How women cyclists fight for representation on the road

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Cycling as a sport, hobby, and social movement, has long been a cishet man’s world. We spoke to five women on their experiences sharing the road amid the hostility and prejudice that endangers the city’s most vulnerable sectors. Photo courtesy of MAGGIE YUSAY

Upon the first declaration of ECQ in Metro Manila, all modes of public transportation were temporarily shut down — leaving the 70% of the NCR population that relied on trains, jeepneys, and buses without any means of mobility. This pushed a number of commuters to use bicycles as a personal mode of transport, which in turn, pushed government units to reconsider how much of Manila’s urban planning solely considers the use of private cars.

READ: How does infrastructure change during a pandemic?

Manila is in the midst of a bike boom. The Department of Transportation (DOTr) spent much of the first quarter of 2021 expanding the Metro Manila bike lane network. As of July, around 313 kilometers have been established so far, including a protected lane along the stretch of EDSA. The emergence of active transport infrastructure has encouraged even more Filipinos to hop on the saddle. According to mobility organization MNL Moves, an estimated 500,000 people now bike to work within the metro. These changes push us closer to a more equitable city, at least in terms of mobility. But one major issue proves difficult to diminish: cycling’s gender gap.

According to a 2020 census analysis in the United Kingdom, women only make up about a quarter of the cycling population. The figure is even more skewed in countries with low overall cycling rates. Safety concerns such as unsafe traffic conditions, street harassment, and the overall “boys club” attitude in the bike scene all factor in as deterrents for women and queer people. Over the course of conducting interviews for this article, one respondent shared, “I’m not the type to cover up especially when it’s really hot outside because wearing breezy outfits keep me cool and comfortable. Unfortunately, I’ve gotten so used to perverted men catcalling me on the road that instead of feeling scared, I just end up feeling pissed and angry.”

Statistics show that women are more than twice as likely to be harrassed and encroached upon by motorists, and many report feeling intimidated by gatekeepers and predatory eyes. In online spaces dedicated to cycling, there has been a phenomenon of photographers capturing images of young women in bike hotspots, such as Mall of Asia and the Cultural Center of the Philippines. These photos are shared to (often male-dominated) Facebook groups, where members often leave sexual and malicious comments while trying to “find” and identify the pictured cyclists.

All these issues mainly trace back to chauvinistic culture-building and androgenic urban design, a problem so deeply ingrained in society for us to bear any simple solutions. But while being a woman cyclist has proven to be an uphill battle, there are still many pockets of triumph in the stories to be told. People organizing safe online spaces, service-oriented groups, or simply finding joy in cycling show that there’s still space for positive change in the city. Here, we talk to five women of different backgrounds and lifestyles on how they found their freedom on two wheels.

Geri Amarnani started private Facebook group Pinay Bike Commuter in June 2020. The group is intended to be a safe space for members to speak about women's issues in relation to cycling. Photo courtesy of GERI AMARNANI

Safe spaces for all / Geri Amarnani, 39, Executive Assistant

Geri Amarnani made the switch to bike commuting after being fed up with the daily strain of Manila’s public transport. She recalls, “I experienced being pushed, I was running (on my third trimester!) just to ride a jeep, shuttle or train. It was too much for me.” She began cycling to work in 2014, right after returning from maternity leave. Her bike has been her top transport tool of choice ever since.

“That time when I started, time was very important for me as I needed to be home right away after work to take care of my baby.” Amarnani, who works as an executive assistant, found that cycling helped her value her role as a mother even more. Looking to speak up on more women’s issues within the community, she started Pinay Bike Commuter as a private Facebook group in June 2020. The group was intended to be a safe space for members to speak about women’s issues in relation to cycling. They discuss topics like menstruation, saddle sores, and dealing with street harassment. “As much as I want to fight back when I experience harassment, there's so much at stake (especially that I have two young boys). I fight back by continuing to educate myself on these issues so in a way I can share the information to everyone especially fellow female cyclists. I do my part through advocacy materials. I continue to show articles, studies and testimonies from experts.”

In November 2020, Pinay Bike Commuter launched the #ShareTheRoadWithHer movement in conjunction with Activism on Violence Against Women. Over the course of the 18-day campaign, 1,200 cyclists participated in a city-wide group ride, wearing orange to signify their stand against harassment on and off the road.

For musician Zsaris Mendioro, cycling was a means to stay connected with the music community in the absence of live gigs. Photo courtesy of ZSARIS MENDIORO

A change of pace / Zsaris Mendioro, 33, musician

In 2016, musician Zsaris Mendioro bought her own Doppelganger 260 Parceiro mini-velo, taking it out for errands, nearby studio sessions, and city rides. It helped her center herself during stressful times. She shares, “[Cycling] is like the closest thing to flying, and you're the pilot. You can control your glide, your hagod — it's an interesting way to get to know my body by how I wanted my ride to feel. Also gotta love the playlist. I call my riding an excuse to dance in the streets.”

During the pandemic, cycling was a means to stay connected with the music community in the absence of live gigs. Mendioro found the change of habit entertaining. “Before, who[ever] drank until morning was considered the strongest. Now we wake up early for bike rides and coffee. We are healthier, more inspired, and we finally get to know each other better as people and not just as co-players in the scene. It's a new playground for us.”

She finds more peace at the trails, where she doesn’t have to worry about sharing the road with aggressive motorists. As a cyclist, she has the most trouble with that and the macho culture pervading the bike scene, doing her best to ignore unsolicited advice on her current set-up from pedantic “gear-sniffers.” “I find a healthy balance of keeping my peace and schooling those who underestimate women cyclists on the road, especially the city commuters. We can outpedal you, we know our budol, have great aesthetics, and wear whatever we want because we look good in them. On a bike pa. Again, we are all equals on the road.”

HUB Make Lab Program Manager Eliz Ting is a cycling beginner, having only learned how to ride a bike in December 2020. Photo courtesy of ELIZ TING

Braving the pavement / Eliz Ting, 28, HUB Make Lab Program Manager

Eliz Ting learned how to ride a bike in December 2020, practicing laps in her building’s parking lot before riding around the UP Diliman campus. She continued to practice around her hometown, Los Baños, before taking on her first city ride a few months later. “It was tumultuous and intense to say the least but after that, I definitely gained the confidence to assert my space on the road.”

Metro Manila roads are not what one would describe as “beginner friendly.” According to a statistic from the MMDA, bike accidents spiked in 2020 by 65 percent from the previous year. 19 of the incidents were reported as fatalities. “I try to take up space at my own pace, to make it apparent that I’m a beginner. I also bike with more leeway for extra measure.” Oftentimes, the responsibility is placed on the cyclist to ride defensively against potentially hostile vehicles.

Ting continues, “For someone who’s used to getting around by car, the privilege of being in a safe, confined space is quite a drastic shift from being fully exposed and inexperienced. I wanted to make sure I had my bearings before I cycled around the city — to prevent any mishaps or accidents.” Since starting out, she has set goals to venture longer distances and try different terrains. She hopes for more comprehensive bike infrastructure and public transit, which holds the promise of transforming the city.

Video producer Maggie Yusay and her best friend started bike courier service White Helmet Co. Photo courtesy of MAGGIE YUSAY

Breaking the chain / Maggie Yusay, 25, Video Producer

Video producer Maggie Yusay spent the last seven years training in competitive cycling for triathlons. In order to combat boredom under lockdown, she and her best friend started their own delivery business, providing an eco-friendly supply chain for small businesses all over the area. They now offer their bike courier services on Facebook as White Helmet Co., and ride together as a collective.

“Outside of the delivery service, we’re still working,” says the 25-year-old. “I work at Anytime Fitness Asia, my co-founder works as a Studio Manager at Baked Studios, some are still in school, one is a chef, one a sports writer and so on. We’re all from different walks of life!”. While not technically full-time delivery workers, White Helmet Co. make up a unique part of the city’s ecosystem of logistics providers. In the past year, White Helmet Co. has also gotten involved with several bike community initiatives. They were among the groups tapped to deliver goods for Mobile in MNL’s city-wide community pantry run, as well as the event kits for the Share the City Gran Fondo fundraiser.

"The reality for women and the LGBTQ+ is that they trip-chain, involving multiple tasks and errands as soon as they leave the house. A day in the life means care work, domestic duties, volunteer errands on top of paid work,” says AltMobilityPH co-founder Zaxx Abraham. Photo courtesy of ZAXX ABRAHAM

Who do we build for? / Zaxx Abraham, 30, Urban Planner

As an urban planner, bike commuter, and co-founder of AltMobilityPH, Zaxx Abraham is particularly acute to the various inequities in Manila’s transport system. She says, “Historically, Philippine cities have been built by men, with the able-bodied male driver in mind. This androgenic perspective can be seen in how our public infrastructure is built, how we define housing (form, function, affordability, access and location) and mobility systems conceived.”

She notes that while emergence of bike lanes have been an improvement, there’s still a lot of work to be done in factoring in women and queer people. “Mobility patterns have always been presented as that of the working breadwinner, so most often male. It is linear, the man goes to work at a particular time and comes home to a suburb or a gated community. The reality for women and the LGBTQ+ is that they trip-chain, involving multiple tasks and errands as soon as they leave the house. A day in the life means care work, domestic duties, volunteer errands on top of paid work.”

In her work as an urban planner, Zaxx makes sure to always include a diverse set of voices during the data-gathering and design process. She’s particularly noticed more and more women and queer project leads, planners, and community organizers be able to gain a platform over the pandemic. She hopes this would soon translate to current bike culture and infrastructure, “Representation is not enough of course, it is the bare minimum, but it is something.”