In Manila‚ Electric Motorcycles Spur Environmental Concerns

19 September 2014 - 19:58 By Jason Strother

These days‚ more Filipinos are hitching rides on battery- powered bikes to get around the city. But not everyone thinks these so-called "e-trikes" are such a good idea.

MANILA — Sometimes to get around Manila‚ you need to take a trike‚ otherwise known as a motorcycle with a sidecar. The drivers weave around the traffic and up onto sidewalks. Trikes are noisy and emit a lot of exhaust too.

But not the one Alfredo Forelo drives. A few months ago‚ the 38-year-old traded in his old one for a new‚ battery-powered e-trike. It holds up to eight passengers and is so quiet that it can hardly be heard.

On the old tricycles‚ he used to get sick a lot‚ he says — colds‚ flu‚ asthma. But not anymore. And the e-trikes are easier to drive and more comfortable than the old ones.

At the moment‚ there are only about 15 of them on the streets of Manila. But the Asia Development Bank (ADB) is anticipating a fleet of 100‚000 within the next five years.

Sohail Hasnie‚ head of the bank's e-trike program‚ says the benefits of the new bikes will be felt across the board.

"The Filipino government spends close to $8 billion to $10 billion on importing oil as a net energy importer‚" Hasnie says. "And of course there are a lot of inefficient ways these get consumed by tricycle drivers who do not really have much of a choice in terms of new technology. If you are a pedestrian‚ of course you like riding around in something that is safe‚ comfortable and clean. E-trikes provide all those solutions in a single goal."

Hasnie estimates that e-trikes will offset much of the nearly four tons of carbon dioxide produced by gas-powered trikes in Manila each year.

Not universally hailed

But Beau Baconguis‚ Philippines program manager for Greenpeace‚ says e-trikes only substitute tail pipes for smoke stacks.

"When you plug in these hundreds of thousands of e-trikes‚ you will be using up a lot of electricity that is very dependent right now on coal‚" he says. "The environmental impact is not direct‚ in terms of emissions. The emission there is coming from the coal plant when you charge your trikes."

Other environmentalists say the e-trike's lithium ion batteries are not as beneficial as they might seem.

Red Constantino‚ director of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities in Manila‚ says there is no way to repair batteries once they falter. "If one single cell breaks down‚ the whole battery goes kaput‚ and there is no repair shop anywhere for such batteries‚" he says.

Even though lead batteries aren't as environmentally friendly as lithium ion‚ he says‚ there are at least recycling centers for them in the Philippines.

They're the kind of batteries his organization uses for its fleet of electric passenger trucks‚ known as jeepneys. Outside a shopping mall in Manila's Makati City‚ passengers climb into the back of these e-jeepneys and pass change up to the driver.

Constantino says these are a better alternative to the e-trikes‚ in terms of both the environment and safety. "The bigger the vehicle‚ the more efficient it is in reducing emissions and using less energy to ferry passengers from one place to another‚" he says. "Tricycles are small‚ they encourage door-to-door transport of people instead of allowing them to walk. The problem with the ADB e-trike program is that it will locate the tricycles haphazardly‚ wherever there is a demand rather than reducing the presence of tricycles‚ which are also a safety concern. They are notorious for not following traffic rules."

The Asia Development Bank's Sohail Hasnie concedes that his e-trikes still have problems to resolve‚ such as battery repair service. But he says jeepneys are just too expensive right now. "You need a larger motor‚ you need a larger battery. The costs keep going up and up."

And that’s a big problem‚ he says‚ because most drivers own their own vehicles. Hasnie adds that e-trikes give poor drivers‚ like Alfredo Forelo‚ a more affordable means to make a living.

Back on the road with Forelo‚ he says that he brings home more money these days with his e-trike because he saves on gas. And he pays a much smaller fee to charge his battery.

© 2014 Worldcrunch — in partnership with Portal KBR


Jason Strother