Ten years of two-wheel protest: How São Paulo’s cycle activists conquered the streets of their city
Ten years ago, São Paulo was one of the most dangerous places to cycle in Latin America. Only a few risk-taking two-wheelers dared to cross through its hilly landscape and terrible traffic, which kills hundreds of cyclists every year. However, the rise of a young cycle-activist movement shows that structural change is possible. Due to their successful struggle, over 400 km of cycle lane was added to the city’s infrastructure in four years. Three pioneers explain how the cycling movement conquered the streets of São Paulo and changed the lives of all its urbanites.
Tragic incident sparks massive demonstration.
In 2009, São Paulo’s bicycle mobility movement is slowly dying. At that time, there are close to zero bicycle lanes, skyrocketing car sales and hundreds of deathly traffic incidents among cyclists, scooter-riders and motorcyclists each year.
However, a new movement is on the rise, sparked by the tragic death of a young cycle-activist who is pedalling to work on Paulista Avenue - the city’s main entry lane - when she is cut off by a bus, falls and gets crushed by its rear tires.
A huge demonstration follows. Thousands of cyclists and other people are furious about yet another deathly car-cyclist collision. They unite in the ‘Critical Mass’: ‘a monthly worldwide protest by cyclists reclaiming the city’. The demonstration on Paulista Avenue blocks the whole city for hours.
Student starts association for cyclists.
One of the protestors is Aline Cavalcante, a 23-year-old journalism student who just moved to São Paulo. It doesn’t take long before she discovers the cycle-activists, and starts to write about the movement. After the deadly incident, Aline also involves herself more and more in the actual activism. “When this girl on Paulista Avenue died, everything changed”, she explains.
After the incident, many people join the activists. Also, media attention is rapidly rising. Journalists and public officials are all looking for a person to talk to. But the Critical Mass has no hierarchy; it is an international movement without leaders.
So, by the end of 2009, Aline and a couple of other activists decide to create an association for cyclists: ‘Ciclocidade’. It’s the beginning of a new era of cycle-activism. Ciclocidade became the link between the people and the public power, with Aline Cavalcante as one of the most vocal bike activists in Brazil.
JP Amaral and his ‘Tinder for cyclists’.
Another protester – already involved as an activist on urban mobility issues since 2007 – is Joao Paulo Amaral, best known as JP. At that time, JP is constantly trying to convince people to join the monthly Critical Mass events, in which hundreds of cyclists’ tour through Sao Paulo.
But often all he finds is refusal. “Most people were just too scared to cycle in the city streets”, JP explains. To attract more people, JP volunteers to pick them up at home and bring them back safely. As ‘bike angels’, JP and his friends would protect people so they could join the Critical Mass tours. Their informal service becomes so popular that also journalists start asking for more information. Because of this, JP and other cyclists create a website. In 2010, Bike Anjo (Bike Angel) is born.
“Most people were just too scared to cycle in the city streets.”
Unintentionally, Bike Anjo explodes and becomes a worldwide platform that helps beginners to ride a bike: cycling tips, route recommendations, you name it. “We joke that it’s the tinder for cyclists. People go there with a need, and a group of volunteers is there to help them out. We make the match.”
After one month, three other cities join the platform. Six months later, Bike Anjo has 1000 volunteers in 100 cities. Now, after more than eight years, they are in more than 700 cities in 34 countries, reaching about 7000 members!
Another incident: cyclist survives and the movement immediately responds.
It’s Sunday morning 6am when David Santos Souza, a young window washer from São Paulo, is cycling to work. At the same time, a 21-year-old psychology student just finished his Saturday night and decides to drive home while intoxicated. The car driver doesn’t see Souza coming and his car hits the cyclist hard, thereby ripping Souza’s arm from his body. The student flees the scene with the severed limb still attached to his vehicle, dumps it in a nearby creek and eventually turns himself in to the police.
“We are not leaving until you talk to us!”
This incident occurs in 2013, right after the election of São Paulo’s then-mayor Fernando Haddad in 2013. It was an awful, but also strong symbolic incident. Two young men; same age, opposite social-economic backgrounds, one going to work, other coming back drunk from a party; this was about inequality. And for the first time, the cyclist didn’t die. David survived and still cycles!
Just hours after the incident, an army of cycle-activists rushes to the newly elected mayor’s house, to demand change. “We are not leaving until you talk to us!”, Aline fiercely narrates. And Haddad does. Whether personally touched or because of public pressure, the left-wing mayor schedules a meeting with the members of Ciclocidade, the secretary of transport and other public officials. Together they set up an agenda. In the four years of his seat (2013-2017), the goal was to build 400 km of cycle lanes in the city.
São Paulo, the tropical version of Copenhagen?
For the first time in São Paulo’s history, cycling as a means of transportation is acknowledged and translated into actual public mobility policy. In a four-year fight with São Paulo’s conservatives, Haddad and the cyclists reach their goal, and manage to construct 400 km of cycle lanes! “Nobody imagined this could be possible in São Paulo!”, Aline explains.
After that, the public policy ‘Open Streets’ is initiated, in which up until today, Paulista Avenue and other main roads are declared free of traffic on Sunday’s. Since then, crowded roads transform into huge urban parks overnight. Streets are taken over by families, skaters, runners and cyclists. The ‘cycle-friendly mobility policy’ became an international story, with newspapers calling Sao Paulo the ‘tropical version of Copenhagen.
Cycle activists stand ground in short-term politics.
That comparison is a bit far-fetched, also urban planner and social cycling entrepreneur Riccardo Correa knows. He was already cycling through the city, when there was not even a single bicycle lane to be found. With his company TC Urbes, Ricardo and his team planned and designed many of the 400 km of lanes between 2013-2017. “Politics is short-term, so we needed to do it fast, and for cheap.”
This becomes painfully visible in 2017. São Paulo’s mayor Fernando Haddad loses his position to João Doria; a slick businessman with the slogan: ‘to speed up Sao Paulo’. Doria immediately tries to raise the speed-limits for cars and erase some bicycle lanes. After four years of huge progress, the movement gets back to the activism to fight conservative mayor João Doria, who is unpleasantly surprised by the strong oppression.
“For us it’s indifferent who is in the Mayor’s office.”
The movement evolved. They knew how to use the system, and manage to sabotage most of Doria’s mobility plans. Like Ricardo, Aline understands very well how politics works. “For us it’s indifferent who is in the Mayor’s office; they come and go. We just need to strengthen and defend good mobility policies in order to save lives!” After Doria’s transition to governor last year, that is exactly what they are doing under the current mayor of São Paulo.
The successful struggle of São Paulo’s bicycle movement.
Riccardo, JP and Aline, are not just fighting for cyclists, or bicycle lanes. In the end, a good mobility policy isn’t just for them. The successful struggle of São Paulo’s bicycle movement also opened up the streets for pedestrians, for ‘carossa’s’ (carts for recycling waste), and for wheelchairs.
The cyclists proved that structural change is possible, which inspired and empowered many other movements. Today, they work closely together with environmental organisations, other mobility movements, urban farmers, and so on. Side by side, they are fighting for a better São Paulo for all its urbanites so that their kids will grow up in a healthier, more equal and liveable city.