A biking battle in Buenos Aires

July 30, 2008

(For a linked video, click here 

Buenos Aires, Argentina, is on the iron-flat edge of a large river. It rains, but not that much. Winters are mild. The body-conscious people of this metropolitan area of 13 million people are generally fit and into sports. Lots of people can’t afford cars and squish into the cheap and overloaded buses, subways and trains. It should be bike-commuter heaven.
 
So why is biking to work so unpopular, dangerous and frustrating?
buenos-aires.jpgLike most big cities in Latin America, there is not much of a bike-commuting culture. People don’t often think of modifying their lifestyle or consumer practices to protect the environment. Riding a bike to work is viewed as something poor people have to do, though I do see evidence of a bike counterculture among the young and the pierced.

The city government barely keeps roads repaired, let alone support bikers with bike lanes or bike paths. The diesel-fume-spewing buses are a menace and the taxi-drivers are aggressive and downright mean to bikers, deliberately cutting them off. Drivers have an attitude to bikers that is more like “drive them off the road” than “share the road,” as the U.S. motorist education program encourages people to do. When I moved here in 2006 I rented a house in the suburbs and figured I was way too far out for bicycling and that the crazy traffic would make it impossible.
 
Nevertheless, when an acquaintance (now a friend and regular bike commuting buddy) told me that the bike commute from my office to my home neighborhood takes only an hour — the same time as walking to the train station, buying a ticket, waiting for the train, riding the train and walking home from the station — I knew I had to try it.

How can you beat getting your work-out during your commute, staying off the jam-packed train and doing your tiny bit to save the planet? I soon got addicted to doing it a few times a month, despite the frustrations with the traffic and the bumpy roads and the occasional “you must be a foreigner” exclamation from an observer.
 
I did a lot of bike commuting on the other side of the Andes in Santiago, Chile, from 2003-2006. But Santiago is a rarity among Latin American capitals: car drivers are polite and the city has excellent bike paths thanks to effective bike-commuting activists including the Movement of Furious Cyclists  who run a massive monthly bike ride through downtown to demand bike paths and respect for bicyclists. The movement is similar in some ways to San Francisco’s Critical Mass.
 
Buenos Aires does have one advantage over Santiago. I can take my bike in to work on the train, and then pedal home.

There is a path, of sorts, along part of my commute and pedestrians don’t get too angry when I join them on the sidewalk in other parts.

My biking friend and I have made improvements to our route, though I fear there is a trade off: the route where I feel safest from buses seems the most vulnerable to muggings.
 
 

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