FORTALEZA, BRAZIL – The intersection of Avenida Leste Oeste and Avenida Pasteur in the Brazilian city of Fortaleza was always tricky to navigate by bicycle, especially heading east as three lanes of car traffic became two.
Data show that every 60 minutes during rush hour, 360 cyclists had to maneuver around and between 2,700 cars, trucks and motorcycles without any protection.
Such conditions are not conducive for cycling, to say the least. Yet bicycles hold much promise as both a mode of transport and a way for the city’s residents to pursue a more active lifestyle and resist the obesity epidemic sweeping Brazil, where more than half the population is overweight or obese. With obesity rising by more than 67 percent in the last 13 years, the onus was on my administration to make cycling a more popular choice.
Our goal was to make Fortaleza — a beautiful coastal city and Brazil’s fifth-largest municipality, with more than 2.6 million residents — safer as well as healthier. So, we began to adopt incentives to encourage cycling, particularly measures to make it a better transport option.
The most obvious place to begin was with bike lanes. When roads do not contain dedicated lanes, cyclists have few rights and little safety. Between 2010 and 2018, there were 222 crashes involving bikes on Fortaleza’s roads. Too many families have been torn apart because their youngest and healthiest members are incapacitated or killed on their daily commutes.
At the start of 2013, when we stepped into office, the city had only 68 km of bike lanes, and many of our sidewalks were falling into disrepair or being used as parking lots, forcing pedestrians into streets that were jammed with cars. After six years of addressing our infrastructure, however, our efforts gained international recognition for reclaiming more than 12 square km of streetscape for pedestrians and almost quadrupling the total length of bike lanes, to 263 km.
Today, 4 out of every 10 city residents live within 300 meters of cycling infrastructure — the best result among Brazilian state capitals, according to the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, based in New York City. Given that many studies have found that introducing bike lanes has a positive economic impact, especially on local businesses, we believe we made a wise investment.
Of course, not everyone can ride a bike. That is why we also invested in dedicated bus lanes. The increase from 3.2 km of dedicated lanes in 2013 to 116 km in 2019 has allowed our buses to go from pedestrian speed to bike speed. The hope is that these improvements will encourage more people to switch to a healthier, faster and more environmentally sustainable mode of transport on the way to and from work.
One of the biggest hurdles to commuting by bike is that too few people own one. Theft and the cost of purchasing and repairing a bike are the main barriers. Bike sharing removes these obstacles. In Fortaleza, a new subsidized bike share project called Bicicletar Corporativo provides city employees with bike access from 16 stations spread across the downtown area. The program serves as a model for private companies to consider when encouraging their own staff to commute by bike.
All of these improvements, as well as events like September’s Car Free Day, are meant to make the city safer, not just for cyclists but for everybody on the road. And they have worked. Between 2014 and 2018, road traffic deaths recorded by traffic and health authorities fell by 40 percent, from 377 to 226.
Today, you can get on a bike and ride west in a dedicated lane on Avenida Leste Oeste that takes you safely through the intersection with Avenida Pasteur. On the return trip, you can ride the eastbound lane — the medians have been reworked and part of the roadway has been permanently set aside for bikes. The installation last year of new signaling, lane markings and reserved areas for bikes in front of the stoplights is just the latest in a series of road safety upgrades being implemented across the city.
Keeping pace with current transportation trends can both improve public health and boost economic growth. In Fortaleza, we are embracing the cycling trend because the benefits are enormous. Our city is changing for the better. More people are riding bikes, and more safely than ever, contributing to cleaner air and greater well-being with every commute. Other cities can do it, too. Those that maintain streetscapes designed strictly for automobile traffic will only be left behind in the decades ahead.
Roberto Claudio Rodrigues Bezerra, the mayor of Fortaleza, Brazil, is a member of the Partnership for Healthy Cities, a network supported by the World Health Organization, Bloomberg Philanthropies and Vital Strategies. © Project Syndicate, 2020