It was elective surgery day and I was the pediatric neurosurgery fellow assigned to the operating theater. After scrubbing my arms and hands with antiseptic in the anteroom that served as our washing area, I walked into the operating room with both arms held up in front and politely requested a sterile towel from the scrub nurse. From across the room, it was our head nurse Shelley who noticed the grazes on both of my forearms.
“Oh, what happened to you Ron?” her tone filled with concern as if I were her own son.
“I got into a fight in a bar over the weekend,” I said with as much seriousness I could muster while patting myself dry.
“Nah, you fell off your bike!”
“It’s true! You should have seen the other guy.”
Everyone had a good laugh. Even my boss joined in the teasing that followed. The injuries were so distinctive; all must have either had them during childhood or witnessed their children getting them. What made it amusing was seeing the scrapes in an adult neurosurgeon. I was relieved they could not see the nasty wound on my left knee, still painful but conveniently concealed by my scrub pants.
Throughout my entire year in Melbourne, I lived just three kilometers from The Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH). I stayed in a flat that was a two-minute walk from the nearest tram stop. From Union Square Shopping Centre, it was another eight stops and seven minutes before Tram 55 reached RCH.
At the start of my training, I took Tram 55 every day, until I made the bold move to join the city’s bike-riding public. The decision was a no-brainer. I computed that the cost of getting my own bike was much less than having to pay for a tram ticket twice a day for an entire year, even if I were to get discounted weeklong Myki passes. After I received my first month’s salary, I went to a bike shop located two blocks from my flat.
“You can test ride it if you like.”
I was inspecting a red road bike. It looked sleek and durable.
“No, no. I believe you. This should be fine. Can I get this in space gray?”
It would have been embarrassing to tell the shop owner that I was not yet confident riding around the block on my own. I did not want to damage the bike before it was mine. He let me straddle the red bike, decided that I needed a medium frame, and placed my order. I got my bike a few days later.
For weeks, I practiced in nearby Gilpin Park. I would go round and round its one-kilometer dirt path, usually for people who wish to jog or take a leisurely stroll. It did not matter that that was where I sustained my injuries, which happened when I tried to avoid a guy who was walking his dogs (“I’m fine, don’t worry. It was my fault!” “I’m so sorry. I also ride bike so I know. Are you sure?” “Yeah, I’m all good.”)
My bike route to RCH crossed four intersections. In the morning, the first third of the journey required me to cycle on the road, next to trams on my right and parked cars on the other side. The rest was a scenic bike trail that would pass through Royal Park Golf Course, cross the tracks at Royal Park train station, and then go along the perimeter of Melbourne Zoo and the State Netball and Hockey Centre. I needed to cycle uphill, always the most difficult part of the journey, but that meant it was a comfortable cruise later at night. Going downhill, I would stand on my bike pedals and feel the cool gust against my face, notwithstanding the smell of elephant dung that wafted in the air.
I loved the daily exercise. Biking provided my morning dose of adrenaline. I burned 150 calories mindlessly, which was not much, but it felt good to earn the right to drink a can of Coke on bad days.
I initially thought I would dread having to wake up 15 minutes earlier because I needed extra time to change into work clothes in the hospital, but soon I realized that I effectively freed myself from trying to catch Tram 55, which was on time most of the time. Before, I would always rush to the tram stop because being a minute too late translated to being seven minutes late for work, having to wait for the next tram to arrive. A handful of times, I would get to the tram stop only to realize that I left my Myki card. I did not miss having to squeeze myself in between fellow commuters holding their iPhones and coffee cups.
The only times I took the tram were during heavy rains when the roads tended to be slippery, and when I had to go back to the hospital past midnight before the break of dawn. On my free weekends, I would do long bike rides to St. Kilda Beach or around Melbourne on the Capital City Trail.
It was encouraging to see many co-workers in the hospital ride a bike to work. According to Melbourne data in 2013, 13% of vehicles entering the city from 7 am to 10 am were bicycles. Half of all households had access to at least one working bicycle.
Fellow doctors, medical students, nurses, paramedical staff—in our cycling attire all too different from our scrub suits and formal clothes, we acknowledged one another with a brief chat, a polite nod, or even just a swipe of one’s ID card, necessary to open the heavy metal door to the hospital’s lower ground parking area. Forged by Melbourne’s extreme weather, it was an unspoken fellowship I belonged to.
The massive, secure, and free bicycle parking space of RCH connects to male and female changing rooms that then lead to the hospital’s hallways. Changing rooms are equipped with lockers, showers, hair dryers, and even ironing boards. There is a tire pump in the parking area, and periodically, technicians visit to service bikes at a reasonable cost.
Now that I am back home, I often wonder when biking would be a major means of daily transport in the Philippines. Wouldn’t it be great if biking were a reasonable and safe option for getting most Filipinos to school or work? It would alleviate city traffic and pollution. It would even address the growing obesity epidemic.
Whenever I am stuck in a bus for what could have been a short ride, I miss my daily bike trail, lined by elm and oak trees that changed with the seasons, frequented by galahs and cockatoos that would herald arrival at my workplace.
Converting Metro Manila to a biking megacity is a massive undertaking. As I have seen in Melbourne, it is not just about constructing protected bike lanes and bike paths. Extreme heat during summer, flash floods during rainy season, and the constant poor air quality have to be addressed. Offices and schools, both in the public and private sectors, also have to invest in infrastructure that would encourage employees and students to bring their bikes. Bike hoops need to be ubiquitous.
I think, though, that the crucial obstacle to a consistent bicycle-riding public in the Philippines is the difficulty of enforcing discipline among all road users. Just cycling around our village, I am horrified at the lack of respect from drivers, whether they are on motorcycles, tricycles, or cars. It is hard enough staying on an imaginary bike lane.
I remain hopeful that one day, I will be able to say that I am back to riding a bike to work. Having to sell my bike before flying back to Manila was heartbreaking. I have plenty of good memories cycling in Melbourne—the incident in the operating theater rivaled in hilarity only by the first day I decided to cycle to RCH.
I left my flat 45 minutes earlier than usual. I was thrilled. I had never before tried riding to the hospital at this hour and I was not sure how long I would take. I gave myself high fives for having crossed my first two intersections without trouble. I kept a close eye on parked cars. Just a couple of months earlier, a cyclist died after a car door hit him and knocked him under a truck. In Melbourne, as it should be anywhere else, one cycling death is one too many.
Stopping at the third intersection, a 20-something Aussie bloke caught up with me. The biker momentarily stared with knitted eyebrows, as if angry at something. I was puzzled. What could possibly be wrong about an Asian guy riding a bike? I had not experienced racism in the city so I quickly dismissed the thought. When the traffic light switched to green, he sped off and I trailed behind at a leisurely pace. I had time to spare and I wanted to enjoy the ride. I could have been singing in my head.
When I got to RCH, locking my bike in place, I finally figured out what bothered my fellow cyclist: I was not wearing a helmet! Unlike in the Netherlands, cyclists are required to wear helmets in Australia. It could have been a disastrous morning. I chuckled at the irony of a neurosurgeon, getting pulled over by a police officer and fined for riding without a helmet.
Thus, on my first day of cycling to work, I was forced to ride Tram 55 back home.