Many Brazilians consider the bicycle to be the poor man’s transport. But that mindset is changing. A growing number of urban-dwellers are pushing the pedals - despite the huge odds they face in the crowded cities.
It was an unusual scene one recent Friday evening in a park in the heart of Curitiba, a bustling city in southern Brazil. A slight woman struggled to keep her balance atop a mountain bike, while a young man held the saddle to keep her from falling. He finally gave the bike a push, and she sailed onwards. They both cheered.
The woman is Cristina de Araújo Lima. She is 58 years old and wants to learn how to ride a bike – even though she hasn’t sat on one in more than 50 years. Ironically, she helps organize “Desafio Intermodal,” an annual race pitting various modes of transport – from bikes to buses – against each other. They all have to cover the same distance. The aim is to show which form of transport is the best to get around on in Curitiba. And until now, the humble bicycle has always won the race.
Cristina de Araújo Lima is a professor of architecture and urban development at the Federal University of Paraná. She talked with Global Ideas about why she is re-learning how to ride a bike, and what it feels like to be a cyclist on the roads of a large Brazilian city.
Global Ideas: Are you scared of riding a bike in Brazil?
Cristina de Araújo Lima: Yes, a lot of drivers are very aggressive with cyclists. Accidents are common, you have to be very careful. In Curitiba, bicycles only make up around three percent of individual transport. More than 60 percent of people use public transportation and more than 25 percent use cars to get around. Many cyclists have to use the bus lanes because there are no bike paths and the bus lanes are smoother to ride. But it’s easy for a big bus to overlook a small bike on the road. Still, in Curitiba public transport is highly valued, also because it’s promoted here. In smaller cities, more people use cars and bikes.
Besides the traffic, you also have to be careful not to get mugged. I live eight kilometers away from the university, and the route to campus involves riding on major busy roads that don’t have bike paths and that go directly by favelas. And if like me, you’re not very confident on a bicycle, then you will definitely think twice about using a bike or getting to work another way.
You’ve survived your first cycling lesson. Do you feel more confident?
Very much so. Besides learning how to keep my balance, I’m also learning how to give cars signs and signals. I want to use my bicycle more in the future. José Belotto, my boss, has been trying for years to get me to ride my bike to work. I’ll first start out on Sundays because some of the roads in Curitiba are closed to cars so it’s only bikes out and about. At some point, I’ll start using my bike as part of my regular daily routine, but I’m not there yet.
You learned how to ride a bike when you were six years old and you often rode with your parents. Isn’t it true that you never forget how to ride a bike?
It’s true, and I haven’t really forgotten it. My teacher was really surprised that I could keep myself aloft on the bike on my own within the first hour of our lesson. But you tend to lost the feel for it and the ease that goes with it. I have to get used to the bike again.
When I first learned how to ride, there were far fewer bikes in Curitiba. The roads were a lot emptier and I rode around a lot. I even had a name for my bike! It was called “Bernadini.” Today, the roads are so busy that you first have to train properly before you start biking around on your own.
So what was it like to get back on a bike after so many years?
I was in Paris on vacation last year, and friends of mine wanted to ride through the city with me. I hadn’t been on a bicycle in ages, but I knew it would work out. I managed to move forwards but I had no sense of balance. I didn’t know how to signal to cars and I couldn’t even really turn around corners. That’s why I’m happy that Fernando is teaching me now. He started with the basics and taught me everything. Within the first hour, I was able to twist my upper body around and look back behind me while riding. That totally surprised me and provided the motivation to keep going.
Most Brazilians still prefer to use cars to get places. Over the last decade, the number of cars in Brazil has more than doubled. Still, you do see more and more people on bikes, even in big cities like Curitiba which aren’t so easy to navigate because they’re so hilly. What needs to be done to get more people interested in riding bicycles?
According to statistics from the National Association of Public Transport (ANTP), the number of people using bikes today is still very low. In São Paulo for example, it’s only one percent of the population. The car is a very important status symbol in Brazil. Some people would rather buy a car than invest in a decent apartment or house. And, the country’s economic success has raised the purchasing power here, so more people can afford to buy a car. So if the infrastructure for bikes isn’t there, people won’t use them. It’s that simple.
Still, a lot of people – especially here in Curitiba – do appreciate bikes and they see that the city supports cycling. The number of bike paths is growing, there are places to lock them up safely, and there are more and more bike stores and repair shops too.
But we also need an organization that champions the rights of cyclists. Policymakers need to get involved, too and provide more support for cyclists and more space for them in the city. On his first day at work, Curitiba’s mayor rode to city hall on his bike, with all his co-workers riding alongside. It was a clear and positive message to residents.
With time, I think biking can gain cult status here. It’s already in fashion. A lot of charismatic people have been using bikes in Curitiba, like the “oil man.” He’s the guy who bikes around Curitiba in swimming trunks, covered in tons of suntan lotion. You also have the Desafio Intermodal here that we organize every year. And every last Friday of the month, we have the Bicicletada, where a group of around 50 people cycle through the city to promote cycling. It’s a movement that’s catching on in a lot of other big metropolises in Brazil, like Rio, São Paulo and Porto Alegre. It’s inspired by the international initiative “Critical Mass.”
What about in the rest of Brazil? Are there other events and initiatives to get the word out about bikes in transportation?
There are a lot of activists and groups that fight for more bike use. Some of the first activists who began drumming up support for the bicycle ten years ago were literally criminalized. In 2007 in Curitiba, for example, a group of activists drew their own bike path on the road as a sign of protest. They had to pay a hefty fine. There were similar protests in other cities too.
I really like a project called “Take your bike to work.” It’s the brainchild of two Brazilian organizations, Bicycles of Peace and Bike Angel. They ride to work everyday and try to convince people to take part in the official “Take your bike to work” day, every other Friday of the month. And in a lot of cities, they have fought for new bike workshops and cultural centers that offer lessons and support the cause.
In the capital Brasília, there are even volunteers who offer to accompany new cyclists who are nervous about riding to work on their own. There are also many smaller initiatives, like underground venues where plays are staged on issues around cycling. There are plenty of individual cyclists who develop maps with the best bike route to take when there’s no bike path. There are even sightseeing trips on bike. These are promising developments.