Each weekday morning, Filipino mother Jaramia Amarnani puts on her bright pink bicycle helmet, pops the rest of her essentials in a bag, and hops onto her rose-gold electric bicycle to leave for work.
In a sea of motorcycles, open-air Jeepney buses, and the many private cars that ply the bustling streets of the Philippines’ capital, the 41-year-old executive assistant knows she stands out as a cycling commuter, and even more so as a woman.
On any given morning, she will often be the only woman pedalling—and occasionally freewheeling—along the narrow lane marked out and designated for cyclists on the 24-kilometre Edsa Highway, Metro Manila’s main artery and also its longest and most congested road.
But despite multiple signs indicating that motorcyclists are not allowed in the lane, they swerve in and out, narrowly missing her. Evening is no better.
‘It’s always like a war in the streets, just to get home,’ Amarnani said later, after riding six kilometres along pothole-riddled roads to reach her husband and two young sons at home.
Come rain or shine, she’s determined to pedal her way through Metro Manila’s unsafe streets. A yellow reflector hanging off the back of her bike reads, ‘Working Mom, Pass With Care’.
But Amarnani is far from the only woman on two wheels braving the chaotic roads in the Philippines’ capital region. Despite an almost total lack of protective infrastructure and the persistence of patriarchal and social stigma, more Filipino women are choosing to hop on the saddle, pedalling towards greater representation, and safer and more inclusive roads for all.
Pandemic bike boom
When Covid-19 shut public transit systems worldwide, megacities around the world, from New York to Jakarta, experienced a bicycle boom. The amount of money US consumers spent on bikes and bike accessories rose by 620% from March 2020 to 2023, according to the US Department of Transportation, reaching about US$8 billion per month nationally.
Interest in cycling—for both commuting and recreation—spiked. Bike production and supply chains struggled to keep up with the sudden demand.
Metro Manila, home to 14 million people, was no exception. With fewer cars on the road and virtually no public transport options, many commuters ventured out on a bicycle for the first time.
Pop-up bike lanes were created along major thoroughfares. Transport advocates pushed for infrastructure and policy changes, with the hope that the metropolis would not return to its pre-pandemic traffic jams.
Traffic congestion costs the country as much as PHP 3.5 billion (US$62 million) daily, according to a 2018 CNN report.
Petrol-guzzling vehicles also contribute to carbon emissions, making cycling—whether on an e-bike or a regular bicycle—a three-in-one environmental solution: offering less congestion, better air quality and a concrete response to climate change.
As pandemic restrictions have eased, though, vehicles have been pouring back into the city streets and bike commuters like Amarnani are finding themselves once again pushed towards the gutter, literally and figuratively.
Still, the bike boom proved that there was potential for a major cycling culture in the country. National surveys conducted between May 2020 and April 2022 found there were four bicycle owners to every car owner.
The Philippine government’s first bicycle count from January to December 2022 logged as many as 1.7 million bike trips along three of Metro Manila’s main highways, adding up to some 41,000 trips per month on average.
While seeing more Filipinos on bikes is already a major leap in the right direction, mobility advocates still observe a gender gap among commuter cyclists. This is a trend that is also evident in many other nations, according to studies by the US-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.
Keisha Mayuga, a sustainable transport advocate and researcher, said it is still common to find many Filipino women who do not know how to ride a bike as they were not allowed to do so as children. While attitudes are starting to shift, many families retain a fear of letting their daughters learn how to cycle.
‘It’s seen as dangerous and unladylike for a lot of households, and this thinking gets passed on to the next generation,’ she said, adding that concern for safety is ‘always the number one barrier for women’.
Without protected bicycle lanes, crashes have become common. In 2021, government data showed that nearly 2,400 cyclists were involved in road traffic accidents in the capital region, 33 of them fatal.
Despite a national law passed in 2019 against gender-based sexual harassment in public spaces, many women still report incidences of verbal and sexual abuse. Woman cyclists are not exempt from this, finding themselves catcalled or followed by men while riding their bikes, and even groped by motorcycle riders.
Creating a community
Amarnani never used to think about cycling. But in 2014, after countless hours spent stuck in traffic and contending with long queues while pregnant, she decided to give bicycle commuting a try.
‘I took the leap of courage because I needed to get home to my children,’ she said. ‘The need to get home to them was bigger than my fear.’
After taking maternity leave for her second child, she bought her first bike—a mamachari (‘mum’s bike’ in Japanese), renowned for its practicality.
It used to take her an hour and a half to complete her short commute to work by car or public transport, but with a bike, this was reduced to just 15 minutes.
As a working mother still nursing a baby, she was able to quickly bring her expressed breast milk home and spend more time with her family—hours that she previously lost to boredom and irritation in traffic.
In 2020, at the start of the pandemic, Amarnani noticed a surge of interest in bicycle commuting among women, particularly young professionals and students.
Spurred on by the news of a woman doctor who had been killed by a huge lorry while cycling home from work, Amarnani and other women cyclists began a Facebook group called the ‘Pinay Bike Commuter Community’ (‘pinay’ being slang for a Filipino woman).
Through word of mouth, the members built a women-only online space where members are encouraged to share their experiences on the road, whether they are first-time or veteran bicycle commuters, or even just curious about how to pedal to work through Metro Manila’s perilous streets.
It was also a response, Amarnani said, to her own experience of feeling unwelcome as a woman in other bike communities when she first set off on two wheels.
In the Facebook group, the members are free to ask any questions they like, not just about cycling but also about concerns experienced by women. From advice on cycling while menstruating to tips on avoiding saddle sores and chafed nipples, any and all queries are welcomed and answered.
Now with over 6,500 members, the group has also become a safe space to share experiences of sexual harassment.
Members of the Facebook group have had discussions about how to defend themselves if they are groped or catcalled while on their bikes, and often share tips on cycling routes that are dimly lit or have aggressive motorists and are best avoided.
Courage on the road
Despite these dangers, however, the female cycling community continues to grow in urban regions, a reflection of how Filipino women are reclaiming outdoor spaces.
Karen Crisostomo, a 58-year-old transport advocate who has been cycling to work for 20 years, said that better infrastructure like protected bike paths and decent lighting would encourage more women to consider cycling as a commuting option.
‘We have taken some steps forward, but in terms of mindset, we are still on step one,’ she said.
Amarnani knows it’s a long road ahead. But for now, she continues to find joy in seeing more and more women discover the ‘liberating’ feeling of being on a bike.
She said it means freedom, not just from the punishing traffic and overdependence on cars, but also from people’s expectations of what women and mothers should or shouldn’t do.
‘Now there is a feeling that even when I’m alone on the road, I’m representing all the women that others will see later on the road too,’ she said. ‘They shouldn’t be surprised anymore. We will stay here, and we will be many more.’