by Ralph Buehler, Associate Professor in Urban Affairs and Planning, Virginia Tech


In promoting bicycling, mid-sized cities in Latin America and the Caribbean can learn from mistakes and successes in transport planning in other parts of the world. Some cities in Latin America, such as Bogota, already provide excellent regional examples. Moreover, US, Canadian, and Western European cities can provide lessons on how to promote cycling in the face of increasing motorization.

Similar to current trends in mid-sized cities of Latin America and the Caribbean, the USA, Canada, and Western European countries experienced rapid increases in motorization over the last 60 years. After the Second World War, national governments in those countries promoted automobile travel by building national highway systems. Cities adapted to the needs of the car through urban freeways, automobile parking in city centers, and new single-use, low-density suburban neighborhoods only accessible by automobile. Transport planners focused on accommodating cars and neglected cycling, walking, and public transport as viable modes of transport. As a result car use increased rapidly, and with it traffic fatalities, local and global air pollution, traffic congestion, obesity, and automobile-dependence.

Faced with these negative side-effects of increasing car use, cities in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany started retooling their policies towards promoting walking, cycling, and public transport and restricting car use as early as the 1960s. Following the example of pioneer bicycle friendly cities, such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Freiburg, other Western European cities, and more recently cities in Canada and the USA have started promoting bicycling. The successes of promoting cycling in those countries and cities demonstrate that high levels of car use  are not an inevitable byproduct of economic wealth.

Below are key lessons learned from these pioneer cities.

1. Bicycling has to be safe, convenient, and practical to effectively rival the appeal of the private automobile. As our book, City Cycling (MIT Press), demonstrates, most successful cycling cities in the USA, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe have implemented a coordinated package of integrated measures geared at promoting cycling and restricting automobile use. Specific combinations of policy packages vary across cities and accommodate local conditions.

2. Networks of integrated bikeways with intersections that facilitate cycling are the backbone of most cities’ bicycling strategies. Research shows that only a small group of individuals is willing to ride in the road alongside high volumes of fast moving car traffic. Painted bike lanes on roadways and separated bike paths next to roads, in parks, or along waterfronts provide separation from fast moving traffic and are attractive to almost all groups of the population. On neighborhood streets with lower traffic volumes, traffic calming can help reduce speeds and allow cyclists to share the road with automobiles. Traffic-calmed neighborhood streets are a key component of any bicycle network, because neighborhood streets make up a significant share of a city’s road network.

3. Providing information about bicycling, bikeways and bicycle events, such as ciclovías, garner public interest in cycling. Public bikesharing systems can also help increase cycling’s visibility, promote cycling’s image, and provide excellent ‘last mile’ connections from and to stations for public transport passengers.

4. Public transport can complement bicycling for longer trip distances, during inclement weather, or when cyclists experience mechanical failures of their bicycles. Safe and secure bike parking at train stations and other key destinations additionally protect bicycles from bad weather and theft. Moreover, individuals will likely choose different modes of transport for different trip purposes. Thus having attractive public transport, walking, and cycling provides options and a choice of transport modes.

5. Training cyclists and motorists is crucial. In the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark school children learn about bicycling in school between 2nd and 4th grade. Children first learn about the rules of the road and then apply that knowledge during hands-on cycle lessons. This gets the children off to a lifetime of safe cycling. Of course planners have to provide convenient bicycle connections to schools and supply bike parking at schools. Training motorists is equally important. New drivers have to learn about cycling. This includes watching out for cyclists when making turns or when opening car doors. Enforcement plays an important role here. Police have to enforce traffic laws and protect cyclists.

6. Land-use planning has to keep trip distances short enough for cycling. This necessitates mixed-use developments with residences, work places, shops, restaurants, and other amenities in close proximity. Single use low-density sprawl will only facilitate driving. Similarly, land-use planners should limit the number of car parking spaces for new developments. In the USA, Canada, and many European countries, developers are required to build a minimum number of automobile parking with each development. Resulting from this, drivers in the USA have free parking at 95% of all trip destinations. Free car parking is an incentive for driving. Reducing the number of car parking spots and increasing its cost will help increase cycling.

In summary, when developing their own transport policies mid-sized cities of Latin America and the Caribbean can look to successful examples of promoting cycling regionally, but also globally. Of course, policies cannot be copied wholesale from other countries, but have to be adapted to local circumstances. In any case, lessons from successful cycling cities can help guide Latin America and the Caribbean cities to a sustainable future.


More Information: