I couldn't take my eyes off it. It was gorgeous: a two-way protected bicycle lane. It went the length of Figueroa Alcorta Avenue, a wide, tree-covered boulevard that traverses Buenos Aires' central neighborhoods. And people were riding bikes on it — cruisers and those funky low-riding foldable bikes. It was a totally different but super-familiar scene. I had to join.
I didn't come to Buenos Aires expecting to find the bike culture I did. Call me provincial, but the Bay Area bike scene is so exhilarating — the various Bike Party group theme rides, the radical workshops of the East Bay's Cycles of Change, the gonzo tunes on trailers of the Bicycle Music Festival, SF Bike Coalition's advocacy work, the slammin' art and fashion of the Bikes and Beats parties — that it can make a body think we're taking the whole lane, as it were.
But what else is cruising around out there?
"Buenos Aires does not have any formal complete streets initiatives as the term is understood in the United States," says Andrés Fingeret, director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). Fingeret's organization helps cities on three continents — including Jakarta; Guangzhou, China; and Denver — create sustainable transit systems, so I figured the organization would be a good start if I was going to understand where Buenos Aires stands in terms of biking.
"It's a rare case," Fingeret continues in an e-mail to me. "A compact city with great weather that is very flat but has no history of urban cycling."
Following a visit from former Bogotá mayor and bike path champion Enrique Peñalosa, the Buenos Aires city government began working on 100 kilometers of new bike lanes in 2010, many of which are like the one I fell in love with: barrier-protected and luxurious. BA even has Mejor en Bici ("Better on a bike"), a network of free bike rental stations for city residents.
"When these plans were presented, it seemed like a utopia, something that would be impossible in our city," says Fingeret. "Luckily nowadays, it is debated less and less that bicycles deserve an important role in the mobility of porteños (residents of Buenos Aires)."
But it's one thing to create bike infrastructure — quite another to get people riding. And despite the city's ambitious plans, BA has some serious roadblocks when it comes to its population accepting bikes as acceptable forms of transit.
DUMPSTERS IN THE BIKE LANES
A few days after catching sight of that first bike lane, I was on my way to La Bicicleta Naranja ("The Orange Bike"), the Buenos Aires equivalent of SF's Blazing Saddles bike rental shops. The shop is true to its word — it specializes in renting tangerine-colored cruisers for goober tourists.
Not to retread the path of David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries too much, but there is something spectacular about seeing a new city from a banana seat. Being a tourist is way more attractive when you can check out multiple neighborhoods in a day, especially in a metropolitan area of 12 million people.
Compared to American cities, traffic in Buenos Aires had a different flow. "Right of way" is a more fluid notion with fewer traffic lights and stop signs but just as many people on the roads — bicyclists, motorists, and pedestrians just have to use their eyes a lot more. Also Buenos Aires appeared to have little emissions level oversight — colectivo buses belched fumes into the streets, discouraging for people commuting without the protection of car walls and windows.