Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
The mayor of Brazil's largest city pledges to stop the carnage. Will it work?
On March 9, several hundred ciclistas paulistas — bicycle riders in São Paulo, Brazil's largest city — took off their clothes and got on their bikes for the World Naked Bike Ride, the periodic, global joyride that has been called a "protest against everything." The Brazilian group had two particular concerns: the country's reliance on fossil fuels and the vulnerability of cyclists in São Paulo.
The next day, Sunday, scores of cyclists returned to the Avenida Paulista for a more somber demonstration, laying their bikes and their bodies in the street to stop traffic. That morning, David Santos de Souza, a young window washer on his way to work, had been hit by a car that ripped Souza's arm from his body. Alex Siwek, the 21-year-old psychology student behind the wheel, fled the scene with the severed limb attached to his vehicle before discarding it in a nearby creek and turning himself in to police.
Souza, recuperating in the hospital, is one of the lucky ones — over a thousand bicyclists, scooter-riders and motorcyclists are killed in São Paulo each year. But the outrage that followed Souza's accident has achieved something unique: a promise, from the mayor, to make bicycle safety a priority.
For the last two weeks, this lurid accident -- which has played to the sensationalist impulses of the Brazilian press like few others -- has captivated the city's attention. Cyclists, joined at one point by Souza's mother, returned to protest the incident the next weekend, affixing a bloodied plastic arm to a lampost on the Avenida Paulista. Local media have devoted whole segments to the life of cyclists in the city. Letters to the editor of the São Paulo daily Fohla brought calls for more criminal enforcement and, predictably, the backlash: for cyclists, finally, to obey the rules of the road.
Supporters started Facebook campaigns to give blood in Souza's name and to help obtain him a prosthetic limb. The Brazilian prosthetics manufacturer Conforpes donated an arm, and the company's São Paulo-born founder, Nelson Nolé, visited Souza, an aspiring artist, in the hospital, and boasted that the young man "will not need to abandon his passion for art."
The accident is the latest in a series of confrontations between people and automobiles in Brazilian cities, where a recent surge in car ownership has choked roads across the country.
Nowhere is the traffic worse than in São Paulo, where the Friday night jam stretches over 100 miles. "It's like war," Victoria Ribeira, a reporter for the city's thriving 24-hour traffic radio station, told the BBC. "Everybody seems to become very selfish once they are behind the wheel of a car."
The infamous congestion has incentivized bike riding, even as it imperils riders. São Paulo's bike lane network, Cicliofaxia, inaugurated in 2009, has helped bring cycling into the mainstream of city life. The worse the traffic gets, the faster it is to bike: switching from mass transit to his bicycle, Souza himself has said he was able to reduce his commute from 90 to 45 minutes.
But traffic deaths in Brazil are up nearly 25 percent over the last decade. In March 2012, the death of 33-year-old cyclist Juliana Dias — killed by a bus on the Avenida Paulista in São Paulo — sparked protests across the country. In 2011, in Port Alegre, a driver mowed down 40 cyclists at a Critical Mass gathering. Last week, Clemilda Fernandes, an Olympian and Brazil's highest-ranked female cyclist, was run over by a truck driver near Brasilia and suffered serious injuries. On Saturday, Souza's brother was hospitalized after an accident on his scooter.
Often, in booming Brazil, high-profile automobile accidents carry narratives of class conflict. Last year, Thor Batista, the 20-year-old son of Brazil's richest man, was driving his $1.3 million SLR McLaren on a road outside Rio when he crashed into and killed a man on a bicycle, a truck-unloader on his way to buy flour to bake a cake for his wife's birthday. In the ensuing uproar, a Brazilian newspaper reported that Batista had crashed an Audi into an 86-year-old cyclist in Rio the year before.
For cyclists in São Paulo, there are signs that Souza's injury may have marked a tipping point.
On Friday, Mayor Fernando Haddad met with a group of bicycle activists, and afterwards announced the debut of a bicycle safety campaign with an emphasis on educating drivers. Haddad, who was elected in the fall, said he wanted the city to move in the direction of Bogota, the capital of Colombia, where former Mayor Antanas Mockus marked the streets with large painted stars where people had been killed — and traffic fatalities fell by over 50 percent.
"There will be more involvement for cyclists in the decisions of the municipality," pledged Haddad.
Engineers at the São Paulo transportation agency, he said, have been drawing up plans for a network of bike lanes covering up to 250 miles. The mayor is set to announce more definitive plans for cycling in the city today.
Top image: A sign fixed on a bicycle, depicting a road sign, is seen during a protest and tribute for the death of a cyclist Juliana Ingrid Dias in Sao Paulo March 2, 2012. (Nacho Doce/Reuters)