Sitting in a bus that is moving at worm-crawling speed, gazing through the window at pedestrians with envy for their ability to advance at their chosen pace, it is easy to dismiss all those repetitive comments people who come back from Rio de Janeiro these days make: "So many bikes! All the orange bikes everywhere!."
But then you get to a comfortable room, change clothes, grab a bike and ride to the coast, and there it is: the most insanely beautiful bike path you will ride in South America, happy cyclists and runners, it was all worth it. Until you get back inside the city, and a car or bus passes so fast, so near, you're almost left spinning in place.
Rio de Janeiro, and possibly every major city in Brazil, is between those extremes: a heavy car culture that creates nerve breaking car jams and brutal drivers, and a growing bike current that wants to break in. But although the problem is shared through the country, the question of how Rio deals with the issue is not minor considering the city needs to prove it can manage three major world class events in the next four years.
BikeRio's Role in the Surge
In 2009 Rio was facing the prospect of following the same path than Sao Paulo (where running is faster than driving): the average speed was reaching 33 kilometers/hour (20 miles/hour), only 11 over SP's nerve-breaking 22 (13). Observing the habits of locals, the majority of whom move by bus or car, a strategic plan was drawn following worldwide trends of improving public transport and encouraging the use of bikes for short trips and connections.
Goals included doubling the city's bike paths by 2012 (which will be achieved if the city gets to the planned 300 kilometers by the end of the year), creating new bike racks and parking spaces (an interesting move was to design a model that can be installed by users with a previous authorization through e-mail, and canceling a disposition that prohibited bikes to be chained to public posts), and setting up a bike sharing service.
"All those orange bikes" are part of such service, apparently the most successful of all measures.
The system had been launched in late 2008, but had been suspended in mid 2011 due to thefts and the managing company's inability to make profits to expand the number of bikes and stations. Relaunched in October 2011, it incorporated a new managing company and look: the most prominent difference for the untrained eye being the bright color of the bikes and a largish logo of Itau bank stamped on the back mudguard.
Some cyclists were quick to criticize the advertising ("I hope this initiative is victorious and its success as big as the orange company's profits", read a comment on the local Critical Mass social page last year), though it seems that was the key point in the new service's success. Not only because of the visibility the color and brand achieved, but because the money from the advertising allowed the service to expand to 60 stations and 600 bikes (the previous had only reached 18 stations), and achieve 70 thousand registered users (including tourists) and 5,000 trips a day.
"There are people in the city who don't ride bikes, who don't even like them, but who are talking about them. Bikes are news in the city now, and I think this is a result of the public bikes showing up," says Jose Lobo, director of Transporte Ativo, an organization that advocates for better transit.
Riding Against Car-Culture
Although usually under the Transportation umbrella in cities administrations, in Rio the bike campaign was managed by the Environmental Office, a conscious decision: the secretary is the Vice-Mayor, so it has more political power. "Otherwise, in Brazil there is much fear about taking space from cars and designating it to other purposes," says Sub-Secretary Altamirando Fernandes Moraes.
The country's car culture is actually a car policy, and it comes from higher above: since Brazil has surpassed France as the fifth auto-maker in the world, the federal government offers great incentives to make cars accessible (when sales dropped in April, a new package of measures was quickly launched to boost the industry.)
Rio may not have Sao Paulo's car number, but that actually makes the streets edgier. "The big difference between Sao Paulo and Rio is that the first is completely blocked, you cannot go very fast in a car. But in Rio you have some times of the day where there isn't traffic and there are empty streets, so drivers can go very fast." Indeed, getting out of the designated bike paths is a scary experience: to say the 1.5 meters (5 feet) the local transit code establishes for a driver to keep from a bike are not respected is a funny understatement.
Because of that, finding news of cars against bikes incidents in Brazil is not hard, the most sadistic being the case of the Porto Alegre 'driver' who was so impatient with the Critical Mass riding in front of him that he decided to just step on the pedal and send 17 cyclists flying through the air. Figures provided by Transporte Ativo state that Rio's cycling deaths (only inside the city, not in nearby expressways) were eight in 2010, not even close to Sao Paulo's one-dead-cyclist-a-week rate. But drivers' aggressiveness is palpable. (The photo below shows a participant of the local Critical Mass carrying a sign with the words, "Thank you for waiting," proof of the group's 'respect' for cars.)
Since the car policy comes from above, all cities can do to is promote rational use. In Rio, a step in that direction was to take down 1,000 parking spaces and encourage drivers to take public transport or even taxis. Another one is education: the city is creating a 'transit school' near the Laguna Rodrigo de Freitas, an upscale area a few blocks away from the world-famous coastline of Ipanema. Recreating a street with transit situations, it will teach new generations how to behave and coexist.
"We have to educate the driver, the cyclist, the pedestrian. People may have a huge sidewalk, but they leave it and walk on the bike path. Cyclists leave the paths and ride on the sidewalk, and car drivers love to park on a bike path and think the city belongs to them. There's a whole generation to change," says sub-secretary Fernandes Moraes.
"What the city is doing is good, but there's always space to do more," says Lobo. "I always say that Rio is going to be a really bicycle friendly city in ten years, when people who are now kids or teenagers grow up."
Hoping that is not entirely true, the city will see Rio+20 as a pilot test for the World Cup and the Olympics, when bikes should prevent that the moving of thousands of participants becomes a nightmare.