by Daniel Wagner
“Biscoito Globo $1 Real!” was once the most shouted phrase in Rio de Janeiro’s beaches some time ago. Through the hands of thousands of individual sellers walking up and down the beaches, this low-profile biscuit with time became part of the imagery of the city. It is now sold in souvenir shops for tourists, its picture on T-shirts and bags, its brand became kind of mixed with the brand of the city itself. Since the 1940’s, Rio has steadily built this image of a relaxed, beautiful, bathed by the ocean, under a warm sun big city type. This image became the main city brand and helped shape carioca’s lives and personality. Also it did a huge push on the tourism industry going as far as help to bringing the Football World Cup and the Olympic Games to the city only two years apart.
Back in 1992 the city held a UN summit on sustainability. The Rio 92 aimed to put definitely the concern about the environment on the world agenda as a priority. For that occasion, the former mayor opened a bicycle lane along Copacabana beach to express the feelings of the city towards the summit. The neighbourhood of Copacabana has the highest hotel concentration of the country and it was where people attending the summit stayed, so world leaders could see the happy cariocas riding a bike along the beach chewing a Globo biscuit. Well, the image stuck. Combined with a greater world awareness of the dangers of the internal combustion engines, the present mayor decided to create in 2010 the project “Rio Capital of Bicycles”, extending the bike lanes to all of the city’s beaches.
Soon enough businessmen started to sense the trend and the first and only public bike system the city has was implemented and is operated by Brazil’s largest bank, Itaú. Nowadays every picture you take of the beach in Rio there is a great chance you’ll also shoot one of the orange bikes with the big bank logo on it. The mayor Eduardo Paes also seemed to have understood the potential of this bike-friendly city brand, and since the “Rio Capital of Bicycles” launch in 2010, the city went from 150km of bike lanes, to 360km nowadays, according to official data, heading to a promised 450km by the Olympic Games in 2016.
So far no problem, right? Well not really. First of all, the well maintained and more intensively used bike lanes are by the beaches. Rio’s coast line stretches from the BID (Business Improvement District) to the last beach, an impressive 50km line. Of course, these are all the better neighbourhoods. The bikes don’t dispute space with cars – that would be really unpopular – so there is no relevant discussion in the society about mobility and sustainability, like in São Paulo for example. Bikes in Rio are up until now, used almost solely by leisure activities. There’s no daily commuting on bikes as one would expect in a truly bike-friendly city. To rush the trend and keep up the buzz, the mayor announces frequent bike lanes expansions stating proudly that Rio has the longest network in Latin America. The problem here is that most of these kilometres are shared car lanes. Since there is no civil discussion on the matter, no educational campaign to warn car drivers to watch bikers, the only transformation actually seen are little drawings of bikes painted on the middle of the roads. There are no standards of construction, no safe infrastructure, no overall plan, but a lot of numbers to show and a nice orange bike in the post card with a happy carioca on top of it.
The traffic in the city has gotten a lot worse along the decades. On the last TomTom Traffic Index (http://www.tomtom.com/en_gb/trafficindex/#/) Rio beat São Paulo by far. The city was ranked with the 3rd worse traffic among 200 major cities around the world; São Paulo was in 36th place. So bikes are also not helping the traffic.
In the end, Rio keeps its sexy smile over some rotten teeth. There is a somewhat extensive bicycle network, but mostly by the beach and serving rich neighbourhoods. There, they have proper maintenance and are mostly used for leisure activities and not as part of a solution to an ever increasing urban problem in Brazil: mobility. But mayor Paes doesn’t seem to care too much about that, as long as the pictures of the tourists keep beautiful, things are going well. With too major sports events in the city over two years, Rio has never attracted so many people. However, with all the dollars and Euros coming in, carioca’s beloved Globo biscuit now costs $4 Reais. Dwellers of Copacabana and Ipanena can afford to spare $3 more Reais in a now cult delicacy, but if you, as 80% of Rio’s population don’t live close to the ocean, not only it’s quite dangerous to ride your bike on the street, but also you’d better change your brand of biscuit.