With all the press attention the electric jeepneys are getting and their purported environmental benefits, it's easy to overlook an even greener form of transportation that we're already using and that the World Health Organization says is "urgently needed to reduce climate-altering carbon emissions that are damaging Asia's health and could also threaten the economy."
The pedicab occupies the bottom of the rung of the forms of transportation our auto-riding elite look down upon. And the one form of transport that receives the most contempt.
Where jeeps and buses are seen an undisciplined nuisances that cars unfortunately have to share the road with, the pedicab is viewed as a mutant not even deserving of the asphalt. Even pollution spewing tricycles are preferred to the "padyaks."
Confession: Before my urban planning + green "epiphany," I used to refer to pedicabs as "ipis ng kalye' (literally: cockroaches of the road) as they tended to scamper and scatter the way roaches do when you switch on the kitchen light.
But as far as green cred goes, no other transportation option holds a candle to human powered vehicles. They generate no emissions, produce no waste (there are serious concerns about the chemicals in car batteries) and make for healthier drivers. (Have you ever wondered what the personal health toll is for jeep and bus drivers who sit behind the wheel for 12 hours or more daily?)
As far as low barriers to entry, the pedicab business is one the Bottom of the Pyramid folks at Next Billion would love. You could literally buy hundreds of pedicabs for the price of one jeep. (And how many pedicabs can you buy for the P550K pricetag of one e-jeeney?). Plus all building materials can be sourced locally, no need to import sparkplugs or oil filters or engines. (No need to buy oil that supports oppressive middle east regimes either.)
The tech is so simple that self-repair is the rule rather than the exception. (Here's another thought to chew on: What are the long term environmental costs of all those auto repair shops in our cities. 99.9% of them dispose of engine oil and other car related chemicals into the storm drains or onto the ground.)
Pedicabs are unsafe only in so far as they mix with other vehicles -affording little protection to the driver and the riders. And perhaps that is the design challenge we could invest our energies into solving.
Clearly our streets were not designed for pedicabs and clearly it is dangerous to mix the slow pedicab with fast moving buses, trucks and SUVs. BUT what if we built a metro wide green infrastructure anchored on shared bike/pedicab/pedestrian (ped-bike-ped) through ways? We can set apart secondary and tertiary roads and designate them as green ways. We can redesign the road right-of-way (ROW) to be friendlier to both pedestrians and bikes and pedicabs. We can take a cue from Europe's Woonerf streets. (See also this pdf 1.1. mb, and these photos.)
We could narrow the carriage way to provide very wide sidewalks with lots of trees. We could use a textured pavement for the carriage way to slow down the pedicabs and bikes and to designate that these roads are not meant for greenhouse gas emitting vehicles. (Of course we'll have to give special access permits to the cars owned by the people who live and work on these streets.)
We can also build green infra into street itself, like building sediment and percolation beds under the sidewalk and roadway. The green infra will absorb storm waters and reduce flooding, (not to mention re-charge our aquifers).
And, if we do it right, we can bring in the street vendors -provide well-designed carts (think of the stands in the malls) and have them self-regulate so we turn the ped-bike-ped/green streets network into linear parks and outdoor malls. We can change the zoning rules along the routes so as to allow ground floor retail. If we do it right, restaurants, fast food places and small specialty stores could flourish along the route. (Nothing makes business better than having lots of people walk past your store.) We could even increase the floor-area-ratios along the routes to encourage taller (maybe 6-10 story) buildings and add to the shade.
We could encourage the development of low-cost apartments and rent-to-own units (with tax policy, zoning and incentives) along the route to increase the pedestrian flow in the area. And we could waive parking requirements to encourage more walking and use of the ped-bike-ped infra. (How's that for Transport-Oriented Development?)
We can plot the routes so as to take advantage of light rail stations of LRT and the Megatren (and maybe sections of the MRT), stringing feeder routes from the stations. The pedestrian nature of the routes will allow those who would prefer to walk on their own legs to take advantage of the infrastructure, too.
If you think this is impossible, check out the bike avenues and parks they created in Bogota. (Pictures here.)
Of course I think we should also redesign the pedicab itself. Its present morphology (regular bike with a sidecar attached) is asymmetric and so leads to erratic navigation -with one side permitting almost hairpin (read: unpredictable) turns. There is no shortage of ideas as other cities are rediscovering human powered vehicles. (Check out the political struggle in New York, the regulations and routes in Vancouver and the tourist service in London.) But we probably can come up with our own, more efficient designs.
From a national policy standpoint, we could sell the creation of these ped-bike-ped networks as carbon sequestration and GHG reduction strategies and can probably either find good funding from environmental program loans of from the global market for carbon offsets.
It's win-win-win all around. (Unless you're an auto-elitist.)