Cycle infrastructure: the chicken and egg dilemma

June 10, 2024

In recent weeks, in Montevideo, a city where I have lived for more than 10 years, a public debate has arisen about some interventions that the Municipality is carrying out to expand the network of cycle paths on the city's emblematic Rambla. Quite a few colleagues and friends, who know my work and specialty in urban mobility issues, have asked me about my opinion regarding said intervention, expecting a strong criticism from me of what for many (mostly private vehicle drivers) ) is meaningless, because by taking away space from cars by reducing the existing road by one lane, “great congestion is generated on that stretch of road and no one passes through the bike lane.”

I want to highlight that I have received this type of questions before as well, when in Bogotá, my city of origin, a bike lane was implemented along one of the main roads in the city (Carrera 7ª) initially temporarily due to the pandemic and then due to a brave and correct decision by the then secretary of mobility, Nicolás Estupiñán. 

My answer to this question is divided into several parts, but they are all related to achieving the much desired sustainable mobility in our Latin American and Caribbean cities. This ideology, validated globally, seeks a paradigm shift in mobility with actions encompassed in Avoid, Change and Improve (ASI). Avoid unnecessary trips in motor vehicles, Change to more environmentally and socially sustainable modes and Improve the propulsion technology of current modes to make them more efficient and less polluting.

Having said the above, let's start at the beginning... for several years before the pandemic, CAF headquarters in Uruguay promoted an activity to go to work by bike in the month of April to commemorate World Bicycle Day. There were several followers of this activity who found with this experience a much more fun and efficient way to get to their jobs, and when we asked the participants why they did not do it more regularly, one of the most common answers was: “because not I feel safe” “drivers have no respect for bicycles.” However, this situation is not exclusive to Montevideo, and the need to invest in cycling infrastructure and gain space for the safe development of cycling mobility has been identified in the IDB study.cycle-inclusion in Latin America, guide to promote the use of bicycles as urban transport”.

The results of this type of investment are clearly seen in a short time; in the same city of Montevideo, a bicycle lane came into operation on the emblematic 18 de Julio which, in less than a year of operation, doubled the number of users who travel along this road passing by from 605 to 1,189 users according to IM data. The city that already has more than 47,700 daily bicycle trips or close to 109,200 (close to 3% of the total trips) including the metropolitan area according to the 2016 Mobility Survey carried out by CAF in conjunction with the Municipalities of Montevideo, Canelones, MTOP, UDELAR and UNDP.

In summary, there is and will be more and more demand for urban bicycle trips, as long as the infrastructure is improved, therefore there is no such “chicken and egg” dilemma. If there is good infrastructure, more urban cyclists will come. It is clear that it is not the only solution nor is it suitable for everyone, but the more the percentages of participation in this way increase in our cities and the more road education we provide for all actors, the better mobility we will undoubtedly have.

The other part of my answer has to do with Avoid and Change. The global climate emergency and the deterioration of air quality as well as congestion force us to make rational use of private vehicles, providing safe alternatives to car use. Cycle infrastructure is one of them but not the only one. It is not about prohibiting the use of the car but about correctly assigning the social costs it generates. Within the public space of cities, roads consume the most land, often generating urban barriers that always seem insufficient to avoid congestion. What is proven is that increasing capacity on urban roads attracts more vehicles, which is technically known as induced traffic.

Finally, there are elements associated with the design of bicycle lanes that, over the years of development of this type of infrastructure, have proven to be more efficient and safe. You cannot try to locate them on the sidewalk, because in addition to La Rambla being an intangible heritage of the city, doing so puts pedestrians at risk as the most vulnerable mobility users. We must remember that we are all pedestrians at some point. The concept of complete streets then becomes relevant as it seeks to guarantee a more equitable use of public road space, correcting the existing imbalance in favor of private vehicles and also calming traffic and protecting the most vulnerable users.

Travel times along the Rambla de Montevideo have possibly increased, but very occasionally during the afternoon rush hour and at levels that are comparatively marginal on a road that has a landscape vocation and with a lot of pedestrian flow.

In conclusion, I cannot validate the opinion of my friends and colleagues against the development of this infrastructure. On the contrary, I would hope that the network of better connected cycle paths would continue to grow in accordance with a cycle plan that would contribute to more sustainable mobility for me. adopted city.

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Andrés Alcalá
Andrés Alcalá

Coordinador del Programa LOGUS de CAF