By Dom Phillips
Juliana Dias’s death, at first glance, wasn’t particularly remarkable. She was killed on her bicycle by a bus on March 2 on Sao Paulo’s most famous street, Avenida Paulista.
But her death — one of a reported five fatal road accidents involving cyclists in Brazil the same day — sparked spontaneous protests in some two dozen cities across the country, and a fierce national debate.
Dias, a biologist and researcher at the Sirio Libanes hospital in Sao Paulo, had been a cycling activist. Her death came just three years after another activist, Marcia Prado, was killed at almost the same spot. This time, hundreds of cyclists blocked Avenida Paulista in response and across the country — in cities as far apart as Manaus, Belo Horizonte and Rio de Janeiro — cyclists threw themselves on the ground to symbolize the deaths, lit candles and sang songs.
Brazil’s social networks and blogs lit up with comments in response. One of the most eloquent came from Leonardo Sakamoto, a professor of journalism at Sao Paulo’s PUC university, on his blog:
Another cyclist died after being run over in Sao Paulo. Again by a bus, again on a road that is a symbol of progress, again generating a protest by people who advocate that the city belongs to everyone. And, again, creating outrage over the resulting traffic … It is the traffic, always, that reigns supreme in a city that wants to function like a Swiss watch, without delay.
Sao Paulo is, without doubt, a city of horrendous traffic and pollution. During rush hour, it can take hours to cross town. Many workers spend up to four hours a day commuting — in their cars, on overcrowded buses or on the city’s pitifully few metro lines. Many Paulistanos drive to the gym to work out, or to the park to run — or to ride bikes.
The habit of commuting by bike hasn’t taken off, perhaps because it’s so dangerous: According to Sao Paulo’s transit authority, almost one cyclist a week dies in a traffic accident in the city on average.
Increasingly, vocal groups of cyclists are organizing on social networks and heading out in large groups at night, holding up traffic and attempting to reclaim the city’s streets. One is called Saia da Noite and consists of women wearing pink cycling tops.
But another side of the argument is also being voiced — that cyclists frequently break traffic regulations and ride dangerously. Local media reported that before she was killed, Dias had been arguing with a bus driver. She took her hands off the handlebars to gesticulate, lost control and fell under another bus.
On March 6, a reporter for the Folha de Sao Paulo outed dangerous cycling habits in an article headlined “Cyclists take risks and commit infractions in the SP traffic.”
In the war for space in the Sao Paulo traffic, cyclists who suffer the disrespect of some motorists also commit irregularities and put themselves at risk using the so-called “corridor,” moving between the vehicles … Three days after the death of a cycling activist, Folha was on the avenue between 3:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. yesterday and caught on average a violation by cyclists every six minutes. Among them riding on the pavement and riding the wrong way.
The article generated a wave of protests on cycling forums, and a letter of complaint to the newspaper by Ciclocidade, an association of Sao Paulo cyclists, complaining of “low quality and deeply irresponsible journalism.”
In a 10-minute debate on the day of Dias’s death on TV Globo News, Ciclocidade director Thiago Benicchio noted the aggression many motorists feel toward cyclists. “Drivers see the bike as an obstacle, a hurdle, and not as a vehicle,” he said. “This climate of aggression, of disrespect, that we live in is what needs to end.”
The controversy also tapped into some deeper problems with Brazil’s transportation systems. On March 3, Sao Paulo radiologist and athlete Daniel Blois complained on his blog of the “total lack of preparation of the Brazilian people to share the road with any other means of transport” and compared it to the Ultimate Fighting Championships so popular in Brazil. “Everybody vying for the same space,” he said.
In a column for the Folha de Sao Paulo on March 8, Rogerio Gentile said about 680 new cars enter the city every day. “On many avenues, as Folha has already demonstrated, cars are forced to move at an average speed so low that, if it were a race, they wouldn’t manage to overtake a simple chicken.”
He called for an urban toll, which has shown some promise in cities like London:
An urban toll would remove many cars and motorcycles from the roads, and make way for a more efficient and faster public transport system. And it would finance the increase and the quality of the metro, train and bus networks.
But it was what Gentile didn’t say that perhaps spoke loudest. Despite the storm of protests, the news reports in his own paper and the demonstrations that had closed his city’s main avenue, he didn’t even mention the bicycle.
Sakamoto’s blog provided a more poetic, and emotional, conclusion:
The city doesn’t belong to the people. Sao Paulo belongs to the cars. And, on behalf of them, we kill and we die, paying tribute through the bodies lying on the ground, our collective insanity.
(Dom Phillips is the Sao Paulo correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)