By Aurora Alemendral, July 1, 2014
Tricycles form the bulk of public transportation in the Philippines.
There are 3.5 million tricycles in the Philippines, and they’re mostly
ridden by adults. Conventional motorbikes with metal passenger sidecars
welded to their sides, the trikes are one of the many quirky aspects of
public life here that delight tourists and, for locals, provide the bulk
of public transportation in provincial cities across the country.
They’re also loud and dirty, roaring through the streets and spewing
black smoke from rattling tailpipes. But the ubiquitous Manilan tricycle
may soon get a makeover. In March the Philippine government, in
partnership with the Asian Development Bank
(ADB) and backed by Meralco, the country’s electricity monopoly,
announced the first stages of a 505.6 million pesos ($11 million) project that would put 100,000 electric tricycles on the streets of Manila and other provinces by 2017.
With silent, no-emission engines, the fleet of e-bikes would cut down
on noise pollution and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into
the atmosphere by an estimated 260,000 tons per year.
According to an
ADB study, electric-powered tricycles would also reduce dependence on
foreign fuel and cut operating costs for tricycle drivers by up to 60
percent. With strong government backing and eager private-sector
support, the program could turn the Philippines into a regional hub for
electric public transportation.
The proposal seems like a solid win for the environment, and an
opportunity for the country to poise itself as a leader in sustainable
transport. But the project has some detractors, including what would
seem like some natural allies: environmentalists.
Red Constantino, executive director for the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities,
says the e-tricycle program “sustains the prevailing chaos rather than
helping rationalize transport in the country.” Tricycles are
single-serving public transport, inefficiently carrying one passenger
from door to door, and money would be better spent supporting larger
vehicles that can transport people en masse, like buses or the country’s
What’s more, the Philippines already has some of the highest
electricity-usage rates in Asia, and Constantino points out that energy
crises have become common in parts of the country. Pouring resources
into an EV program could make the problem even worse, and distract from
the more fundamental challenge of creating stable sources of renewable
The electric tricycles will run on rechargeable lithium ion batteries,
the same technology that powers smart phones and laptops, which, as any
aging-iPhone owner knows, gets sluggish after just a few years.
Currently there’s no viable aftercare support for lithium ion batteries
in the Philippines, nor in Europe, Japan or the United States.
Constantino says to suggest that the Philippines will simply come up
with a system to address the long-term shortfalls of battery technology
“is just silly.”
Advocates say the new e-trikes will cut down on pollution, but they may cause other problems.
He’s also wary of some details of the project’s implementation. For
instance, rather than working directly with tricycle drivers and fleet
owners, the ADB project will collaborate with local government units,
not known for their squeaky-clean reputations. Subsidized credit also
distorts the market for electric vehicles, and imposing a single
electric tricycle design — irrespective of terrain, road quality or
passenger demand — across the vastly varying landscape of the
Philippines doesn’t make sense.
In essence, Constantino worries that what could be hailed as an
innovative leap forward in sustainable transport might actually be
greenwashing. “Just because it’s electric it doesn’t mean it has to be
supported,” he says.
While the Philippine government and the division of the ADB in charge
of the program are pushing electric trikes, Ko Sakamoto, a transport
economist for the ADB has a more tempered view of what the e-bikes can
do for the region. “We’d like to avoid the notion that e-vehicles are
the solution to everything,” says Sakamoto.
Supporting cleaner energy is part of the ADB’s sustainable transport
goals, according to Sakamoto. However, he says, “We do not advocate as
an institution one energy type over another.” He points out
alternatives, like Thailand’s tuktuks, some of which have switched to
clean natural gas, a cheaper technology than electric engines.
Electric tricycles may contribute to solving certain problems like air
pollution and climate change, but could inadvertently make other
problems worse, like congestion. “There needs to be a fundamental change
in the way cities are built,” Sakamoto says. Which means planning
cities that reduce the need for unnecessary transport — two-hour-long
commutes, for example — and shifting to more sustainable modes of
transport, like biking and walking.
“The project is still in its early stages, and we don’t want to
overstate the possibility,” Sakamoto says. Despite the draw of the
quick-fix and the enthusiasm in some circles for e-bikes, at most they
are one piece of a longer climb to making Manila’s transportation
infrastructure genuinely clean and sustainable.