Latin America’s Silent (Two-Wheel) Revolution

More and more Latin Americans are finally on the verge of buying cars, thanks to a historic combination of rising salaries, higher availability of credit, and decreasing prices of motor vehicles. For many it’s a ‘life dream’ come true. But what do we lose in the process? What are the side-effects for public health and city spending?

The clearest impact is on public health: the more people cycle, the healthier they are; and having societies that avoid global trends in diabetes and obesity translates into major savings for governments. For example, the WHO estimates that in any given year, regular cyclists (i.e. cycling 3 hours/week, 36 weeks/year, or 108 hours/year) are on average 28 per cent “less likely to die from any cause than non-cyclists”.

Car vs. Bicycle, Mexico CityMoreover, city finances are directly impacted. A recent study by the Cycling Embassy of Denmark found that each km driven by car generates costs to the city; but each km cycled adds to urban wellbeing. Specifically, the study indicates a net social gain of 0.16 EUR per km cycled, and a net social loss of 0.09 EUR per km driven.

Similarly, the New York City Department of Transportation has released compelling data in defence of bike-friendly street design. For example, since the introduction of the first protected bicycle lane in Manhattan’s Ninth Avenue, retail sales for adjoining businesses are up as much as 49 per cent, while injuries to all street users are down by 58 per cent.

Ninth Avenue, New York CityBike strikes back
In terms of sustainable transport,
Mexico City and Buenos Aires are leading the way in Latin America. Acceptance of the bicycle as a valid transport mode has increased massively, boasting a variety of users ranging from students and the elderly, to elegant executives showing off their imported ties and summery skirts. In Mexico City, the public EcoBici transportation strategy has revolutionized the city mobility against all odds.

One of the brains behind the successful EcoBici initiative, Iván de la Lanza, tells me: “At first, no one believed people would dare to ride a bicycle in the famously chaotic traffic of this city”. The number of bike trips has now surpassed 8 million, with more than 23,000 daily trips. These impressive numbers are in line with the more than 80,000 registered users, which continues to expand. In Buenos Aires, the 100th km of protected bike lanes was finished earlier this year, complementing a high-demand public bike scheme, Mejor en Bici.

In Brazil, although the city of Curitiba ‘boasts’ the highest number of cars per capita in the country, one for every 1.4 inhabitants, the current government is slowly turning the situation around. City bikers have even been given an official seat in the City Council ‘Concitiba‘. Alexandre Costa Nascimento, journalist for the Gazeta do Povo, says “we have entered a road of no return for cyclists to influence mobility decisions”. It’s clear that after the October 2012 elections, the bicycle has regained ‘gold status’ in a city once known for its innovative sustainable transport policies.

Similarly, Bogotá has woken up from its car promotion lethargy and is massively investing in urban biking. According to Jesús Acero, project director for Bogotá’s sustainable mobility strategy, the current administration has vowed to invest 206,000 million Colombian pesos (around 83 million euros) in cycling infrastructure, including expansion of the bike lane network to reach an astounding number of 522 km. Moreover, last week it finally launched its public bicycle scheme. (Curiously, this coincided with the inauguration of two additional bicycle sharing schemes; both New York and Moscow launched theirs – albeit in very different magnitudes – in the same week!). Red Square, MoscowNational and global agendas
As a major mode of transport, bicycles are rising up the political agendas of most major Latin American cities. Even car-addicted cities in the region are starting serious discussions in this respect.

The case of Caracas, which suffers the lowest price of gasoline in the world, is perhaps unique. The price of a litre of gas has been frozen since 1996 at just one euro cent, at the official exchange rate. Worse still, black marketeers sell gasoline for a quarter of this price. Nonetheless, serious discussions about urban bicycle promotion are under way.

The sustainability of our world ultimately depends on the sustainability of our cities. According to UN estimates, 90 per cent of Latin Americans will live in cities by 2050, and the negative impacts of highly motorized transport models are staggering. With more and more people using cars and motorbikes, the transport sector has become the largest and fastest growing source of urban CO2 emissions in the Latin American region.

Transport generates more than 90 per cent of air pollution in cities in developing countries, say recent estimates from the UNEP. This means the direction taken by Latin American cities, in terms of urban transport policies, will have a major impact on the region’s future sustainability. In these terms, the relative underdevelopment of this region is actually an advantage for planning a more sustainable future.

What’s the key to unlock the bicycle’s full potential in Latin America? If you ask me, it’s the mainstream culture of this proud region, where owning a car is a symbol of power; where driving a car is a historic symbol of financial capacity. The noble, simple bicycle faces a historic challenge in a region where it was once seen as a hobby for the rich, or a transport mode for the poor.

Just a hobby for the rich and transport for the poor?by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at UNU-MERIT / School of Governance. Images: Flickr / F.Garcia; Salomonrbc; The Bike Fed.


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