21 March 2007

By bicycle in Rosario

A reader asks about bikes and traffic in Rosario. I replied in brief in a comment yesterday, but I thought it'd be more useful and visible to expand on that now.

You've surely all heard that driving in Argentina is complete madness. That's partly true... It's not that drivers are mad; they just feel free to ignore or bend the rules, re-interpreting them according to the occasion. Some of them are truly mad, in the sense that they don't seem to perceive reality in the same way as pedestrians and other drivers; for example, they see an empty parking space where in fact there is a bus stop, or they fail to see other vehicles except those larger than their own.

Bikers are a special case. There are some who drive reasonably well, but most (including me) ignore the traffic lights and zebra crossings whenever possible. A bicycle can't get fined for crossing a red light. Truth be told, these minor violations often make up for the physical disadvantage of bicycles faced with motor vehicles much faster and sturdier, but in turn they work against the next weaker ones in the scale — pedestrians. Bicycles appear from nowhere at lightning speeds, trying to stay ahead of the mass of cars, and often miss overconfident pedestrians by mere inches. Bikers make U-turns seconds before the light turns to red in their lane in a two-way avenue, turn left where they shouldn't, zigzag between buses and trucks, and in general they (we) barely use the brakes.

I love my bike and the sense of freedom it gives me, but at times I get a bit afraid of it as well. I like the fact that it's free (as in beer), comparatively small (don't need a special place to park it!), and much faster than going on foot, even if not all that flexible for urban exploration (you can get almost anywhere on foot). Anyone who's ever grown accustomed to a vehicle knows about "the zone", that trance-like state when you feel completely in tune, one with the machine. You must be in "the zone" when you're driving a bike in Rosario, even as it's awfully dangerous, because otherwise you'll get crushed the first time you get distracted.

Bicycles have traditionally been the poor's vehicle in Argentina. This, of course, made it popular by necessity in the 1990s. In 2002, right after the Big Crunch, you'd get out to catch the bus at dawn and see swarms and swarms of construction and factory workers in their overalls, pedalling like crazy, all in synch so as to remain grouped — for a lone biker was (is) an easy prey for thieves. According to a study, there were 340,000 bicycles in Rosario in 2002, about one per three inhabitants.

There are still many people going to work every day by bike. Others use it to transport their partners or their whole family. Three people (two adults, one child) in a single bicycle is a terrible thing — unstable and very dangerous — but some have no alternative. Consider that a round bus trip for three costs AR$7.20 — less than 3 dollars, yet enough to buy a kilo of acceptable-quality beef. Needless to say, most bikers don't bother to wear helmets or any other protective devices (motorbikers, who are obliged by law, usually don't wear them either).

I don't go to work by bike, because it'd take me an hour to get there and I'd arrive hecho sopa (soaked), and because I can (still) afford the bus. The Japanese Association, however, is only 20 minutes away, and its informality makes it a bit more acceptable for me to be a bit sweaty when I arrive, so I'm considering going to Japanese class on two wheels. Better for my health, better for my budget, and better for the environment.

Rosario has many places acceptable for bicycle riding, but comparatively very few bike paths. For reasons of space, the whole downtown area can't have paths at all, since there's barely room for cars and buses as it is. There are no wide avenues across Rosario's compact center, but a grid of very narrow streets that may have been fine for carriages and horses in 1900, but get congested easily with 21st century traffic. Driving a bike there is tantamount to suicide.

The municipal policies encouraging the use of bicycles often collide with other local policies or turn out to be just declarations of good will, soon forgotten. Lately, though, newly-opened sections of major avenues do usually come with good bicycle paths.

You may have heard of Argentina's horrific traffic accident record. The media have been focusing on this for some time now, with spectacular, dramatic pleas for better traffic laws and monitoring technology, when every now and then a handful of people die on the road. Argentinians generally drive very badly, but always place the blame elsewhere. I intended to write about this today, but I'll leave that for tomorrow or next week, as this post has gotten too long.


  1. I have a bike here in Buenos Aires, but I will onlt ride it on the weekends. The roads are just too busy and drivers too aggressive to take it out during the week. Plus, I have to get it up and down the service elevator in my building.

  2. I tried riding my bike down Av. Santa Fe twice to go to work and had two really close calls.

    I have also had to replace 4 doors in my car, all from people hitting me. I have to drive a lot due to my work and so I guess I expose my car more often to the reckless traffic.

    I have lived most of my life in the United States and now, since 1999 I have had more accidents here in Buenos Aires than all the years I spent in the United States.

    I look forward to your comments on this topic. I think it is such a sad and black mark on Argentina. If you think of all the lives lost, the cost to the whole comunity, families torn apart, etc. This is one area that should change here period.

    Letting your dog crapp all over the sidewalk is disrespectful but reckless driving, the way it´s practiced here is criminal. (I mentioned the dog part because that is also high on the complaints list for many foreigners and non-dog owner Argentines)

  3. I've never been tempted to ride a bicycle in that paragon of orderliness that is BsAs :-) Abject cowardice I guess.

    I do however ride my bike here in Northern California, but only for pleasure/exercise - I'm fortunate in that there is a bicycle/jogging/walking path around San Francisco Bay that I frequently ride on.
    The adults out bicycling are like me in that they drive cars as well, so they obey all the road rules when bicycling on the city streets. I never feel in danger when sharing the road, either as a motorist or a bicyclist.


  4. John,

    It´s not cowardice, I would call it smart. Remember, this is a country that is filled with people super efficient at killing themselves behind the wheel of a car, bus, motorcycle, etc.

    I don´t even like driving but I can´t avoid that one.

    I hope things change here with respect to their driving culture.


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