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Fuerza Bicicleta: Urban Biking in Latin America

11/12/2012 01:19 pm ET | Updated Jan 12, 2013

Bike-friendly cities and bike sharing programs are constituents of that class of ideas that sees to cross-pollinate from country to country, skipping surprisingly quickly from point to point on the globe. It is almost hard to believe that it's only recently that urban planners and municipal leaders began to share enthusiasm for Copenhagenization, the idea of making cities far more bike friendly. With the advent of bike sharing programs in major metropolises such as Paris, London and Barcelona, every citizen of a city, whether that person owns a bike or not, is now a potential biker. As a result, bike safe and bike-centric urban programs have become highly relevant to a much larger audience.

I've been a staunch supporter of urban biking and bike sharing programs since I first rode a Velib in Paris in the summer of 2010 (and wrote about my misadventures for the Huffington Post). Over time, as I've discovered similar programs in London, Washington, D.C., Barcelona and Toronto, I've been amazed at how bike sharing transforms travel. Biking brings a traveler back to the street, up from the subway, and out from behind the windows of the taxi cab.

I've waited anxiously for bike sharing to come to New York City as I love the idea of injecting new humanity into the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn. There will clearly be challenges as New Yorkers and tourists (yikes) all learn to share the roads, but the benefits to the environment, public health, and our wallets are indisputable. There are also surprising benefits to such programs that were probably not factored into their original design. How might a New York bike sharing program have eased the terrible strain of traffic in the days after Hurricane Sandy, at least in the parts of the city that still had power?

On recent trips through Latin America, I've been impressed to find that the region's metropolitan areas are embracing biker-centric public policy. To be honest, I was a bit surprised to find bike sharing in Buenos Aires and Mexico City. Having spent good amounts of time in both cities, I've seen enough unruly driving and traffic snarls to assume that no one would be crazy enough to brave those conditions on a bike. In fact, these very conditions make biker-centric urban policy particularly critical. Spend a few days sitting in persistant traffic jams in Lima, Bogota, or Mexico City, and biking suddenly seems like an obvious solution. With programs like Bicing in Buenos Aires, EcoBici in Mexico City and SAMBA in Rio, the leading metropolitan areas in the region are building the case for similar programs in other Latin cities.

In order to be successful, urban cycling requires a minimum of two initiatives. First, metropolitan areas must educate drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists, so that they co-exist safely. Second, cities must create dedicated cycling lanes. Building dedicated lanes is expensive and may be difficult to achieve on the clogged streets of Latin America, but in the long run, such lanes make sure that everyone plays nice together.

In the meant time, in the absence of widespread dedicated cycling lanes, cities in Latin America are making a concerted effort to encourage cycling. On Sundays, major thoroughfares in Bogota and Lima are closed for exclusive use by cyclists. Also, cities like Lima and Bogota have designed programs that allow citizens to use bikes for free by simply leaving an ID behind at a check-in desk. All said, it's encouraging to see Latin American cities embrace biking as well as the type of innovative thinking required to implement such programs. Latin America is rapidly changing its face to the world and is poised to take a greater role on the global stage. Why shouldn't it pedal its way forward as well?

The slideshow included below includes images from pioneering bike-centric initiatives in Rio, Bogota, Lima and Mexico City.

Fuerza Bicicleta: Urban Biking in Latin America