The Bikes in Brazil

With a booming economy, is Brazil thinking bike?

All eyes are on Brazil.

The country is preparing to enter its own branding vortex with the upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games. The nation’s economy has been booming; Brazil is poised to become the world’s fifth-largest country economy by 2016. National self-confidence is on the rise for its almost 200 million people.

What does this mean for the re-establishment of bicycle-friendly cities in Brazil? These are exciting times – in a nail-biting kind of way. Is Brazil thinking bike? The main question is whether the country will end up going down the congested, car-centric route like China and India or choose the European focus on livable cities with sustainable transportation at the top of the planning list.

Brazil has a long, proud tradition of urban cycling. From early on, the bicycle was embraced as a convenient, practical mode in Brazilian cities. By all accounts, things are improving. The national modal share for bicycles in 2002 was around 2 percent and by 2012 that number had risen to 7 percent.

In a number of smaller cities the bicycle remains a primary form of transport: Ubatuba, Lorena, Rio Branco, Montes Claros, Aracaju, and Praia Grande. In Ubatuba and Lorena, both in the state of São Paulo, the modal share for bicycles is an amazing 55 percent according to those municipalities. By all accounts, the city of Rio Branco rides off into the sunset with a record 65 percent of its citizens riding bicycles.

Among the big cities, it is with good reason that Rio de Janeiro features in The Copenhagenize Index 2013 Bicycle Friendly Cities, ranking as the 12th best city for bicycles in the world. The city has had cycle tracks since 1991.

In the City’s preparations for the first Earth Summit in 1992 it created a cycle track along the iconic Copacabana Beach, removing a car lane to do so. The move was a symbolic gesture, aimed at showing the world that Rio was committing itself to environmental solutions.

After the cycle track was completed and in use, the neighborhoods farther along the coast, like Ipanema and Leblon, saw how great it was and it was extended. Today, Rio de Janeiro boasts over 185 miles (300 kilometers) of separated bicycle infrastructure.

Arriving at Santos Dumont airport, you can ride on cycle tracks all the way to Leblon, at the far end of the beaches. There are not many places in the world where that is possible. While the network is far from complete or totally effective, Rio is certainly ahead of the global curve.

Daniel Guth is an urban mobility consultant in São Paulo and former political advisor to the Secretary of Education. He is also an iconic figure of bicycle advocacy there. “We haven’t lost sight of bicycle culture in Brazil, but we are in the midst of a transition between the American way of thinking about urban mobility and the Brazilian perception of society. Our economy is still based on growing consumption but that’s a federal issue. Our cities, where people actually live, are becoming more focused on livability and pedestrian/ bicycle friendliness,” said Guth.

Shining lights also cast shadows. São Paulo, the economic powerhouse of the nation with 20 million people in the metro area, stands in stark, almost demonstrative, contrast to Rio de Janeiro. There are seven million cars in São Paulo and 3,200 new car registrations every day as citizens dish out their new prosperity on automobiles. No city with seven million cars could possibly hope to be pleasant and it is clear that São Paulo is struggling to implement anything remotely practical or friendly for bicycle users.

Brazil’s capital, Brasília, is renowned for its architecture and its history as a planned city. It might look interesting from the air, but it rose out of the heady days of car-centric modernist architecture in the early 1960s. Brasília is the city with the second-longest length of bicycle infrastructure in the country but most of it is recreational and does little to bring bicycle traffic past shops, businesses, and schools.

Even in Curitiba, that poster child of public transportation, much of the bicycle infrastructure does not accommodate urban life. Many other larger cities seem to think that building motorways is a sure sign of progress. The quest for livable cities in Brazil is an urban planning battleground with polar opposite focuses on vehicle infrastructure and bicycle infrastructure.

João Guilherme Lacerda is a consultant with the non-profit mobility organization Transporte Ativo and based in São Paulo. He is largely optimistic about the future of urban cycling in Brazil but he admits that there are challenges ahead.

“We live in the midst of great bike hype. Many cities around the country are planning a lot in terms of cycling infrastructure. But a lot of this planning is just that, ideas on paper. In terms of funding, bicycle infrastructure is talked about but not a priority. Another problem, besides lack of political will, is lack of expertise in cycle planning.”

Bike Share

Six Brazilian cities have bike share programs. This is a positive sign, although in a country this size, six cities could also be regarded as a less than modest effort. Compared to most cities around the world, Brazil has a rather odd approach to bike share. In both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, the programs were first launched in wealthier neighborhoods, with plans to expand later to areas with less prosperity. The idea was that if the middle and upper classes were seen to be the early adopters on bike share bicycles, the lower classes would aspire to be like the prosperous and embrace bike share as well.

It’s an unproven theory. The purpose of bike share programs is to provide effective last-mile transport for all citizens of a city, not as a plaything for the well off. It can work well for all if implemented properly. Over 500 cities around the world have succeeded.

After having established bike share in Rio’s Zona Sul area and in gentrified neighborhoods of São Paulo, cities are looking at expanding into areas such as city centers and transportation hubs. Let’s hope they do it as well as other cities that got it right from the beginning.

Advocacy and Activism

Effective advocacy and activism will always be tricky in a country the size of Brazil where the situation appears to be more fractured. Smaller groups in various cities focus on their local situation and there isn’t a national network. A successful campaign in one city may go unnoticed by cities on the other end of the nation. From early on during the current bicycle boom, many individuals embraced Cycle Chic and started blogs as an effective way of promoting cycling for everyone and battling the perception of cycling as being solely for sport or recreation. Outside of Europe, Brazil is where the Cycle Chic movement has had the most influence.

Critical Mass rides take place in many cities across the country. Like in Europe, these rides tend to have a celebratory mood – rather than the aggressive nature of the movement of some North American cities. Unfortunately, a Critical Mass ride in 2011 made headlines around the world when a motorist, 47-year-old Ricardo José Neis, plowed through the cyclists on a peaceful ride, injuring fifteen. Nevertheless, the rides continue unabated.

It appears that a lot of the activism in Brazil is organized by sub-cultures of affluent, lifestyle cyclists. In this sense, advocacy here has an American feel to it, in contrast to the more inclusive style in Europe.

There are a number of individuals who are known and respected for their promotion of cycling as transportation – for the greater good – in Brazil. It would appear that bicycle advocacy, despite the challenges, is going from strength to strength and, at the head of the pack, is one organization in particular; Transporte Ativo – Portuguese for “active transportation.”

Founded in 2003, Transporte Ativo is mostly active in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo but is increasingly influential across the country.

As João Guilherme Lerceda told me, “As an organization, we’re certainly proud to have influenced Rio’s experts to see bicycles as part of the solution in terms of planning cities and urban mobility. The best part is that those experts are not under the political influence of the mayor in office. So when elections come, we still maintain our influence, despite the political leadership.”

Car-free Sundays

With an increasing standard of living, the car remains a status symbol in Brazil. Daniel Guth has been passionately involved in using bicycles as vehicles for social change, not least when he was political advisor to São Paulo’s Secretary of Education, Alexandre Schneider. These two men were instrumental in accepting my idea of putting bicycles on the curriculum in São Paulo schools when I first met with them in 2011. They have since launched a comprehensive program that created bicycle classes in over 40 schools and created bicycle convoys from the neighborhoods to the schools.

Guth and Schneider were also instrumental in starting São Paulo’s version of Ciclovía on Sundays. It’s called CicloFaixa and involves closing off the streets for bicycles like in many other South and Central American cities. “We have had over 100,000 people cycling every Sunday since 2009. Many people started cycling to work after their Sunday ride and families are rediscovering the joy of cycling together. Bicycle shops have seen an increase in sales of more than 30 percent since CicloFaixa started.”

Many Brazilian cities close off their streets on Sundays and holidays for the benefit of cycling, walking, rollerskating, skateboarding, and other active transportation. In Rio de Janeiro, the entire stretch of the beachfront from Copacabana to Leblon is transformed into a massive, human-powered parade. In São Paulo, bright red road markings have been painted on the routes, as well as fixed signage, ready to serve the public on Sundays. It offers a sense of permanence that is important when branding the fact that the bicycle is back for good.

Cargo Bike Heaven

Any country that still has bicycles in its cities is a step ahead on the journey to promoting cycling as transportation. One unique aspect of urban life in Brazil is the presence of cargo bikes in the larger cities. In the Copacabana neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro alone, there are over 11,000 deliveries by cargo bike each day to the neighborhood’s population of 500,000. Whereas families and small businesses own the 40,000 cargo bikes in Copenhagen, in Rio and other Brazilian cities these bikes are for goods and services delivery. It’s impressive to see a pile of mattresses or a refrigerator rolling past you on the street. Let alone dry-cleaning, pets, or pizza deliveries.

The World is Watching

We think of Brazil as an emerging nation. Actually, it has already emerged and now we’re starting to notice it. Often inappropriately lumped together with Russia, China, and India, Brazil has advantages that these other countries do not. It hasn’t completely destroyed itself with the automobile. It has cities that have a quality of life that others, elsewhere, would beg for. Few emerging bicycle nations are as well positioned as Brazil for assuming a leadership role.

As João Guilherme Lacerda said, “Small and medium-sized cities can’t afford the cost of building infrastructure for the growing fleet of cars. Building infrastructure for cyclists means not only saving cities from complete chaos, but also saving them money.”

Brazil could be an impeccable role model for many generations. The country has to decide which road to take. Stepping up to the plate and capitalizing on its current benefits or throwing it all away. The world is watching.

Brazil by the Numbers

  • Population: 201 million
  • Brazil is the largest country in the Southern Hemisphere and fifth largest in the world.
  • The top 27 cities in Brazil have a total of 1090 miles (1755 kilometers) of bicycle infrastructure.
  • Over 5 million bikes are made and sold in Brazil each year.

Mikael Colville-Andersen is an urban mobility expert and CEO of Copenhagenize Design Co. He is a leading voice in bicycle urbanism and gives keynotes around the world. His company consults cities and governments in how to create liveable cities – with the bicycle at the forefront. He has been called the “Jane Jacobs of our age.” @copenhagenize


  • Stewart

    I have ridden the cycle track along the beach in Rio de Janeiro. While it is pleasant , it does nothing to help you get into the city where the businesses are. There, you are taking your life in your hands. As for the bike Share program, it’s not accessible to tourists.

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