World Bike Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil
It was a wonderful four days in Porto Alegre, February 24-27! I met hundreds of people, was wined and dined, interviewed nearly 20 times in local and national Brazilian media (including a bit for their equivalent of ESPN, SportTV!), and got to ride in two big rides including the largest ever Critical Mass in Porto Alegre.
One year ago, a madman (who is also a vice-president of a local bank) decided he wasn’t going to be delayed by a bunch of cyclists in the road. They had just departed from their customary starting point, turning onto an avenue adjacent to the plaza, and this guy accelerated his car through a block and a half dense with bicyclists. People went flying, bicycles were crushed, and dozens were injured. By some strange miracle no one was killed, but rarely could you find a more obvious case of attempted mass murder. For most of the year since, the local press and population felt sorry for the cyclists and saw them as victims. Meanwhile, hundreds of people started bicycling during that year, some in solidarity and others because it was just so outrageous that it was a way for them to respond directly. (On Critical Mass a young woman I spoke with explained how she started riding after that event, and now had become a daily cyclist. “Since I started bicycling, I’m just happy all the time!”)
About two months ago local cycle activists were worried that the tone in the local media had changed, with bicyclists being accused of being too aggressive, being out of line, being threatening and causing chaos. They decided to organize the first (as far as they knew) World Bike Forum (one might note that there has been a lot of other gatherings of cyclists over the past two decades, from the “Towards Car-Free Cities” conferences to the commercially-minded “VeloCity”; in the U.S. we’ve had the gathering of bicycle cooperatives called Bike!Bike! going on now for a few years). That’s how I came to join them, since they reached out to me to see if I would come and when I said yes, as long as they’d cover my costs, they organized a crowd-funding campaign and over 120 people contributed to my airfare and the costs of the conference.
The many workshops brought together folks around different aspects of cycling culture, from tourism to teaching kids to women’s self-organized cycling, and more. Folks from Caracas Venezuela came, one guy from Chile, a woman from Holland, me from the U.S., and mostly the rest were from around Brazil, including Manaus in the Amazon, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, Curitiba, and a fair number from small towns in Rio Grande do Sul, the state in which Porto Alegre sits. There was a bunch of films screened on the last day too, and they showed “We Are Traffic!” on the walls with Portuguese subtitles many times during the conference.
The Critical Mass was truly epic. They had their biggest ever Critical Mass after a long day of workshops with hundreds in attendance. About 1700 riders, way over their hoped for 1000…. perfect weather, fantastic spirited participants, whenever we stopped people would clap their hands over their heads, a lot of chanting along the way: “Mais Adrenalina, Menos Gasolina” (more adrenaline, less gasoline) or someone would yell “Bicicleta” and the crowd would roar its answer “Um Carro Menos” (BICYCLE! … One Less Car!)… We rode for about 3 hours all over the city, including up and down main avenues, through the heart of downtown, up and down hills, overpasses and freeway-like ramps (there don’t seem to be any actual freeways here) and through two tunnels, which drove the riders crazy with excitement since they’d never been able to visit these spots by bike before.
As soon as we started we were on the street where the madman (still has not been tried though it was announced at the beginning of the Forum that he would face a public trial instead of a behind-the-scenes judicial process with predictably corrupt results) drove through the ride a year ago, so we got to that spot about 5 blocks from the starting plaza and staged a massive die-in, everyone laying down in the street with their bikes. It was eerie and moving and impressive.
We went up a residential street at a certain point near dusk with a sliver of a moon hanging perfectly at the very end of the street, and then made a turn into the richest neighborhood here, full of fancy folks sitting in lovely outdoor cafes, expensive cars parked along the street with upscale apartments and older big homes in the trees. They seemed duly puzzled by the streaming crowd of bikes, everyone in peak euphoria, most of the riders having their first ever CM experience. Not long after we made a few turns and suddenly we were riding into the worst poverty I saw here, broken glass everywhere, obvious housing projects, lots of poor people standing around, but happy to see us. Turns out there was a 6-year-old boy who was killed there two weeks ago when he was running across the street and his sandal fell off so he stopped automatically to get it and a bus slammed into him and killed him! The local bike crowd showed up the next day with a ghost bike which is installed there (I didn’t see the ghost bike but I was told the story by many people) so we were greeted as heroes and allies by the crowds in that area…
In general people along the way were either friendly and waving, or quiet and just watching, maybe a few sullen bus riders stuck waiting for their buses while we filled the streets. Didn’t see any aggro from any drivers but then there were police along the way who were pretty quick to intervene when a motorist tried to enter the bikes, as they were on the Thursday ride we made too… (that was only about 300-400 people, still significant, and a fun ride itself, but not the “official” CM)…
We finally ended at the big park here, Redençao, where I was scheduled to give a “workshop” on Nowtopia! They brought a big amplified sound system and we eventually did it, me giving a very shortened version of my old book talk, having it translated so doubling the length, but many here understand some or a lot of English, more than usual in Brazil. I felt it was too abbreviated and incoherent, of course, but it went over very well, and we had a loooongg Q&A til 11:30 or midnight, in the park under starry skies and 75 degrees!… There was a crazy level of happiness and euphoria, everything having gone so well.
I had more of a celebrity experience in Porto Alegre than ever, two days full of interviews, people asking me to take my picture, sign their books (all sold out), giving me things, looking at me from the distance, pointing, etc. etc. As many people kept telling me, it was important that I was in Porto Alegre, it gave folks there confidence and legitimacy in a way that might have been hard to get otherwise. I tried to be as gracious as I could through my inevitable embarrassment, trying not to get too weirded out by all the attention. It seems wildly disproportionate but for everyone here it seems obvious and wonderful that I was here and that made their whole event legitimate, putting the world in to their “Forum Bicicleta Mundial”…
I had a great meal of fresh Taina, a big ocean fish, at the Public Market, a tasty white fish smothered in a shrimp sauce, so a bit of local fare…
I spoke at a panel on Saturday also, with my good friend Thiago Bennichio, and Henrique Hessel from Curitiba, the Brazilian city made famous by its former Mayor Jaime Lerner for being so “green and sustainable”, but as he pointed out, the city has been frozen since Lerner left office some years ago and no further ecologically sustainable projects have been pursued. Hessel was speaking in favor of working through existing governmental channels, but not through the typical Brazilian process of focusing on personalities, but instead he advocated a program of “Voting for ideas, not for candidates”. He also presented a good argument based on the experience of Bogota, Colombia about how urban problems like violence, isolation, pollution, and community fragmentation can be overcome by the simple expansion of daily bicycling. Thiago gave a strong talk about Critical Mass’s role in Brazil as a “big bang” for the politics of urban mobility which is tangibly expanding across the huge country, in city after city. And flattering to me, he argued in favor of “radical patience” which I’ve been pumping for a while now (though lately with a lot more depth and nuance in the context of Nowtopia, than in that linked piece written in 1993)… For my part, I argued that all of our cycling activism stood on the shoulders (especially in San Francisco) of earlier generations, notably those who stopped the freeways from being built in the late 1950s and early 1960s. From those epic battles, our efforts to expand bicycling, and to reclaim public space for other uses than those dominated by private cars, were able to flourish.
So thanks to all the new friends in Porto Alegre for a fantastic visit, and congratulations to everyone there for an inspiring and history-making four days. I am sure the politics of urban mobility and urban design are going to change permanently now in Brazil, but of course everyone will have to keep pushing in the weeks, months, and years to come. I hope to keep helping from afar!
Here is a gallery of more images from Porto Alegre and my days there: