Brazil calling – a conversation with the World Bike Forum

Yes, there are a lot of bicycles in Brazil
The World Bike Forum was in Brazil in February. Bikes not Bombs organised a video discussion between Charlotte Fagan in Curitiba and the Youth Bike Summit in New York. We asked: are cyclists facing the same issues across continents? YES! But the details are certainly different.

I was especially surprised to learn that Brazil manufactures a sizeable proportion of the world’s bicycles.  After a great conversation answering questions from Forum participants in Curitiba, lots of us assembled in New York sent our questions to Brazil via Charlotte.  The inquirers are anonymous here, but came from projects in Boston, Seattle, New York, Philadelphia and the UK.  Many thanks to Charlotte for researching and writing the answers back to us.  Her words follow, based on interviews she conducted, and all photos are hers.

1)  What is preventing people from riding bikes more in Brazil?

Safety is the number one thing preventing people from biking here. Think of a city like Sao Paolo, a city bigger than New York, that literally does not have any bike infrastructure anywhere in the city. There are more traffic fatalities per 100,000 in Brazil than in most (non-war torn) countries in the world. That is a huge barrier to people biking.

The second biggest hurdle is car culture. Brazil is incredibly polarized in terms of wealth, very few people have a lot, and a lot of people have very little. Markers of wealth hold a lot of weight in that sort of society, and a car is a huge part of that. More on car culture in #3.

2)  Are politicians and policy makes on the same side as the cyclists on cycling issues usually?

In the last mayoral election in Sao Paolo every candidate was pro-bike, at least in name. Every mayoral candidate promised hundreds of miles of bike paths and improvements to bike infrastructure, but once elected the mayor has done nothing. This seems to be a trend throughout Brazil. Politicians know that biking is generally a popular issue, but when they get into power very rarely do anything. Cyclists have learned through experience to be very sceptical of politicians’ promises, and spend more time protesting mayoral policies than attending ribbon cutting ceremonies.

3) Does Brazil's advanced biofuel industry affect car culture, and therefore bike culture? How?

Yes! Brazil has cheap fuel, and is a huge manufacturer of cars and car parts. The government has many programs to incentivize buying cars (for example,  waving taxes on cars), and the automobile industry is a huge part of Brazil's larger economy. Due to this, for most Brazilians it is more important to own a car than it is to own a house (or in some cases, even rent a house), which adversely effects biking and bike culture. One of the presentations I attended at the forum was about the economics of biking in Brazil. Brazil is one of the largest bike manufacturers in the world, and imports less than 10% of total bikes. It should then seem that biking in Brazil would be economically accessible, but the taxes are so high on many bikes that it is still hard for many people to buy a bike. The presenter is organizing a campaign to try to get the government to make tax the same for bikes as it is for cars, which he hopes will provide economic incentives for people to buy bikes and to help turn the tide of car culture.

4) What populations/people generally use bikes?

Similarly to the US, Brazilian cyclists (generally) fall into three categories: recreational cyclists (mostly middle and upper-middle class), transportation cyclists (middle-class cyclists who are likely to be involved in bike advocacy), and invisible cyclists (working class folks who are the majority of cyclists, but are most likely to be absent in the bike advocacy world). In Brazil, tons of people are biking, and lots of working class people bike because it's their only form of transportation, and cargo bikes are very popular here for everything from mail delivery to water delivery. However, as in many places in the US, working class cyclists are unlikely to be present at the table and new cycling infrastructure is less likely to be invested in their neighborhoods even if they have the highest bike commute rates.

5) Are bikes seen as a socially-equitable form of transportation?

I think that folks in Brazil would say yes, but many are critical of the bike movement's lack of equity and inclusion. The talk is there, people frame biking as a socially-equitable form of transportation when they talk about it, but the movement there could do more to be socially inclusive in what they are doing/where they are working.

6) One of the World Bike Forum attendees asked about how youth in the U.S. get involved in advocacy because it seemed strange there. I'm curious to hear opinions around why they think there hasn't been a strong youth presence in the movement there and ideas about how to change that.


When I asked one person about this, her response was that parents don't let their kids go out biking because it isn't safe. She felt that they need to first address the safety issue before directly addressing how to better include youth. She also felt that because car culture is so strong, many youth were simply not interested in biking. She felt that the way to get more youth involved was to first address those issues. Other people I talked to said similar things.  I would add that many young people are already really politicized in Brazil but seem to be more involved in public transit protests and negotiations rather than biking. It doesn't seem like the bike movement has spent a lot of time thinking about what it would mean to be inclusive to youth.

7) Across the United Kingdom, we debate the efficacy of social projects to get more people cycling versus urban design & bicycle infrastructure. Do people at the WBF have examples that worked in their cities/countries?

I think the social projects around biking are just beginning to take off here. A lot of groups here are really excited about the community bike shop model of many co-ops/collectives/non-profits in the US, and are trying to replicate those community bike spaces in Brazil and throughout Latin America. I also know that a lot of women's bike collectives throughout Latin America have been really successful in different social projects to get more women cycling (rides, big sister/little sister programs, how to ride in traffic classes, etc.).

Also, the question of urban design and bike infrastructure is a little different here. In the north, I think that we often think that infrastructure comes from the top and from the government, whereas in Latin America lots of bike groups make their own infrastructure by painting bike lanes and sharrows in the middle of the night. Groups here are more likely to take matters into their own hands, and have the community build the infrastructure as opposed to waiting for the city to do it.

8) Are there examples of cyclists working with other working / poor people's movements to address common needs like housing, jobs, education, protection from state oppression, or others?

Unfortunately, I think this is an area where the bike movement in Brazil could really improve. The best example I can think of is a bike union in Sao Paolo whose mission is to increase people's access to human rights. They probably had the most broadly stated mission of all the groups I talked to. But, when I asked them about their mission and the concrete things they were doing towards that things the answer was a lot more abstract than concrete.

That being said, after the forum Carlos Marroquin (of Bici-Tec), myself, and some organizers from Curitiba's bike group went to a land occupation on the fringe of the city. It's an occupation where 300 families have taken over a piece of land and demanded housing from the city. It's organized by MPM (it's sort of like the urban equivalent of MST in Curitiba). Carlos is going to be building some bicimaquinas for the community this weekend (in fact, he starts today!), and Tuesday night I spent some time meeting with the bike group to brainstorm ways that they could better be working with/in solidarity with working class communities in the fringes of the city.

I think groups in Brazil, just like many groups in the US, could be doing more/thinking more about how to better work in solidarity with larger social movements.

9) Here in Boston our youth leaders (cyclists) work on getting better public transit as well based on the important lifeline transit plays for our communities. Is this something that cyclists in other countries are doing too?

Yes, this is definitely something that bike groups are working on too. Especially in the bigger cities like Sao Paolo and Rio, the cities are so gigantic that people really can't bike from one side to the other as a reliable form of transportation. In those cities the bike groups are organizing with public transit groups too. In the last year huge protests have been happening all over Brazil in response to the rise in public transit prices and all sorts of issues related to the World Cup. It seems like the bike groups tend to fall more on the negotiating with the city rather than the protesting side - but like most things in Latin America, the line between those two things is much fuzzier than it is in the North.

Thanks so much to Charlotte for fostering international communication.  More about the work of Bikes not Bombs here, including their 30-year history ‘forming an international network of organisations using bicycles for social change in their communities.’