Cycling Gains Ground on Latin American Streets

June 24, 2015


Young people with their bicycles in Uruguay


The region’s largest cities now have bike lanes and public bike rental systems

Latin Americans have fallen in love – once and again- with their bicycles. And bicycles have increasingly adapted to Latin America. After interminable hours wasted in traffic, an oftentimes deficient public transport and the desire for a healthier lifestyle, the two wheels are gaining ground in the region’s leading cities.

A few years ago, bicycles were indisputable icons of Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Barcelona. However, they have now made their way through Latin American cities’ maze of street vendors, parks and streets that are not always apt for pedalling.

And it is about time. Traveling by bike alleviates city difficulties of the second most urbanized region in the world. An estimated 450 million people live in Latin American cities and most face a daily struggle with traffic jams and air pollution caused by the growing number of motorized vehicles:  70% of CO2 emissions in urban areas originate from cars and motorcycles.

Argentina is a textbook example of this trend. It is one of the most urbanized countries in Latin America, with more than 89% of the population living in urban areas of over 2,000 inhabitants.

From hundreds of kilometers of bike lanes, loans to purchase bikes and even innovative bike-share systems, several cities in the country are following this trend, creating their own recipes for what could be the end of the undeniable star in urban areas: the car.

“Transportation enhancements can also be a catalyst for improving the quality of life and creating more inclusive cities,” explains Verónica Raffo, WB senior infrastructure specialist. “People living in cities, both in developed and developing countries are reclaiming streets as public spaces, demanding urban planners to re-design streets to ensure a more equitable distribution of these public spaces, and prioritizing the allocation of streets for people to walk, cycle and socialize,” says.

More bicycles, less cars

In Buenos Aires, the bicycle has been crucial to ensure traveling through the city is not the cause of  stress or a waste of time. What led Buenos Aires residents to abandon the yellow and black taxis was the construction of the bicisenda along the city’s main streets, as well as the Ecobici bike-share system, which expects to have 200 stations throughout the city by December 2015, many of which will operate automatically.

Nowadays, some 180,000 people use bikes as their main mode of transport or to complement other alternatives such as subway, train or buses. To make the trip to the law firm where she works, 45-year-old Paula travels “half by bike, half by train” because “it saves me time and is a little more predictable than other means,” she explains.

While the car is the most inefficient, expensive and exclusive form of transport, the bicycle is just the opposite: it is economical and generates more equitable relations. This was the idea behind the City of Buenos Aires when they started to promote activities such as personal loans to purchase bicycles and to offer courses in bike repair. In sum, it helped re-energize an industry that many considered forgotten.


And these efforts have paid off: Buenos Aires ranks 14th among the 122 urban centers defined as most bike-friendly in the world, according to the report Copenhagenize Index Bicycle-Friendly Cities.


But Argentina’s capital is not the only one that has surrendered to the two-wheeled revolution.

Another pioneering city is Rosario, which since 2010 has implemented the campaign ¡Todos en bici! as part of its Comprehensive Transport Plan. The campaign not only convinced Rosario residents to ride bikes, it also seeks to improve conditions for doing so.

Currently, Rosario has 100 kilometers of bike lanes, paths and shared spaces. The city also has an integrated public bicycle rental system, which uses the same automatic charge card as the city’s buses and parking meters. Additionally, with the implementation of the Cambia el Aire! Calle Recreativa Program, residents who walk, ride bikes and skate have a 28-kilometer circuit free of motorized vehicles on Sundays.

The City of Córdoba also has 103 kilometers of bike lanes and the number of cyclists using these areas has quadrupled since 2012. A recent city household survey found that 6.1% of the population already uses bicycles as their main means of transport.

Rosario and Córdoba received support through the Global Environment Facility’s Sustainable Transport and Air Quality Project. “The idea is to change towards sustainable cities. We need a holistic approach, aligning the local agenda – equity, congestion, road safety, healthy transportation, air pollution – with the global agenda of climate change and reduction of emissions,” says Raffo.

Every city pedals at its own pace

Bicycles are making an impact in cities of the region. Latin America already has 12 cities that have a network of more than 12,000 public bicycles.

But the scenario varies considerably. While cities such as Bogota and Rio de Janeiro are breaking records in terms of kilometers of bike lanes, most Central American countries have no institutionalized networks.

Below is a glimpse of the region’s efforts:

Mexico City: According to the city’s statistics, 54% of users of Ecobici – the bike-share system of the Mexican capital- substituted another form of transport for the bicycle. The system covers 35 km2 and offers service seven days a week to over 100,000 users. 

Central America: although few initiatives exist in this region, Cártago, east of San José de Costa Rica, will be the first Central American city with a public bike system, which will have 12 stations. In Guatemala City, the Pasos y Pedales program was implemented to allow residents to enjoy car-free biking, skating and other recreational activities on part of the city’s main thoroughfares on Sundays.

Bogota: Bogota has had bike lanes for over 40 years, which have served as a source of inspiration for more than 200 cities around the world. It is also considered the largest system in Latin America, according to information from the mayor’s office.

Rio de Janeiro: with the Bike system, more than 5.6 million bike trips have been made so far, according to the Municipal Environmental Secretariat. This means a savings of more than 2,000 tons of CO2.

- Montevideo: the Uruguayan capital has the Movete system for public bike rental, with eight stations. It also has 33 kilometers of “bikeable” circuits, including bike lanes, roads and paths.