With Metro Manila’s horrible traffic situation getting worse, more and more people are clamoring for solutions. Enter Julia Nebrija, a Filipino-American urban planner who’s part of Viva Manila. An avid biker, she advocates for inclusive mobility: the re-shaping of the metro’s transport system to benefit all.
We sat down with Julia to talk about how she uses her gadget—a trusty Apple iPhone 5s—to further the cause by harnessing the power of technology.
Interview answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
People know a lot about Viva Manila, but they usually associate it with Carlos Celdran. So for those who may not necessarily know Julia Nebrija, describe yourself in a few words.
I love people and so that’s why I love cities. And I feel like, with Viva Manila, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to create a place that people love. A place that people wanna be. I enjoy spending time and being in Manila and I want other people to also appreciate that. So that’s the general reason behind Viva Manila.
Of course we write a mission statement and it’s like, we aim here to—
—revitalize neighborhoods through historic cultural programming and like stakeholder engagement. But essentially it’s just that I love Manila—and the people in Manila—so, if we could somehow, create experiences for people to come experience, to join them with us, then maybe we can show others what there is to appreciate about the place.
You bike around Manila, and you’ve actually mentioned that you’ve gotten a mount for your iPhone. Why an iPhone?
[An] iPhone is the easiest to use. I’m not technologically very advanced, and so…
But you’re on social media a lot!
The iPhone makes it so easy. From my iPhone I take pictures, I can do the filters, I can post them on multiple platforms—Twitter, Facebook, my Instagram account. It’s a really easy way to share things as they’re happening, not necessarily because I’m concerned with people knowing what I’m doing at the exact moment. But if I’ll wait the whole day to get back home, to do all those things it might not happen.
Same thing when you get an idea like you wanna contact someone, you just go in your iPhone, you send them a WhatsApp [message]. You them an email or a Facebook message. It happens right when you think about it, as opposed to you’re gonna have to wait for hours till you’re done and you’re home and then you might have forgotten, or you’re not motivated, no longer finding the time for it, you’re hungry…
Yeah exactly. I’m also finding that the apps are also huge, huge timesaver. And they’ve helped me be much more effective at getting messages out. So I can edit video on my phone and post it on platforms. You know I can also find a lot of information that I need very quickly. Things like that, they just help me be more effective in my advocacy.
I might actually change my Android right now, after what you said.
The iPhone, especially in the Philippines, has this connotation that it’s for the upper class, those who have money. Generally, when people have expensive gadgets, they don’t want to go around the city; or at the very least, they take extra precautions when they commute. So what can you say to people who are afraid—that they think it’s unsafe to travel around Manila? Even without the gadget, they’re just afraid.
I get that comment a lot because actually I mount my iPhone out on my bike, where anyone can just like grab it. But I need it there because, I need to watch it, like apps. I need to watch Waze sometimes you’re reporting your rides or you get a phone call or even if something happens, you can easily have access to your phone.
On the cost side and let’s say that, you know one of the reasons why I like the iPhone is that it streamlined my other devices. I don’t have to have a camera, a video recorder…
A voice recorder?
You know, a computer with me. I don’t take my computer out with me cause I can do all my emails and everything from my phone. You can have all of your documents in Google Docs or in a Dropbox if you need them. So you don’t have to be carrying around as much stuff.
For me, with an iPhone, I have less attention to me. I spend less on multiple gadgets and I have everything in one place.
Of course you take regular precautions. I keep mine in a really beat-up Otterbox, so sometimes people claim that they can’t tell it is an iPhone. And you can get a different kind of cover if you’re walking around. With just the regular iPhone, it’s very obvious, of course it’s more tempting.
You’ve mentioned that you’ve actually reduced your online time with the iPhone, but how often are you online?
I mean I guess I’m online a lot. [But] I make it point not to make it the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing I see before I go to bed.
So you get a balance.
Yes, a balance. Just because it’s nice to like not have that stimulation—read a book, talk to someone, just be silent or something. Cause you’re accessible all day long, like I get notifications even if I’m not opening my Gmail, I’m not opening my Facebook, I get notifications.
So, you know, pretty much you’re accessible for most of the day. I do try to make it up; to make an effort to unplug. But yes, I do try to limit what I post, to be thematic; I limit [posts about] my personal life.
To a degree?
Yes, it’s more about the city. For instance, even if I’m interested in sharing a recipe, I don’t; because I don’t want to be flooding people’s [timelines] because people’s attention spans are also quite limited.
So if I’m posting about my personal life, a recipe that you should try, then something about the city—I mean, it gets wary [sic] for people, I think.
Since Viva Manila is concerned with revitalizing the city, what’s your opinion on installing free wifi in public spaces?
Yeah, that’s great. Also one of the reasons why I love having an iPhone, as I can switch out some parts, because I travel a lot. You know it’s really important for me to see other cities, for instance I went to Colombia, I sought out Cartagena, which is the example that we can follow for Intramuros.
I like to travel a lot and being able to switch out the SIM cards is really important. Especially in travelling—and by travelling I mean it could be that you are actually visiting other countries or you could be visiting a different part of a region in the Philippines. A lot of our tourism in Metro Manila is domestic, so you’re not just talking about foreign tourists but anyone who’s visiting a different place, other than their own.
When they can have access to wifi, it really helps them—it enables them to access a place as well. With information, maps, email, if they have a safety concern; there’s a lot of reasons why having wifi in public spaces is important. Other than like, you know, not everyone hopefully sits in the park and just Facebook. There’s a lot of reasons why I think it has its advantages.
Speaking of going around, what is the one app that you wish everybody could use—like you should have on their phone when traveling. What app could that be?
I wouldn’t able to do without Google Maps. I often just like, take a jeepney to somewhere and then try to find a way to walk to some place. It’s not even Waze, cause Waze is mostly directions for cars; so if you’re biking or walking…
It’s not really useful?
Waze can be okay for biking but then sometimes I’ve been riding on to major overpasses and you don’t realize it until it’s about to happen, [especially] if you’re not familiar. You’re just like, “I’m going on this bridge!”
But especially for walking, I need [Maps]. I take tricycles to places and sometimes…you know how directions are here, they don’t know the place but they know a landmark. And then you have to get to the landmark and then navigate yourself; or try to figure out when you get off the jeepney, how do I walk to a certain area. Yes, having Maps is just…I don’t know what I be able to do without Maps, it’s so hard.
Okay, last question: what’s one way that ordinary people, for example the average commuter, can contribute to a better Manila? What’s one simple thing they can do per day?
I think one thing is to be kind to one another, like my experience yesterday. Of course being kind to each other helps make the daily experience more enjoyable.
But in terms of being proactive, I think that if you’re a car driver, if you could figure out the types of trips that you don’t really need your car for. You know, like you’re just going to walk across—especially in a central business district—or you’re just going to go somewhere nearby to run [sic] some groceries, to run an errand. If there’s ways that you could think you could not ride, at least for those very short trips.
You know, I don’t think it’s realistic to ask everyone who lives in Quezon City and works in Manila to start commuting without a car. Right? I mean, there are already more people who have cars. But maybe there are shorter trips that you can do. Because the more numbers that we have that are walking and biking and using alternative modes of transport, the more respect we get on the road, the more visibility that we get and legislation, the more money we get for budgets.
We do have some power and numbers but the cars are still the most visible, even though 80% in Metro Manila commutes without a car. So we’re there.
I’m part of that 80 percent!
Me too, I’ve never had a car. I think that’s one reason the iPhone’s dear to me cause I haven’t had a car. There are times I need to take an Uber and it’s safer for me to do that than getting to a taxi for that night. For you know, with moving around the city there’s a lot of ways that can be difficult for you to do without an iPhone.
But yeah, I think people are very hesitant to walk because once you get used to a certain practice of getting out of your house and getting into a car or getting into a cab or whatever, it just becomes what you are now.
I have a friend who recently decided that maybe taking the car was too much trouble, too much money, taking too much time, finding parking, paying for all the things. So she tried for one week just to walk instead—the 20-minute walk from her house to her office. And now she does it every day. So I think if there’s a behavior that you can try to change, a small one, somehow…
Makes a lot of difference.
Yes. Over time maybe you’ll see that you can adapt it and practice. After all, good mobility is having a menu of transportation options and the iPhone helps me access those options.