Walk Tall!

People’s Action Sparks ‘Road-Sharing Movement’ in the Philippines: An interview with Antonio Oposa Jr.

Senior Attorney Antonio Oposa, Jr.  is Convenor of a  citizens-led road-sharing movement in the Philippines, which demands shared road space to enable safe walking and cycling. The movement espouses pro-poor and sustainable mobility options that equally benefit commuters, pedestrians and cyclists as much as private car users. Inspired by his leadership, representatives of the movement filed an unusual petition in the Supreme Court in February 2014 that envisions a 50-50 sharing of the roads: 50% for the sidewalks, bike lanes and urban gardens, and 50% for an organized transport system.

Assisted by a team of local and international lawyers, the volunteers of the road-sharing movement are collecting data on road accidents, vehicle to road space ratios, population to road use data in key cities, laws on abuse of citizen’s rights and various other issues to hold the government responsible for inaction in providing ample road space. Mr. Oposa sat down with the Clean Air Asia team to explain the movement, its philosophy and how the ordinary people are leading the leaders in correcting a discrimination with the help of the law. Read below for the full text of the wide-ranging interview:

What is road sharing?

Road sharing is basically the sharing of public space. First of all, what is a road? If the answer is that it is for the people and not only for cars, then the next question is, “Why are we filling up the roads with motor vehicles?” If the answer is that it is for both motor vehicles and for people, then the road space must be shared. The concern here is not so much just about the ‘road’, we are talking about a ‘public space’.

What is the guiding philosophy or principle of the road sharing movement?

It is that roads are meant for people and for their mobility, and not meant for motor vehicles. People must have a fair share of the road.

Tony Oposa Jr (extreme right) and his team

Tony Oposa Jr (extreme right) and his team

Are there any parallel to your movement anywhere else in the world?

No. Social change happens in three ways. The first is top-down, and second is the bottom-up approach. The top-down is fast but is not sustainable, because when the top leadership is changed, the entire social change infrastructure collapses. The bottom-up approach, also called the “grassroots movement” is sustainable, but is a very slow process and difficult to organize  because there is no catalyzing force.

There is a third approach called the ‘sandwich approach,’ where the bottom meets the top. In the Filipino culture, we can use our traditional Filipino rice cake bibingka in place of the sandwich where the top meets the bottom. Then the rice cake is cooked much faster and better (laughs).

We are experimenting this sandwich theory by making this initiative a citizen-led movement. We understand that our public officials are preoccupied with many other concerns and they have a very limited tenure in power. So we are here to support them and to lead them to a possible solution to the horrible urban condition by emphasizing that roads are meant for people, not for cars alone. Only about 2% of the population of the Philippines owns motor vehicles, but motor vehicles are given all of the road space. The remaining 98% of our people are not given proper sidewalks, bike lanes, and a good public transportation system.

In other words, the public perceives that the policy seems to promote more and more cars. That, in legal parlance, is called ‘unequal protection of the laws’. It is a violation of the constitutional provision on equal protection of the laws. If you devote so much money to only 2% of the population leaving out the 98%, you are committing an act of discrimination.

As far the top-down approach is concerned, there are many examples all over the world: Curitiba in Brazil, Bogota in Colombia, New York, Portland in Oregon, Amsterdam in The Netherlands, Copenhagen in the Denmark, and Paris. But there is no precedent to this movement.

Is there anything special in how you thought of the term road-sharing?

It started off as a ‘road revolution’ in Cebu City of the Philippines in June 12, 2011. A revolution because it seeks to revolve or turn around the bias from the use of roads for motor vehicles to a priority for people. But the word ‘revolution’ scared off some people. So we decided to change the words to ‘sharing of the roads’. A more beautiful term for it is in Filipino –Bayanihan sa Daan. Bayan is country or community in Filipino, Bayani is hero. Bayanihan sa Daan which means ‘heroism of the roads’, or sharing of the roads for the community.

This is the first experiment of its kind, initiated by ordinary citizens and backed by lawyers. It is precedent-setting because it is the sandwich theory of social change at work. We – the people — are the ones leading. We, as the citizens, are supporting and cooperating with the top management and working together hand in hand to pursue a greater goal. When the people  lead, the leaders follow. After all, we pay their salaries, don’t we?

What inspired you to bring the movement to the Philippines?

What inspired me was my frustration. It would take forever for me to travel to work even using private transportation. In the process, I could not spend enough time with my family. I left for office at 5:30 in the morning before they were all awake and I went home at 8 in the evening, so tired and did not want to talk to anyone. This went on and on, and deprived me of my time with my family. At the same time, I refused to have a flashy car. In the first place, I could not afford it. And even if I could, I would not have bought an expensive car.

In my book ‘The Laws of Nature and Other Stories’ published in 2002, I have illustrated an urban habitat and how it can look if we divided the roads fairly.

The road-sharing movement was not brought to the Philippines. It was grown here. In 2008, I was hit by typhoon Frank. My place in Bantayan Island collapsed. The climate crisis became a reality. Then one thing led to another.

Do you know that more than 50% of all greenhouse gases are because of the internal combustion engines that power the transportation system. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that the transport sector is responsible for more than one-fourth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Add to that the emissions from mining of ore, making of steel, distribution, drilling, refining, transportation and distribution of oil and the making of plastics, the denuding of native forests to plant to rubber trees to make tyres, the hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) emitted from mobile air conditioners in the cars, the manufacture of cement for concrete roads, a process that is highly energy-intensive. If you add all that up, the carbon footprint is going to be more than 50% of all greenhouse gases. If we address it, we will cut the source of bleeding of our atmosphere.

How did you start the implementation?

I started this in Cebu City. I had this idea already way back then, and I met this young Filipino lawyer who had just passed law school,Tara Rama. She had the heart for it and she did not go to work for a firm, but she worked for us for free for six months.  We were then able to come up with our vision of shared roads. In Cebu, we were able to close the road from the Provincial Capitol of Cebu all the way to Pier Uno to raise our demand for road sharing. Everybody came―cyclists and joggers of all ages, even children. That was an eye-opener.  It was very successful. We then started it slowly in different places. Inspired by Cebu’s example, Pasig City began pedestrianizing some of their roads every Sunday. We tried to illustrate it in Baguio and Dumaguete. People call it in various terms―walkability campaign, cycling campaign, among others. But it is more about giving people the option to walk and cycle when they want to, and to use good public transportation.

How did you organize the core team and the other involved groups?

I thought to myself, “Who are the people who are working on it already who need a little boost?” In fact, there was already a law on it — Executive Order No. 774, series of 2008 (E.O. 774). So it was time to use the law to remind Government of their duty to implement it. And how better to do it than in a legal action.

I talked to Secretary Ramon Paje of Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and told him that we need to form a Secretariat. He suggested that I speak with Director Mitch Cuna of DENR-Environmental Management Bureau (EMB). My main requirement was someone who has a personal frustration from biking on our roads.

They now have Mark Tinao who is now based in EMB and is focused on this project. It was just a matter of identifying the groups who are already into it, among them Clean Air Asia, the National Bicycle Organization, the Partnership of Clean Air, etc. It was just a matter of bringing them all together. I am only the fire starter, but the youth and the people from these groups are the candles.

What were the initial challenges that were raised to further the road sharing movement?

This is about changing the mindset about transportation – shifting from the make-believe world of wide highways and fast cars that we see in movies or when we visit that huge parking lot called Los Angeles to a mindset of efficient transportation system appropriate for us in the Philippines. That was the most difficult challenge. It took 400 years for the people to understand something so fundamental that the Earth was not the center of the universe, rather it was the sun.  Today, we are also launching another kind of revolution: a revolution of the mind to challenge the thinking that road is not only for cars but also for people.

It is difficult to make people understand something that is obvious. That is the difference between the obscure and the obvious. The ‘obscure’ is figured out sooner or later. It is the ‘obvious’ that takes a lot longer.

How do we change the society and how do we change its behavior? This is a three-pronged approach:  First, by rewarding good behavior; Second, by showing the proof of concept on the ground; and Third, by what I call the wind beneath our wings approach.  The last one means that we will be the wind beneath the wings of our political leaders, and, conversely, they will be the wind beneath our wings. We will be supporting them and they will be supporting us.

How do you plan to further organize and mobilize the citizens, communities and organizations?

By using the social media to spark the process, and we can also use media.

Has this reached policy-makers? What has been the response from the authorities?

It is very positive because this is a solution they have been looking to but do not have the political will or the imagination to do it, except of a few.  Two days before we filed the case, I invited all the prospective respondents (the Cabinet Secretaries) to a meeting to inform them of the coming legal action and to clarify that this was not against them. Rather, they can use the case to be the countervailing pressure against the encrusted mindset of more roads for more cars.

How is the law linked with the demand of the pedestrians, cyclists, and users of public transportation? Is it in favor of the people?

The law, or the E.O. 774, is the fuel of the citizens. Section 9 of that Order mandates that there should be a task force on fossil fuels, and it emphasizes the principle that ‘those who have less in wheels must have more in road’. So the system shall favor non-motorized locomotion and collective transportation system (walking, bicycling, and the man-powered mini-train) 

What are the advantages in combining a citizen’s movement with the help of the law?

One is that in the equation of power, the public officials have the power of position, whereas the citizens do not have much power. But if the citizens know how to use the law, then they can use it to enforce actions. There are four benefits of a legal action:

First, it tells a story and the story is that only 2% of the population own motor vehicles, less than one per cent in fact own private cars. Yet all of the roads are given to motor vehicles and to private cars. The 98% who do not own motor vehicles do not even have a proper sidewalk or the option to bike short distances, or a good public transportation system.  That is the essence of the story. Is that fair? It is a question of justice and fairness.

Second, it all puts the issue on the table for discussion, and the story can be presented in a manner that is orderly, logical, and backed up by evidence. Those who are opposed to the idea can present their opposition there instead of quarreling over it in the media. In a courtroom, the powerful and the powerless are equals.

Third, it sparks action. If you get a summons from the court, you are going to take action one way or another.

Fourth, win or lose, sooner or later, one way or another, there will be a resolution. There are four key words for that. The mnemonic is STAR:  Story, Table, Action, Resolution.

Do you think it is possible to achieve road sharing in the Philippines? What do you think might be among the major setbacks?

The major setback is the mindset. The movies have depicted cars as something important, as the only mode of transportation. It is important to emphasize now that if you have narrow roads, you must learn to use them efficiently.

Are you going to succeed?

The outcome I want may or may not take place in my lifetime. But then, anything that is worth doing cannot be done in one’s lifetime. But who knows?  Cebu City, for example, has started to demonstrate the proof of concept in the road-sharing activity called the ‘Green Loop’ experiment on September 28, 2014, a Sunday in four major roads of Cebu. What is so special about this is that it is the product of cooperation between the citizens and the city government. They have included in the working group the jeepney drivers and operators, civil society, business groups, academe (the College of Architecture of a prominent University), grass-root local government units (barangay captains), cyclists, environmentalists, runners, etc. It is as inclusive as it can be.

This is exciting because for the first time, the idea of road-sharing will be exemplified on the ground, by a diverse group of stakeholders and concerned citizens. When this is done and when it succeeds, others will start emulating it. That is how change begins.  After all, a river begins with one drop of water from a little spring.

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