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Critical Mass: Wheels of Activism Come to Brazil's Salvador City

The international cycling movement Critical Mass – or Bicicletadas [pt] as it is been known in Brazilian Portuguese – has won the hearts of Brazilians, since cars have reached a saturation point on the country's congested roads.

While visiting the city of Salvador, in Brazil, Global Voices contributor, Thiana Biondo got to know more about the ‘Bicicletada’ Critical Mass [pt]. Below are the first excerpts of an interview with two critical mass activists in Salvador - Roque Junior, an Urbanism student at the University of the State of Bahia and Rosa Ribeiro, Doctor candidate at the Course of Architecture and Urbanism at the Federal University of Bahia.

Global Voices (GV): When did you start cycling around the city of Salvador?

Roque Junior (RJ): I've lived in Salvador for more than 20 years and cycled for 10 years. When I started riding here, I was not aware of issues related to the city; the traffic and all the difficulties I later realized and understood in a very empirical way with a friend.

Bicicletada Salvador Massa Crítica (5.302 likes)

Photo by Bicicletada Salvador Massa Crítica (with 5,302 likes)

I started cycling with him, but not long journeys. I went to run errands  in town, in nearby neighborhoods, but I didn't go to very busy roads and I was not aware of the use of a bike as a means of transport.

The turning point was, more or less, about 3 years ago, when I started using a bike in my daily commute to work which was 15.5 km long, going from Barra to Imbuí neighborhoods. This journey bothered me, this thing about buses, and I've never really liked cars very much. What happened was: one given day, I said, “I'll try”, “I'll try [to use the bike]  and see how things go.” I did it for the first time. I realized that it was not a problem because the route is not the same for the bus or the cars, in general, because I go by the coastline, and by the coastline I am lucky to have, for a long patch, the cycle lane. I gradually got into physical shape,  which is also important, and after that, I started using the bike daily as a means of transport.

Rosa Ribeiro (RR): I used to cycle in Pituaçu Park [pt], so it already had that scheme that you take the bike by car to Pituaçu or to the coastline. I cycled for leisure, but my turning point (laughs) to copy a little bit the term used by Roque, took place 7 years ago. In 2004, I started to do my graduation work at the Faculty of Architecture. One day, my car broke down in Paralela Road [pt], so I went to seek help and some people managed to get the car out of the road towards the Bairro da Paz [pt] area. Having approached those people, from that experience, I said, hell, I think my graduation project will be here. I started walking by the neighborhood to observe … I stayed in a square looking at people and loads of bikes passing by, which were mostly rode by male adults and children. So, one day I asked someone “hey what about those bikes. Where are they going to? Is there any contest or competition taking place, is there any park around here? ” They said “no, nothing, not that I'm not aware of.” From that strange feeling, I started in fact, to investigate further and then I realized that those people cycled daily, that it was something absolutely normal and that those men there used bikes as a major means of transport.

A bike in the neighborhood of Piatã, Salvador, Bahia. Photo by DavidCampbell_ no Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A bike in the neighborhood of Piatã, Salvador, Bahia. Photo by DavidCampbell_ no Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

They cycled for very long distances in the city. And what at first was a budget alternative, meaning a way to save transport tickets at the time, to transform that ticket into money, exchangeable for bread or to be used to buy gas or even other things … but there was also another reason that led them to make that, that it is that bicycles are, relatively, a very flexible and much faster vehicle, within the city of Salvador. For example, one of my main interviewees, Emerson, he went up to the Bairro da Paz area from the neighborhood of Sete Portas in 35 minutes. These days, which bus or car that can do a route like that in 35 minutes?…The ones who rode bikes at that time in Salvador, and I think even in most part of Brazilian cities, were a low-income population who are very stigmatized.

GV: I've noticed that you encourage people to use bikes as a means of transportation. How do you mobilize people to become aware of using bicycles as means of transport? Through Facebook? Are there other channels of communication, meetings? How does this ‘bike activism’ work?

RJ: About three years ago, when I started cycling as a means of transport, I became interested about that, and I started looking for sources of information, especially on the internet, blogs and news … It's interesting, you know, when we start to pay attention to something, we are always going to slowly find people who are interested in that. I started finding people to exchange ideas.

The story of Edward Luedy on his blog, De Velo in Salvador in August 2010

“Yesterday, around 14:00, a bus driver, on the road ACM, almost hit me. ” The story of Edward Luedy on his blog, De Velo in Salvador in August 2010.

Soon, I found Eduardo Luedy's blog. One day, he posted a story reporting on something that happened to him on the ACM Road [pt]; he was pushed off his route by a speedy bus. He wrote a blog post and shared it on Facebook. I got very annoyed by the situation, but at the same time happy to see that story in a clear way. I noticed that it had elements to come to people's attention. It was the kind of situation cyclists could go through when on the streets. I shared that post on many channels. So, while I put it on some sites, I made a list of e-mails of some people who were not my friends, but were acquaintances, people who might be interested because they are cyclists. This email unfolded into a series of events and I believe that was an important step towards the ‘Bicicletada Salvador Massa Crítica'.

GV: How many people are participating in that organization

RJ: During one time, it was a group of around 15 people who made the meetings, proposals, posters, banners. But at the moment, the ‘Bicicletada’ here in Salvador, never has more than 90 people taking part in the day of an event.

RR: Maintaining this group of 90 people, that we have had for a few months, maybe over a year, was the result of a very personal effort. The Bicicletada is a social event. I do not know if people are going to it because of activism. I think there is a desire by some people to cycle which they recognize themselves …There is a very large rotation within the group, presently, we have events with around 25 people. The Salvador Bicicletada has taken place in the city since 2010 and a project called Biking City [pt] which is a cycling system of over 200 KM has been promised to the capital of the federal state of Bahia. Whether the project will happen or not, whether it will become a symbol of pride or a national shame (as the metro, which has not started working even though its construction began twelve years ago), this is something to be seen in the coming months. In the second part of the interview Rosa and Roque will talk further about public policies related to urban mobility in the city of Salvador.

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