Photo Caption: Life Cycles PH donated bikes including helmets, lock, rear lights, and water bottles to Tricity Medical Center in Pasig last May 11, 2020. Photo from Life Cycles PH
Emergent Agency Field Note Number 1 and 2 for Bikers
by Dakila Kim Yee and Seiko Mizushima
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted various components of social life ranging from economic conditions to political rights. Various forms of mitigation measures aimed at curbing the spread of the virus such as physical and social distancing measures necessitated the institution of various forms of institutional barriers to dissuade and disincentivize movement and sociability of individuals and social groups. One of the key institutional changes implemented at the start of the pandemic was the tightening of restrictions in accessing public transportation such as banning public transportation and limiting rider capacity. In the Philippines, this has taken shape via the banning of various forms of public transportation such as Public Utility Vehicles (PUVs) like the jeepney, banning ride-hailing services mediated by mobile applications such as GRAB, Angkas and other similar services, and shortening the schedule of public mass transportation such as the LRT and the MRT services.
The blanket imposition of the transportation ban has left thousands of frontliners stranded, with no transportation from their homes to their respective workplaces. Various news reports on nurses and other medical workers walking under the blistering heat made various rounds on TV, radio, and print.
Our case study covered the emergence of groups promoting bike transportation as safe transportation in the aftermath of the COVID-19 lockdown imposed in the Philippines. We covered two types of groups: groups that focused on equipment provision and groups that promoted policy changes for bike transportation.
One of the emergent initiatives for bike equipment provision in the aftermath of the lockdown in the Philippines is Life Cycles PH. Life Cycles PH primarily emerged as a node for distribution of bikes to medical frontliners and other frontliners affected by the transportation lockdown. The mode for provision has two forms: first, as outright grant of bicycle equipment and second, as bike loans for those interested to borrow bikes.
I. Emergent Agents
A. Agents Involved
The network was founded by Keisha Mayuga, a transport planner and bike advocate. She has had previous engagements with different local, national, and international organizations in the field of mobility and clean air initiatives in Metro Manila. In short, Keisha is an expert in the field, leveraging her skills and resources to effect transportation changes in the aftermath of COVID-19. This would be a recurring theme in many biking initiatives that emerged in the aftermath of COVID-19 in Metro Manila as majority of the founders of biking advocacy networks interviewed for this study are experts and CSO leaders in the transportation sector. Keisha noted that she has been invited in several consultations regarding bicycle transportation that were initiated by government agencies:
“So I’ve been invited- I’ve lost count. But I talked to- I talked in the senate about the safe cycling… And then also in the House [of Representatives]… whenever they would give the platform to CSOs, I’m there as Life Cycles PH. When I’m talking about the experience of the healthcare workers, of the new cyclists, etc. so that’s who I’m representing… also talked in a DOH presser about putting up… hospital loops around- or protected bike lanes in their hospitals. So yeah, usually I represent myself there as Life Cycles PH”
The pandemic has affected her work as she has mainly been working from home since March 2020. While she does not go out from work, the pandemic resulted in more biking:
“So, I’ve been working from home, even if I changed jobs every quarter, I’ve been working from home. So, honestly, there’s no need [to go out]- even my essential needs I have them delivered or I just walk [to the nearest store] so you know, in essence I don’t really need to go out. But I do go out kasi (because) part of my advocacy is checking on the bike infrastructure so that’s, you know, if I need to go out to check on the bike lanes in this city or in this road, that’s when I go out and, well before… the pandemic, I didn’t— always used to just bike. So I would say it’s still kind of the same, except I’ve explored more of Metro Manila on my bike. Before, it was just going to work or going home, but now I explore and really check on which areas are safe for cyclists… and how cities are doing. So, that’s kind of how it affected my mobility.”
A second type of actor that can be noted from the study are those that have voluntaristic initiatives on biking transport based on their previous experience as recreational bikers. This is exemplified by the actors behind BeSeekLeta for EveryJuan, an initiative founded in June 2020 that aims to build and to provide functional commuting bicycles for people in need of modes of transportation for work. The founders, based on the interview, have informal connections to CSOs and development organizations in the transportation sector as compared to expert/professional-led initiatives. The founders have recreational/sporting experience on biking as triathlon athletes before the pandemic. They are also connected in the private sector, in industries that have little ties to biking or transportation, as they are both in manufacturing and pharmaceutical industries respectively. Hence, the initiative can’t be seen as an extension of their professional activities but can be considered as recreation/sports-based.
There are two key motivations for our actors in these emergent initiatives. First, both actors are motivated by the desire to help others during the pandemic. For BeSeekLeta for EveryJuan, the initiative was borne out of desire to help others, and the mechanisms for helping others was sourced from their previous experience of the discards of the biking community:
“Since we’re part of a triathlon team, we were joining races before the pandemic so we had basic knowledge of bicycles, so we thought that since what was happening in transportation at that time was getting problematic or chaotic, we thought of this project which is to give bikes. We thought that, since we didn’t have any money to buy bikes, we thought ‘why don’t we use old bike parts since we have experience in cycling’. Normally, [bikers] upgrade their parts. So after the upgrade, parts are hidden away, thrown away, they just get rusty. So we thought ‘why don’t we ask for these parts as donation and then we will just assemble a functional bike so we can give this away”
BeSeekLeta for EveryJuan also tapped into a network of bicycle shops and mechanics to source their material and labor. We find this as an intriguing initiative as they are the only group in this case study that did this, which means that they have long experience of understanding what is discarded in the community. The initiative of BeSeekLeta for EveryJuan is one of the more innovative efforts that were launched during the pandemic as they recycled old parts and assembled them into new forms, thereby addressing several issues such as discarded items. The experience of BeSeekLeta for EveryJuan can inform us on how to program future initiatives that utilize discarded materials, thereby reducing waste in the community.
Life Cycles PH was also born out of the need to help medical frontliners travel when the impositions on travel restrictions were placed during the March 2020 ECQ. Life Cycles PH was initially formed as a group that procured bikes to be given to medical frontliners as well as to provide bike lending services to those who need to travel during the pandemic (such as medical and economic frontliners) as explained by Keisha:
“So we started on March 17. That was the day after the government announced that there would be no mass transportation. So, we gathered a group of friends, and advocates and people from different professions and- as volunteers to put up Life Cycles PH. The objective was really to bring bicycles to frontliners. Initially healthcare workers, but we spread it out to all the essential workers. So we did that in two ways. The first way was through the donations that we got. Monetary donations that we got from donors. So we buy- we bought the bikes and we had partner hospitals where we would coordinate with them on who needed the bikes and how many bikes they needed. So, that’s the first way. The second way was, we put up a Facebook Group called “Life Cycles PH Community” where people can borrow and lend bikes.”
A second motivation is driven by policy concerns to change the perception of biking in the Philippines and to mainstream it as a transportation initiative. This is primarily seen among bike transportation CSO driven initiatives and actors who belong in this sector. Keisha noted during our conversation that there has been a change in the perception of biking as before the pandemic, people believed that biking should be restricted to areas with lesser traffic. As she noted:
“Everybody really thought [biking] was a good idea. Like … pre-pandemic, people are against cycling for some reason. They’re like “It’s not safe to bike along EDSA”… or “It’s not safe to bike at all.” But, you know, when they started seeing Life Cycles and, like, the work that we were doing, everyone was so supportive and I think that, you know, it was a great entryway for people to open-up the cycling culture in the Philippines… it had great positive feedback that even people outside of Life Cycles or people who were not beneficiaries of Life Cycles started cycling also because they saw [and said that] “Wow! It’s possible” or “Wow! It’s a form of transport.”
Keisha has noted that there are always risks whenever it comes to volunteer-based work as volunteers eventually have demands on their time such as work. From a high of 100 volunteers in the past year, the network has experienced an ebb in activity based on our conversation. This can be attributed to two factors: first, the long duration of the pandemic has shifted the needs of the community: as the pandemic progressed, more people bought their own bikes and thus, the initial need that was addressed by Life Cycles PH has gradually shifted away from bike equipment provision towards policy concerns such as safe bike lanes. A second factor is that the informal nature of networking in Life Cycles PH affected the ability to sustain engagement in the organization. As noted above, the network grew immediately because of the informal characteristic of networking and joining in the initiative. At the start of the pandemic when everyone was locked down, it was conducive to informal modes of networking as everyone was glued to their screens seeing the impact of transportation lockdown unfold. At the same time, this evoked feelings of wanting to help and social media provided a conducive platform for getting everyone onboard. But as activities and work transitioned towards resuming on-site operations, the commitments of the members increased, and as an informal network, it was difficult for Life Cycles PH to demand consistent time and effort from their volunteers.
Despite the challenges, Keisha noted that there will always be opportunities for advocacy and campaigns for bike transportation. She hinted at possible evolution of services as the pandemic affects the landscape in different forms from when it first hit the Philippines:
“So there are so many ways it could go when I thought about this also in the past few months of where to bring Life Cycles… you know, it’s different from, like, when you give the bikes, but now we have to make the people on the bikes safe. So it could go so many ways, it could be like a- an educating, education seminar for new cyclists with a special focus on healthcare workers or something or essential workers. It could be like assisting people or helping people with- starting with bike commuting and there’s just so many ways it could go and I haven’t- I honestly, it’s still there up in the drawing board… we also have to think about how it could be sustained as a- as an organization”
II. Emergent Networks
All the organizations we interviewed that are involved in bicycle initiatives can be classified as informal networks as far as official regulatory measures (such as SEC registration) is concerned. However, several initiatives function as formal organizations in that some individuals hold more regular roles as officers or as key individuals in these initiatives as explained by AltMobility PH:
“I guess from the beginning, it was already formal for us founding members. We didn’t have the legal and paperwork for it in terms of, like, SEC registration. But it’s formal in the sense that we know what we want to do, we know the outputs that we want to see, and that we have funding. So for us, that made it legitimate and formal.”
The tension as formal and informal networks is always present as noted by Robert Siy from Move as One Coalition:
“You know, we don’t have anything formally written down…. I would say, there’s als- always a tension between having, like, a formal structure versus a more informal way of operating. I think that- that tension is certainly always there with Move As One but I think there’s also a strength in having a lot of flexibility and not so much of a- not so much of a formal structure.”
Membership: Who joins the group?
Many of the participants in this study shared that their families and friends were the first members and supporters of their initiatives. For example, the founder of BeSeekLeta For EveryJuan shared that:
“BeSeekLeta for EveryJuan is not just a group. It became more of, like, a community because when we started, we started as 5 [people], yes correct, we were only 5, but as time went by it grew into a community.”
Social media was a very important tool in recruiting members in an informal mechanism as noted by Keisha from LifeCyles PH:
“Yeah, so it initially started because… I tweeted something [about starting this initiative] and then one of the transport [advocacy] people that I know said “Hey, let’s do it…” So we started a [Facebook] group, we were just four there and then suddenly the group had 10 members in the Facebook group and Facebook Messenger. ‘We just added people we knew, like hey, that person is a graphic artist, maybe he’s willing to join, and then that person was added to the group, until our group became 15 or 20 members [until we became at least 100]”
Respondents of the study noted that they welcome all members from different backgrounds as long as they share the advocacy. While some of these groups are identified with CSO individuals (such as transportation advocates) or with athletes (as in the case of BeSeekLeta For EveryJuan), the interviews revealed that there is a wide array of individuals with different expertise who join the different initiatives, as noted by one member of AltMobility PH:
“It’s not just all urban planners because it’s mobility work; the occupations need to be varied because you all feed into the work. So we have Graphic Designers, we have people good with Social Media, we have, what else? What are our profiles? We have an accountant.”
There are varying ways in which new members are recruited into the initiatives. While nominally, the respondents noted that these networks are voluntary, there are different vetting processes that happen in everyday interactions. For example, Rowhe of Mobile in MNL noted that initial members were volunteers, but these volunteers needed to be referred by prior volunteers and that these new prospective members had to be vetted by those who referred them. This is a good way to screen out members as well as ensuring that there will be no errant members in the organization. She noted the importance of vetting new members:
“So the rule is, if we are to bring other people in, it- they have to be vouched for and held accountable by that one person that vouched for them. We are not taking volun- like there are a lot of people volunteering, which is great, but the thing is, we have to admit that whenever there is a calamity or whenever there is a community movement like this, there will always be people who will be taking advantage, right? So that is the last thing we want to happen so we are very strict about making sure we only include people who we really trust and who we know frankly 100% will not run away with the food or- or stuff like that.”
Robert of Move as One Coalition also noted that while their network is relatively open to include groups that are transportation advocates, they screen out those who have extreme positions in transportation issues as the calls of the coalition are targeted at constructive dialogue with government agencies. He also noted that there is a “self-selection” process where organizations and individuals with positions different from Move as One Coalition did not bother joining their organization:
“I think, in a way, there’s self-selection also going on because I think Move As One is very transparent about its policy prescriptions. So if you believe also in what we advocate, then I think you’re welcome to join. So I think…, that’s maybe how we can also in a way describe the selection process, and… those groups that may have a different perspective, then maybe it might be more difficult for them to fit in… I think that’s the reality.”
All the organizations that we interviewed also draw on volunteer membership, although there are varying degrees of involvement even as these are voluntary memberships. For example, several initiatives such as Life Cycles PH and BeSeekLeta For EveryJuan can be classified as an adhoc form of initiative in so far as the level of their activities and member involvement increase whenever there is an activity such as equipment donation. Thus, there are no regular work hours for these initiatives.
Other initiatives have a semi-formal structure in so far as they function almost like a regular organization. These are the initiatives that revolve around policy initiatives for instituting biking. Examples of these initiatives are AltMobility PH and Move As One Coalition wherein they have officers and regular staff members who are in charge of regular activities such as maintaining their social media page, handling media inquiries, and developing policy programs.
Several participants shared that they relied on the volunteer labor and time of their volunteers, especially the initiatives with little capital. BeSeekLeta For EveryJuan shared that they relied on a network of friends and relatives who owned bike shops and who knew bike repair personnel:
“When we started out, we talked about how they [the bike repair personnel] were willing to repair bikes for free… We also did not have a source of income at that time. [They will do the repairs] As long as they’re available during the time of repair.”
Most of the initiatives covered in this field note, especially those that have roots in the transportation sector and civil society have extensive experience in developing partnerships across the government-private sector spectrum. For example, Ira and Zaxx from AltMobilty PH noted that they helped craft legislation called the Magna Carta for Commuters or the Commuter Rights Bill which is being deliberated in Congress. Another group, the Move as One Coalition is regularly invited in Congress and other government offices to deliver position papers on transportation issues. Other organizations like Bikers United Movement highlight their partnerships with local government units.
Some of the initiatives, such as BeSeekLeta For EveryJuan, are more skeptical of government partnerships. This initiative is distinct from others as the initiators are not the traditional development/CSO experts. The founders noted that they were invited by several politicians to promote bike lanes, but they turned down some of these invites as they perceived them to be politically motivated (e.g. as publicity stunt for re-election of politicians).
In terms of resources generated through partnerships, all of the initiatives covered have noted a reluctance to receive monetary donations, preferring actual equipment to cash. While most of them noted the often-repeated refrain about the challenges of accounting cash donations, Rohwe of Mobile in MNL pointed out that cash donations put a constraint on volunteer-based networks due to the particular labor associated with it as explained below:
“we were very strict that we would not donate- ah, we would not accept cash donations just because, this goes back to [redacted organization], I know what it’s like to have to be accountable up to the last cent and we- hone- again, this is a group of people who have day jobs. We do not have the time to procure, like go to the cheapest stores, and procure and that really just wasn’t on our list of priorities. We do accept- we released a list of goods that we are accepting, and people have donated based on that list. So we’re accepting only in kind.”
In terms of future plans, all of the respondents noted that they see themselves continuing their advocacies in the future, even as these services may change. Bike equipment initiatives noted that they may change part of their services, from equipment provision towards other services such as increasing bike awareness and campaigning for bike lanes in the country.
In terms of organizational form, most of the respondents noted that there is an interest to form more formal organizations in lieu of informal initiatives. As noted by the respondents, more formal organizations ensure sustainability of initiatives although forming such organizations entail costs such as registration fees. One key aspect noted by many participants is that there is a need to shift from voluntaristic actions towards formal, remunerated positions to ensure continuity of commitment and services for the initiatives. As noted by several respondents, while volunteerism enlarges the scope of possible members, volunteerism is vulnerable to pressures such as work, fading commitment and inability to enforce organizational commitment.