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One-Armed Biker Leads as Paulistas Take to Cycling

Sao Paulo
Avenida Paulista, Sao Paulo. Photographer: Luis Veiga/Getty Images

David Sousa was left for dead. At dawn on March 10, 2013, a car slammed into him while he was cycling on Sao Paulo’s main road.

Only after finding Sousa’s severed right arm in his car did the hit-and-run driver stop. That’s when prosecutors say he tossed the appendage into one of the sewage-choked waterways that criss-cross the biggest city in South America.

In fact, the 22-year-old Sousa survived. And after fellow cyclists took to Avenida Paulista, the scene of the injury, behind a standard of a plastic arm holding a fistful of flowers, Sousa became the face of a nascent biking movement. Sao Paulo is joining a backlash against pollution and traffic in megacities from Beijing to Mumbai, where expanding middle classes fueled an auto boom that may be reaching its limits.

“We keep selling cars even though we look outside and traffic is at a total standstill,” said Jose Armenio de Brito Cruz, president of Sao Paulo’s institute of architects. “It’s absurd that it can take four hours to go to work, or that you can get into a subway but can’t get out because the platform is packed. No one can live that way.”

City dwellers pouring into urban agglomerations around the world are coming to a similar conclusion. The once-ubiquitous two-wheeler is returning to China’s streets after its fleet shrank by 35 percent in the decade ending in 2005. China now hosts the three biggest urban bike-sharing programs, with smog-plagued Beijing doubling its fleet to 50,000 this year. Bike sharing is catching on in Moscow, Mumbai and Mexico City.

‘Trendy Lifestyle’

“The middle class in cities don’t just want cars anymore - - they want a more trendy lifestyle because they’re fed up with the congestion,” said Eduardo Musa, chief executive officer of Caloi Norte SA, which owns Brazil’s biggest bicycle factory in a tax-free zone in the Amazon city of Manaus. Dorel Industries Inc., a bikemaker based near Montreal, bought a 70 percent stake in the company last year. “The upper and middle class are leaving their cars in the garage and taking bikes to work, while people from lower-income neighborhoods who live on the outskirts are mixing public transport with biking.”

The shift represents a cultural revolution in Brazil, where bikes were shunned as transport for the poor, causing sales to fall in the past decade. Meantime, tax breaks, easier credit and subsidized fuel helped double the number of autos on Sao Paulo’s streets to 7 million.

Lagging Investment

Infrastructure in the city of 20 million people, with an extended metropolitan area three times the size of London, hasn’t kept pace. Brazil’s investment rate, which includes money for roads and public transportation, is 19 percent of gross domestic product. That’s about half the level of China and India, even as the World Economic Forum ranked the country’s infrastructure below Kazakhstan.

Traffic jams snake a total of 300 kilometers (187 miles) -- the length of 14 Manhattans -- on a bad day. Growing discontent came to a head last year as residents took to the streets to protest a bus-fare increase. The unrest spread to cities including Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia, setting off the nation’s biggest demonstrations in two decades.

The cost of Sao Paulo’s traffic problem, including wasted gas and the opportunity costs of the gridlock, has doubled in the past decade to 40 billion reais per year, or about 1 percent of Brazil’s annual GDP, according to a report by the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a Rio-based research institute.

What’s more, bikes are adding to the congestion. Authorities are struggling to accommodate traffic that has doubled since 2007 to 300,000 trips per day, according to the city’s transit authority.

Dead River

In an attempt to make Sao Paulo more bike-friendly, train operator Companhia Paulista de Trens Metropolitanos built a 22-kilometer path on its right-of-way along the Pinheiros river. The water is so infused with sewage that authorities say it is biologically dead for 100 kilometers, with no living plants or fish. Even so, the pungent pathway has won over 10,000 cyclists each week. CPTM suspended plans to shut a stretch of it for construction after about 100 cyclists protested.

Other efforts have been more popular. The number of rides in a bike-sharing program that began in May 2012 has tripled, with the highest use during rush hour. Program sponsor Itau Unibanco Holding SA, a Sao Paulo-based lender, plans to double the number of bikes to 3,000 by 2015. Lender Banco Bradesco SA started a competing sharing program, and the city is rolling out plans to allow subway users to rent bikes with metro cards.

Bike Lanes

The city cordons off 120 kilometers of road lanes on Sundays, attracting an average of 100,000 cyclists. Ronaldo Tonobohn, planning superintendent of the transit authority, says an additional 50 kilometers of paths are in the works.

Those efforts and a growing awareness of rules of the road, including a television campaign paid for by the city last year, are helping to make cycling less deadly. Cycling fatalities have dropped by more than half in the city limits in the past decade to 35 last year.

Cycling still can feel more like a death-defying act than a leisurely pedal where there are no bike paths. Sidewalks are slapdash because of a policy that leaves maintenance up to homeowners, said Ricardo Correa of urban-mobility consultant TC Urbes in Sao Paulo. Bikers also brave air pollution that has contributed to the deaths of 100,000 residents in six years ending in 2011, according to the Institute of Health and Sustainability, a Sao Paulo-based health-policy researcher.

Gas Mask

“Sometimes I wish I had a gas mask,” Sousa said during a recent ride in which a speeding car forced him into a storm drain. A few blocks later, another almost hit him while it was backing out of a driveway. Since getting back on his bike, rigged so he controls both front and back brakes with his left hand, Sousa has been knocked off twice by cars in collisions.

He hopes the case against the driver, whose lawyers dispute prosecutors’ allegation that he was under the influence of alcohol and that he was at fault in last year’s accident, brings compensation to help pay for business classes he began after losing his job as a window washer. The arm was never found after a six-day search by firemen.

Sousa tried public transport to get to school from his home in eastern Sao Paulo, a region that has been largely engulfed by sprawling slums, known as favelas, but he can’t stand the long waits and overcrowding.

“The bike facilitates my mobility,” said Sousa, who is riding a new BMW sent to him by an anonymous businessman who read about his accident in the newspapers. “On my bike, I can do what I want when I want.”

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