‘Get yourself a bike, perico!’: how cycling is challenging Santiago’s social barriers
The Guardian, 21 July 2016
ack in 1980, a Chilean bank ran a TV advert in which a man cycles across Santiago to meet his sweetheart. As he wobbles through the traffic, a bouquet of flowers in his hand, motorists, builders and school kids ridicule him. “Cómprate un auto, perico!” they shout – “Get yourself a car, mate!” The hapless cyclist reaches his lover’s house and hands her the bouquet. She gazes adoringly into his eyes. But then she sees his bike. “Get yourself a car, mate!” she scolds him. As the ad ends, she hauls him off to the bank to take out a loan. The advert was a big hit in Chile and its message was clear: bikes are for losers. If you wanna get a girl, get a car.
One generation later, and Chileans seem to have heeded the bank’s advice. Greater Santiago is home to 7 million people and over 4 million vehicles, and the numbers are growing. Chile has prospered in recent years and as people have got richer they’ve invested in cars.
But the lover on his bike is hitting back. As the traffic jams grow longer and parking becomes harder, frustrated Santiaguinos are looking for better ways to get around their city. The bicycle is enjoying a renaissance.
As it does, Santiago is changing. Traditionally the city has been notoriously segregated along class lines – a legacy in part of the Pinochet dictatorship. The rich live in the plush eastern neighbourhoods, in the shadow of the Andes, while the poor inhabit the lower suburbs to the south and west, where the smog is thicker and life is harder. Social mobility is low, and people from these two worlds seldom come into meaningful contact. But, anecdotally at least, there is some evidence that this is changing and that cycling, in its own small way, is playing a part. People are pedalling from one neighbourhood to another like never before. They are exploring previously unknown worlds. The city’s formidable social barriers are slowly being dismantled.
The bicycle is enjoying a renaissance. As it does, Santiago is changing
Let’s be clear from the outset: this is not Amsterdam or Copenhagen. Cycle lanes are the exception, not the norm. Motorists still view cyclists with suspicion. Saddle up and pedal into Santiago’s rush hour traffic and you’re taking your life into your hands.
But given what it was like a decade ago, when I first arrived in this city, Santiago has made progress. The number of cyclists on major routes has risen by 15-25% a year, says Lake Sagaris, a professor of transport engineering at the city’s Catholic University. In 2006, cycling accounted for 3% of journeys. These days it’s around 6% – higher than in London or Dublin. “A doubling of modal share in a decade!” Sagaris says. “Very few places in the world can match that.”
Santiago’s two-wheeled revolution can be traced back to the 1990s when a handful of cyclists, inspired by the Critical Mass movement, formed the Movimiento de Furiosos Ciclistas (the Movement of Furious Cyclists). They lived up to their name, jumping red lights and antagonising motorists with their disruptive monthly cycle rides. Forcefully, confrontationally, they pushed cycling up the political agenda.
But things have evolved since then. “You can only stage Critical Mass-style rides for so long,” says Amarilis Horta, director of cycling campaign group Bicicultura. “Once they get to a certain size they become counter-productive. They just annoy motorists.”
The Furiosos also alienated some women, who felt the movement was dominated by young male urban warriors with too much attitude. In a bid to encourage girls and women to take up cycling, a group of women formed Macleta (Women on Bikes) in 2006. Sagaris estimates that 30% of cyclists in Santiago are now women, up from 10% a decade ago.
Then came 2007, a breakthrough year. In February, the government launched Transantiago, a complete overhaul of the public transport system. Initially chaotic, it eventually brought order to the city’s bus routes, making roads safer for cyclists.
In the same year, the Dutch came to town. Interface for Cycling Expertise (I-CE), a Dutch-based NGO, arrived in Santiago to advise the regional government on how to promote intelligent urban cycling. They taught the Chileans how to design top-notch cycle paths and bike racks, and how to install parking facilities for bikes at metro stations.
Crucially, I-CE worked in partnership with Living City (Ciudad Viva), a Chilean NGO. That ensured that Santiaguinos had a proper say in the urban planning process. Living City staged neighbourhood workshops, gleaning knowledge from cyclists about local danger spots on roads and at junctions. They fed this information into the Department of Transport’s plans for the city.
Sagaris says this bottom-up approach was unusual for Chile, where 17 years of military rule instilled a top-down approach to pretty much everything. “Even the memory of simple skills, such as how to chair a meeting, deliberate, or make collective decisions was erased during the dictatorship and replaced by a profound terror of participation, debate and critique,” she says. That is changing, thanks in part to the efforts of community groups like Living City.
Sagaris estimates that 30% of cyclists in Santiago are now women, up from 10% a decade ago
At around this time, Chilean Gonzalo Stierling and his Colombian wife Lina Zuluaga launched CicloRecreoVía, an initiative to get people cycling on Sunday mornings. They took the idea from Lina’s home country. “For years in Bogotá, they’ve closed some roads to cars every Sunday morning,” Stierling says. “I saw how it worked in Bogotá and I wanted to try the same thing in Santiago.” Despite a battle for funding, CicloRecreoVía has continued to grow. On Sunday mornings cars are banned from 40 kilometres of Santiago’s roads. Around 30,000 people take to those vehicle-free streets on bikes, skateboards, rollerskates or simply on foot.
The other big pull for Santiago’s weekend cyclists is the Parque Metropolitano – the city’s answer to Central Park. Twice the size of its New York counterpart, the Parque is a gigantic green finger of mountain that reaches down into the city from the Andes. Head there on a weekend and it is packed with lycra-clad cyclists, winding up and down its paved roads or charging through woodlands on mountain bikes. Gonzalo García, the head of the park’s technical division, says the number of people using it has jumped 20% since 2010.
Santiago also has a bike-share scheme, similar to London’s Boris bikes. It started in Providencia, a relatively wealthy district, and in just a few years has spread to 14 of the city’s 32 municipalities.
At Bicicultura, Amarilis Horta says parliament is likely to approve a new Transport Law this year. It will give cyclists more rights, greater protection and will cut the speed limit in urban areas from 60km/h to 50. Thanks to Bicicultura’s campaigns, most new buildings in Santiago are now required by law to provide bike racks. Bicicultura is also working on a smart phone app to show cyclists the safest and quickest routes across the city.
These initiatives have clearly made Santiago more cycle-friendly but anecdotal evidence suggests they have gone further, by helping to bring Chileans together. Gonzalo García recalls organising a cycling trip to the Parque Metropolitano for children from La Legua, one of the city’s poorest areas. “They lived just a few kilometres away and had never been to the park,” he says. Later, he and a group of cyclists made the return trip to La Legua. “It’s a rough area but we went with the best possible bodyguards – the kids themselves,” he says. “Even the drug traffickers came out to applaud us.”
At CicloRecreoVía, Gonzalo Stierling did some research of his own into the social mix of his Sunday cyclists. One morning, he stopped cyclists on Avenida Andrés Bello, a long avenue running from central Santiago through Providencia, and asked them where they lived. Nearly half were from Providencia and Santiago Centro, as one might expect. A further 14% were from Ñuñoa, a middle-class district just south of Providencia. “But there were also people from other neighbourhoods, some of whom had travelled a long way to be there,” he recalls. “There was a good social mix.” In a city like Santiago, where class divisions run deep, that can only be positive.
There’s also a great age mix on those Sunday morning rides. You frequently see kids wobbling along on tiny bikes with stabilisers, alongside their grandparents – often seasoned cyclists. Sagaris says many people who had never sat on a bike before have been drawn to cycling through local activism. For example, back in the 1990s, more than 20 organisations came together to oppose a plan to build a highway through northern Santiago. Many of them had nothing to do with cycling – they were associations of neighbours or shopkeepers who were worried about their livelihoods and their streets. But the campaign brought them into contact with cycling groups for the first time and kindled their interest in the bike as a mode of transport. Some have never looked back and are now keen cyclists.
Geographically and climatically, Santiago is kind to those on bikes. The city is backed by some of the highest mountains in the world but is surprisingly and mercifully flat, rising from an altitude of 475 metres in the west to around 700 metres in well-heeled Las Condes and Vitacura. Only in the eastern extremes, where the city extends its tentacles into the foothills of the Andes, does the going get tough. It is a dry city too, with around 280mm of rainfall a year – less than half of London’s total. For a third of the year between November and February it hardly rains a drop.
Santiago is by no means a cycling Mecca. It cannot compare with the bike-friendly towns of northern Europe. But it has come a long way since the 1980s and that anachronistic TV ad. These days, it’s the cyclist who is likely to have the last laugh. As you pedal past cars, stuck in heavy traffic, it’s tempting to think of the poor lover with his bouquet of flowers, and to shout out to the motorists: “Cómprate una bici, perico!” – “Get yourself a bike, mate!”