Cycling in Rio de Janeiro is always an adventure, especially for first time visitors to the city. Before we begin a Rio bike tour, we therefore always tell our participants that the cyclist – along with the pedestrian – finds himself at the bottom of the food chain within the traffic hierarchy. Even though we use cycle paths most of the time during our tours, you should always stay alert. Hardly anyone gives way to other traffic, even if they should. It’s all about survival of the fittest.
Cycling in Rio still a subculture. Sure, you see people cruising on their bikes along the beach, but as a means of transport the bicycle is hardly taken as a serious option. Vehicles on four wheels rule. However, dedicated bike activists are trying to change this situation. One of the pioneers in this field is Zé Lobo ( 51 ), a resident of Copacabana and founder of the NGO Transporte Ativo ( Active Transport ).
,,Until 1998, the bike was qualified by Brazilian law as a toy”, he explains. ,,Only after that the bicycle was acknowledged as a means of transport." But that was only a small step forward. ‘Thanks’ to towering taxes, bicycles in Brazil belong to the most expensive bikes in the world. Zé: ,,The taxes are higher than the taxes on cars. You see, there is still a lot of campaigning to be done in Brazil. In Rio de Janeiro every 7 minutes a new car enters the street."
Since 2003 Zé Lobo has been actively sending faxes and emails to the municipality of Rio, to promote the use of bicycles and point out problems. Nowadays his organization is a serious partner of the local authorities when it comes to cycling policy for the city.
The first generation of bike lanes in Rio de Janeiro dates from 1992, when the construction of 150 kilometers of cycle paths was realized. These days, the city has about 300 kilometers of bicycle paths. Another 150 kilometers of bike paths will be ready in 2016, the year the Olympic Games will be held in Rio de Janeiro.
During our Urban bike tour we pedal through the Botafogo district, where in the nineties a number of cycle paths have been constructed on sidewalks. They sometimes are barely recognizable and seem to end suddenly. Zé: ,,You see, policymakers didn’t want to create bike lanes at the expense of parking space and roads. Therefore, they have laid the lanes on top of the sidewalks. It’s shows their way of thinking in relation to cycling."
To strengthen the bicycle lobby his NGO gathers data about cycling in the city, hoping to convince the local authorities, by using facts, of the importance of the bicycle as a means of transport. An example: in Copacabana there are 372 shops which offer bicycle delivery services. More than 700 cyclists take care of a total of 11,500 orders per day. Why not make that neighborhood more bike friendly, you would think. In downtown Rio, the business district with many head offices of multinational companies, 50 percent of the cyclists use their bikes to deliver documents and other items. ,,The bike is used a lot by the offices in the centre, while the place itself is not bike friendly at all. If the municipality could change that, the use of bicycles would increase substantially in that part of town. It would lead to less traffic jams."
There are now plans to connect Zona Sul, the affluent southern part of the city, with downtown Rio, through a cycle path. A next step is to expand the bike lanes to the port area, which is currently being renovated. The port area will have 17 kilometers of bicycle paths. Zé says: ,,The authorities want to connect the different neighborhoods in this city by cycle paths. Like that, you would be able to go everywhere by bicycle. That would be ideal."