Transportation produces 25 per cent of emissions in Latin America and the Caribbean. With the air of most of the region’s capital cities becoming literally unbreathable, biking has captured the imagination of thousands of Latin Americans. Four of the main capitals have taken steps to promote sustainable mobility options to beat air pollution and are encouraging pedaling as a concrete measure to clean the air.
Below are four examples of successful initiatives that are changing the way Latin Americans move around in their daily lives.
Transforming a megacity’s mobility
In 2010, the Ecobici public bicycle service kicked off in the congested streets of Mexico City, one of the biggest megacities in the world.
Ecobici offers a low-cost service that helps reduce the use of vehicles in the Mexican capital, where around 5 million cars circulate.
Currently, 170,000 people have joined the system and 60 million trips have been made. Twenty per cent of the users stopped using private cars or taxis, and now say that the bike is their preferred means of transport. Ninety-five per cent also believe that thanks to this system, urban mobility has improved.
Ecobici started operations with 85 cycle stations and 1,200 bicycles. There are now 480 stations and more than 6,800 bikes, of which 340 have touchscreens with real-time maps and USB chargers. The service reaches 55 neighborhoods in the city, in an area of 38 square kilometres.
At least 12 cities in Latin America have public services like Ecobici, according to a 2015 study by the Inter-American Development Bank. The public and free bicycle system of Buenos Aires, also called Ecobici, has 2,500 units and BiciQuito, in the capital of Ecuador, has more than 1,000 bicycles.
A part of life of Bogotá’s lifestyle
Cycling has become part of the life of thousands of inhabitants of Bogotá.
The capital city of Colombia has the biggest street cycle scheme in Latin America, with 540 kilometres of cycle lanes. In 2015, at least 5 per cent of trips were already made by bike.
Bogotá, just like other capital cities in the region, was designed for cars. But since the 1970s, authorities understood the importance of promoting the use of bikes and began building the first exclusive lanes. Today, around 2 million people use the lanes.
Cycling leads to healthier lifestyle, especially among children. A recent study found that children between the ages of 6 and 10 who use the recreational routes on Sundays have, on average, 6 more minutes of vigorous physical activity a day than those who don’t.
However, because some of the cycle lanes are open on Sundays only, many criticize the programme for focusing more on recreation than on sustainable transportation. City authorities have therefore decided to take a bold step and open a consultation process to build a policy on the use of the bikes.
The local government expects to reach 580 kilometres of exclusive lane for bikers by the end of the year, as part of their plan to convert Bogotá into the world’s “capital city for bikes”.
Citizen science to beat air pollution in Buenos Aires
Bicycles can also help monitor air quality in cities. In Buenos Aires, 30 volunteer cyclists are measuring the concentrations of particulate matter through sensors installed on their bikes. The devices, designed by the Open Seneca initiative of the University of Cambridge, allow to identify places where people are exposed to greater pollution.
One of the objectives of the project is "to present a report on the results to the National Congress so that they can work on laws to tackle air pollution," said Matias Acosta of the University of Cambridge, the institution that promotes the initiative with the support of the Embassies of Canada and the United Kingdom in Argentina, and the Secretariat of Environment and Sustainable Development.
Open Seneca, a citizen science project, invites people around the world to develop and use low-cost sensors to raise awareness on air pollution, and to offer governments reliable data to inform clean air public policies.
"Today we are entering a new stage. We count on the support of citizens to monitor the quality of the air we breathe so that we can take better care of the environment and of people’s health," said Sergio Bergman, Secretary of Environment and Sustainable Development, in May 2019.
The information collected by cyclists will be incorporated into the measurements of the air monitoring network of Buenos Aires. The data of this network is published daily on the city government’ website.
Costa Rica, where bikes are part of a national policy
Costa Rica will offer tax incentives for companies that promote the use of bikes by their staff, thanks to a recent law that regulates the use of bicycles, which forms part of the strategy to decarbonize the country in 2050. As a result, more and more businesses have exclusive parking slots, showers and changing rooms for their employees, among other facilities.
Transportation generates more than 40 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in this Central American country. To reduce transport-related pollutants, the government is betting on clean mobility, and the law on the use of bikes is one of the first steps in that direction.
The law calls for better street infrastructure and road safety education, which will be mandatory for all students in public and private schools, and also encourages and regulates municipal systems of public bicycles.
Public and private initiatives that promote bikes are already booming in the country. BiciBus, a the company that provides advice to those who want to replace their cars with bikes, is one of them. Another is the Cycle-Inclusive badge, which is granted to cycling-friendly businesses. Last year, a team supported by both groups traveled 917 kilometres by bicycle from San José to Panama City, to raise awareness on the role of bicycles in cleaner and healthier societies.
Air pollution is the theme for World Environment Day on 5 June 2019, hosted by China. The quality of the air we breathe depends on the lifestyle choices we make every day. Learn more about how air pollution affects you, and what is being done to clean the air. What are you doing to reduce your emissions footprint and #BeatAirPollution?