International Boulevard

The War of Bicycles and Thumbtacks

New bicycle lanes bearing vast tides of lower and middle class bike commuters sweep through the wealthy neighborhoods of Sao Paulo. Thumbtacks and twitter rants from elite residents who want to keep the roads for their Mercedes and BMWs only. In Brazil, class warfare over a painted line on the asphalt:


Over the past few days, Brazilian social media has buzzed with complaints from cyclists about thumbtacks being scattered on the new [Sao Paulo] bike lanes by those who oppose their creation.

At first people thought it was just a coincidence; but as the complaints grew in number over this week, it became clear there must be something behind this.

“On the first day I thought it was an accident,” said publicist Rosa Bafile. “Maybe somebody had dropped a box or something. But later I realized it had been an act of sabotage, because there were way too many pins on the ground. Five of them got stuck in the tires of my bike.”

The bike lane in question is located at Arthur de Azevedo Street, in the wealthy neighborhood of Pinheiros, in the west of São Paulo’s capital. Many cyclists reported the same problem over social media.

Ever since São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad started creating these bike lanes, his critics have abounded. Among them are the senator Aloysio Nunes, who called their creation an “authoritarian delusion”, and the residents of Santa Cecília, another exclusive upper class neighborhood, who have petitioned the State Government for the removal of the bike lanes.

But the complainers represent a minority. A survey conducted by Datafolha shows that over 80% of the population support the lanes.

-Spresso SP Editorial


'Bicicletada' demonstration on Sao Paulo's Avenida Paulista. Photo CC Fora do Eixo

‘Bicicletada’ demonstration on Avenida Paulista. Photo CC Fora do Eixo



It is the basic demand from bike commuters-a lane in the road for bicycles only, with proper signs-a simple safety measure to reduce accidents with cars that injure cyclists.

Long lacking in Sao Paulo, a bike lanes initiative that was meant to promote environmentally sustainable mobility has ended up transforming into an ideological debate over who really owns the city.

When Sao Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad (of the ruling PT, Workers’ Party) decided to favor bicycle transportation, there were extreme reactions from some sectors. One example came from the noble and conservative neighborhood of Higienopolis.

Among the neighborhood’s more illustrious residents who reacted, there was Aloysio Nunes, senator and candidate for vice president for the Social Democratic Party (The PT’s major opponent in the recent presidential election), who issued the following statement on Twitter: “Haddad’s authoritarian delusion: spreading bike lines at his whim, causing revolt among Higienópolis’ residents”.

This was on the day that the city completed its 120th kilometer of bike-only lanes. The City’s goal is to hit the 400 km mark by the end of 2015, at a total cost of 80 million reais (roughly 40 million dollars).

Journalist and bicycle activist Renata Falzoni, one of the pioneers in promoting the use of bikes in the country, sees the dispute as a clear example of the segregation within Brazilian society.

“It’s the Higienópolis syndrome,” says Falzoni, who is also an architect. “In Brazil there is a class of well-off people of high social status that simply panics at the idea of being seen in public spaces mingling with those less fortunate than them. The real issue here, and one that is seldom discussed in this country, is social segregation.”

The angry reaction of the Paulista elite has however proved to be a relatively isolated one, since a recent survey conducted by the City’s Traffic Engineering Company shows that 88 percent of Paulistas approve of the bicycle lanes.

“At first there was a wave of voices against it, but the very first survey showed that 88 percent of the people here approve of the lanes, and 92 percent are also in favor of the creation and expansion of exclusive lanes for buses, the [bus rapid transit]corridor”, Falzoni says.

According to the São Paulo municipal government, over 500 thousand cyclists ride on the city’s streets nowadays, and most of them not recreationally, but to run errands or commute to and from work.

“People here have a strange notion that bicycles are a means of transportation for the elite, and that is just not true”, says Gabriel Di Pierro, from the Urban Cyclists Association of São Paulo. “At least 70 percent of those that use their bikes daily in the city of São Paulo are lower-class workers.”

A report culled from public hospital statistics by the São Paulo State Health Secretary at the beginning of last year showed a cyclist is killed in a traffic accident every other day on average.

Carlos Aranha, from the urban mobility task force Rede Nossa São Paulo, says that the new bike lanes represent the hope that São Paulo’s residents can regain their right to the city.

“This bike lane doesn’t take away driving space for cars, it just puts an end to the privatization of the public space,” he says. “what had been used as parking spaces for cars is now a path that is safe for cyclists. Some may complain, but we have to understand that individualism and selfishness are still strong in some people.”

Still according to the Secretary of Health, around nine cyclists are admitted to public hospitals in São Paulo every day. Their most frequent injuries are skull and spine traumas and fractures of the hips, arms and legs. On March 2013, cyclist David Santos, age 22, had his arm severed after he was run over by student Alex Kozloff Siwek. The accident had particularly large repercussions because the driver fled the scene of the accident, and subsequently tossed the severed arm of the victim into a nearby creek.

Carlos Aranha thinks the current moment is important for the city to set an example for the rest of the country.

“In terms of urban mobility, São Paulo has always been a poor role model for Brazil, and this is the time to turn the tables; we can become a positive reference for the country,” he concludes.

The dispute over the right to use public spaces is not limited to Higienópolis. Next January, Paulista Avenue, one of the main arteries of the city, will also gain bike lanes.

'Bicicletada' demonstration on Sao Paulo's Avenida Paulista. Photo CC Fora do Eixo

‘Bicicletada’ demonstration on Avenida Paulista. Photo CC Fora do Eixo

June Protests

Urban transportation, a key issue for every city, has to do mainly with access to the city and its public services. A catalyst for the protests that happened last June 2013 (people initially demanded a reduction in transportation fares, the renovation of the [bus]fleets and better transportation conditions in general), oddly enough the discussion over this issue never reached a national level.

Cities in big urban centers have historically stimulated transportation via individual cars, known as “automobile culture”, relegating to the background any collective or alternative forms of transportation such as bike lanes and bus corridors. But in many parts of the world, alternative forms of transportation surpass the use of private cars.

“Countries during the 20th century embraced mobility via private cars without questioning it,” comments journalist and cycle-activist Renata Falzoni. “Perhaps one of the biggest success stories of the last century was that the automobile industry making entire populations believe that progress and happiness could only be fully achieved if one had his own car. That just doesn’t add up.”

According to a report by Rede Nossa São Paulo, Paulistas spend an average of 2 hours and 26 minutes daily getting around the city, be it by car, subway, bicycles or on foot.

Since 2013, the city has gained around 320 km of bus corridors, and that number is only growing. A recent survey carried out by the Traffic Engineering Company that the buses in São Paulo’s capital are now 68% faster with the new bus corridors.

Automobile expansion

According to data provided by the National Traffic Department, in the decade between 2003 and 2013 the number of private cars on Brazilian roads more than doubled, representing an increase of 123%. It is as if, over the last ten years, Brazil added an average of 12 thousand new cars on the streets every day. Over the same time period, the fleet of motorcycles grew a six-fold, while for public transportation the bus and train fleets grew only 23%.

“There isn’t enough space in the city for every single car to be on the street at the same time, and São Paulo’s traffic jams proved that a long time ago,” says Carlos Aranha. “The difference is that people seem to be waking up to this problem only now, and the current legislature has finally summoned the courage to discuss the issue.”

Brazil has currently a fleet of over 80 million vehicles. Cars still represent the majority, followed closely by motorcycles. And the conclusion is obvious: as the car fleet increases in size, so will the time spent in traffic jams, as well as the pollution and car crashes. Falzoni adds another problem to the equation: the distance between homes and the offices of the citizens.

“In order for us to have proper mobility and public transportation, there should be people living downtown, close the where the jobs are,” she says. “And there should be a greater opportunity for jobs in the suburbs and outskirts of urban centers; we need to create more bus and train corridors.”.

Leonardo Ferreira Translated from Portuguese by International Boulevard

TAGS:Bicycle Bike Brazil latin america Protests public transportation Sao Paulo Social Class Urban

Comments are closed.