The transformation of Copenhagen in one of the bike-friendliest cities in the world was not accidental. In fact, in the 1950s and '60s cars had invaded its streets, and reversing the trend required urban planning and the education of society.
A key in this process was to include bicycles in the Danish school curriculum so that children could learn how to move in traffic responsibly and start riding at an early age. This practice has now arrived to Latin America: Sao Paulo, the largest city in the continent and Brazil's economic capital, recently launched the program 'Cycling Schools,' which intends to turn kids into urban cyclists.
The program has two aspects, and is focused on the Unified Education Centers (Centros de Educação Unificados or CEU), schools for children 0-14 years old which also act as community centers offering sports and cultural activities to the residents of the neighborhoods in which they are installed.
In a first phase, each of the 45 CEUs in town received 100 bamboo bicycles to be used in one-month courses to teach children all aspects of cycling culture, and also to implement games and activities within the school. Children learn about transit, sustainable transportation, bicycle types, basic mechanics, history of the bicycle, environmental education and even conflict mediation (an issue that is not minor, given past conflicts that have occurred between cyclists and drivers in Brazil).
In a second phase, the kids begin to ride to and from school every day, in a convoy of 15 to 25 students with supervisors escorting them. The trip never exceeds three kilometers (1.9 miles) and routes are planned to be as safe as possible. According to a press release from the city of Sao Paulo government, before acting as supervisors people receive instruction on laws, traffic rules, first aid and bicycle mechanics.
The first group of kids who 'graduated' from the course started going to and from school by bike in June, and it is estimated that by December this year there will be 4,600 kids who will have undergone the special course.
The idea came up in 2011, when Copenhagenize Consulting CEO, Mikael Colville-Anderson, went to Sao Paulo for a speech and had a meeting with authorities from the city's Education Secretary. Colville-Anderson then became a consultant for the program, about which he said: "I went out of my way to underline the fact that what we are building in Sao Paulo is not merely a school project with some bikes. It is a monument. A powerful, symbolic human monument and that every effort should be made to make it a success. If a city the size of Sao Paulo can pull it off - and it will - the rings in the water will spread around the world."
Indeed, the project is significant for this city, which in June had the worst traffic jam in history: 295 kilometers (183 miles) of slow moving cars. Moreover, its manic transit has made it a world leader in registered helicopters: 593, beating New York and Tokyo.
While a change in its heavy car culture will sure require a shift in many areas, entering the school is an excellent step: kids usually act as transmitters to their parents, and are the citizens of the future. The more of them you have getting on bicycles, the more chances the city has of banishing its creepy carmaggedon stories.