In sprawling Santiago de Chile, the share of daily commuters who travel by bicycle is increasing 20 percent annually, cyclist fatalities are dropping (34 percent between 2011 and 2012), and bike-share is expanding (now in three neighborhoods). An estimated 800,000 santiaguinos get around town on two wheels. So why aren't cyclists celebrating?
Despite growing ridership, Santiago's transportation infrastructure "is not high quality, and not sufficient," according to César Garrido, a local cycling advocate. He told a recent CNN Chile panel: "Five years ago it may have been advanced—now it’s saturated."
With 133 miles of ciclovías, Santiago surpasses many peers but lags well behind Bogotá (233 miles), a similarly sized city. Its network also suffers numerous deficiencies, say bikers: lanes end abruptly, swerve around lamp posts, and cross ungraded sidewalks. The 45 mph speed limits on urban arteries increase the risk of cyclist death in a collision.
Facing such challenges, many cyclists have taken to Santiago’s sidewalks. A recent study by Macleta, a Chile-based women's biking group, found that sidewalk cycling dominated in two of four observations points, comprising 90 percent of bikers at spots in posh downtown Providencia and 80 percent in residential Las Condes. Only in the Ñuñoa district, just south of Providencia, did a majority (88 percent) prefer the street. At two of the four points, there were bike lanes just blocks away.
The problem isn’t new—Macleta has offered skills classes aimed at curbing sidewalk biking since 2011—but as urban cycling explodes, pedestrians feel increasingly besieged. Providencia residents “have developed the habit of opening their doors slowly to peer out before exiting” to avoid being run over, says Macleta researcher Sofía López Carrasco. The issue is hotly debated on social media and TV, where advocacy groups such as Los Peatones Furiosos (angry pedestrians) and Movimiento Furiosos Ciclistas (angry cyclists) battle over sidewalk space. Earlier this month, an unknown pedestrian shoved a sidewalk cyclist into the street. The rider survived, but required stitches for his injuries.
"It’s not cyclists' fault," says César Garrido, of the Furiosos Ciclistas. "There's a design problem." Mark Chase, of the international transportation consultancy Nelson\Nygaard, agrees that the issue isn't (only) about bikers behaving badly but about poor policy. "Behaviors and safety follow facilities," so cities should "design for the most vulnerable populations—the very young, very old, and the inexperienced," he says.
A well-designed network might, for example, include both on-street lanes and protected, separated bike paths. Though individual automobiles represent only an estimated 30 percent of trips in Santiago, the city has shown little political will to take space from them, even painting bike lanes onto sidewalks to avoid inconveniencing drivers.
Experience elsewhere suggests that safely fomenting transportation alternatives requires an aggressive top-down challenge to the car’s dominance. New York City doubled bikeways between 2006 to 2013, converted swaths of Broadway into pedestrian plazas, and launched the world’s biggest bike-share system. Bogotá and Mexico City—Latin America’s first- and third-ranked biking capitals—used low-cost innovations to fight intractable congestion: dedicated bus lanes, parking turned into bike paths, bike boxes at stoplights, and reduced speed limits.
Santiago offers a cautionary tale for modern cities that fail to anticipate increased demand for safe cycling space. Santiago has asked few concessions of its 1.6 million drivers. The result is a biking boom that’s got nowhere to go, except the sidewalk.
Top image: Flickr user bilobicles