. So, car-owners wouldn’t look at the bus as the best solution; many would only think about how to make their cars run faster and not get locked up in traffic. Other would prefer the sleek, high-speed, rail solutions which are not a flexible and force many people to walk. And most, if not all, decision-makers own, and ride, cars. That’s why we have car-centric mobility policies!

COVID-19 struck the world in January, and in four short months, everybody is agreeing that we have to roll out, and give priority to, bus-based, and non-motorized systems – bicycling and walking when we emerged to a new normal. Not only are advocacy groups bannering this, formal and official transportation agencies are admitting the same, especially with respect to cycling and walking. In New York, bicycle sales more than doubled in the last two months. In Manila and here in Cebu, the number of cyclists in the road drastically increased. Even front-liners found the bicycle a good alternative for mobility. Although, it’s not an alternative. Together with walking, it is the default mobility. In whatever time or circumstance.

My hope is that this willingness of government to see the necessity of buses and bicycles in our urban mobility will continue. After this lockdown, people will be tempted to revert back to the old car-centric and traffic-congestion-based policies of the old normal. Since early last year, I had been wanting and planning to ask the City Council to change the name of the Cebu City Transportation Office (CCTO) to the Cebu City Mobility Office (CCMO), if only to emphasize “people centricity.” I missed that chance. But I still hope somebody will continue where I left off.

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