Opinion, by Alfonso Stefanini

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The bicycle is the most efficient form of locomotion ever invented. Biking itself signifies a strong statement of solidarity for those wanting to reduce and eliminate our dependence on hydrocarbons derived from fossil fuels. For every bike you see on the road, you can most likely assure there is one less car.

Alfonso Stefanini, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil News.
Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.

Bikes also produce less tangible benefits such as reducing unwanted noise and improving the health of those riding them, while also reducing stress. Putting the leisure of biking aside, people need to move back and forth from home and work and this is a growing problem in Rio, where traffic consumes a large chunk of everyday life. It is not uncommon for commuters to spend up to three hours in a bus or car, and that’s a one-way ride.

As an environmentalist, I would normally advocate for bikes and public transportation as a solution to this mess. However, recent local news showing deadly bus and bicycle accidents throughout the city have made me think that over. How safe are we when riding in Rio’s traffic?

The race for gaining physical space in congested cities is universal, and was even portrayed in the famous movie “Falling Down” where Michael Douglas’s road-rage goes further than simply maneuvering the wheel of the car. Road rage!

The couple centimeters or so of rubber and the few inches of air pressure separating the biker from the ground are the only physical divisions to a very hard and cruel world, specially in a city where road traffic is straight-up violent. The imprudence and lack of civility by bus, truck, motorcycle and car drivers runs heavy in the veins of motorized vehicles in Rio and this needs to change.

According to various reports, Rio has the second largest network of bike paths in Latin America, losing to Bogota, Colombia. Rio offers bikers ciclovias and ciclofaixas, one shared with pedestrians and the other with cars. The publicized extent of Rio’s paths, however, doesn’t incorporate their quality and integrity. Many times paths are not marked or get interrupted by roads and other unforeseen obstacles, like light posts that come out of nowhere. Although bike paths going around the famous beaches of Rio are continuous indeed, they don’t necessarily get you home or to work.

This past month, thirteen people were killed and many others badly injured in bus related accidents. Among them there were a TV director and a triathlon athlete who died while riding their bikes. The deaths inspired a large protest a few days later on Viera Souto Avenue in Ipanema. A bike is set to be hung high up on a post next to the place were the second accident happened, a memorial, if you will, to remind the public that a biker died there. Across Rio you’ll occasionally run into similar memorials that are symbolic gestures to the street violence bikers experience in the city.

Making the situation more obscure, bus companies are not obligated to identify drivers who commit road infractions. According to O Globo, close to fifty percent of tickets given to buses are not paid. Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio, announced mandatory defensive driving courses to all bus drivers, and will also make it obligatory for the companies to disclose the names of the traffic violators.

Rio is really a beautiful city, but getting distracted from the road while biking is a quick way to end your fun. While the city is looking to increase its public bike fleet through a private-public initiative marked by the orange bikes seen everywhere, the lack of street etiquette is the hardest issue to tackle at the moment.

As people say in Rio quoting famous street artist Profeta Gentileza, gentileza gera gentileza, or kindness generates kindness. To stop the road killings, bus, car, truck, motorcycle and – why not? – bicycle drivers need to incorporate this motto into their everyday commute.


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Alfonso Stefanini has an MA in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California and a BA from Hampshire College. Alfonso lives in Rio de Janeiro, and he can be reached at: Ecobrasilis@gmail.com.

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