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Wheels of change: bicycles in the fight against air pollution in Brazil

JP Amaral, 24/10/2018, São Paulo

 

As government Ministers, city mayors and civil society from all over the globe head for the World Health Organisation’s first ever international conference on air pollution and health at the end of this month (30 October to 1 November), one must wonder how big a problem the quality of the air we breathe has become.

I used to believe poor air quality was a major barrier to cycling in our urban centers and couldn’t understand the reason for my respiratory problems in my hometown São Paulo, where air pollution levels are 60% above the WHO’s safety limits and responsible for 6,421 deaths each year.   However, as I started cycling, the health benefits were immediate, especially for my respiratory system. Now, after 10 years working on sustainable urban mobility,being co-founder of Bike Anjo, a large national network of volunteers promoting cycling as a means of transport in Brazil, and an active member of international Bicycle Mayor Network, I understand that the health benefits of cycling and walking outweigh the harm from inhaling air loaded with traffic fumes. This is  a message we always try to get across to the people we help in learning to cycle or tracing their daily routes. Moreover, research studies have shown that car drivers in heavy traffic inhale more pollution.

The biggest metropolitan area in South America (population: 21.2 million), São Paulo is notorious for its traffic; a recent study found that São Paulo inhabitants spent 86 hours on average in 2017 stuck in traffic (or 22% of total drive time), putting it in the top five cities for traffic congestion. In this city, cars and motorcycles are a much-desired escape from long, arduous journeys on public transport, especially for the poor living on the outskirts who commute every day into the city centre. Over the past decade, Federal government incentives to the car industry have brought down the price of cars, making them significantly more accessible. It is not surprising then that the main source of air pollution in São Paulo – as in several world cities –  is the vehicular fleet, accounting for 80% of total air pollutants.

Despite this unfavourable scenario, cycling has been growing in popularity in recent years: we’ve gone from 100,000 bike trips a day in 2007 to 300,000 trips a day in 2012, and a recent study by the Secretary of Transport estimated over 1 million bike trips a day in São Paulo. Investments in cycling infrastructure and a series of incentives, such as 400 km of new bike lanes and bike paths, new bike sharing systems and banning car traffic in some of the city’s busiest streets on Sundays have contributed to this culture change. Surfing on this trend, Bike Anjo expanded its network of volunteers, helping “paulistanos” explore safe cycling routes and cycle with more confidence.

This year, our successful Bike to Work campaign has highlighted the health benefits of cycling, focusing on two women who agreed to ride their bikes to work for an entire month for the first time, whilst having their health monitored by doctors. Having experienced so many physical and mental health benefits from this challenging experiment, they both decided to continue their daily bicycling commutes. We hope that this experience, featured on national television, has encouraged many Brazilians to do the same.

While behaviour change campaigns such as this one can make a difference, a long lasting change in transport culture must be underpinned by robust public policies that are conducive to active mobility. At the federal level, a progressive piece of policy framework was proposed as the “National Urban Mobility Act”, in 2012, putting forward active mobility as the prioritized mode of transport in Brazilian cities. However, the national plan implementation depends entirely on the formulation of municipal urban mobility plans, which are either non existent or at early stages of implementation in most of Brazil’s municipalities. Through working with civil society actors, Bike Anjo and the Brazilian Cyclists’ Union (UCB) have been trying to assist municipalities in getting their plans off the paper and into action.

The gaps are numerous; from policy design to implementation, from federal to municipal level, and importantly, the tendency of treating issues in silos.  Health policies rarely engage in dialogue with mobility policies, despite existing evidence that reducing air pollution in urban centres through clean, sustainable transport results in better public health outcomes and significant savings in government expenditures.

Air pollution is now responsible for over 7 million premature deaths per year, globally. The urgency of reducing such mortality rates, coupled with that of mitigating the impacts of climate change, leaves us  with no more time to tolerate carbon emissions from fossil fueled transport. The latest UN scientific report has warned we may have only 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe if global warming exceeds 1.5C, singling out the transport sector as the fastest growing contributor to climate emissions.

This first global WHO conference on health and air pollution is a unique occasion where national leaders from different sectors facing similar local challenges can meet and exchange experiences, learn from civil society and ultimately commit to agreed targets to meet the WHO’s air quality guidelines by 2030, matching the needs of reducing carbon emissions.

Clean, renewable energy, electric vehicles, the elimination of fossil fuels subsidies, smarter urban planning, and better public transport infrastructure are some of the choices policy makers can make to avoid countless preventable deaths, drastically improve air quality and health, and contribute towards  a safer climate. At the conference, I plan to highlight how cycling can play a major role in transforming mobility around the world. Given the convenience, health benefits and affordability of bicycles, they could provide a far greater proportion of sustainable urban transport, helping reduce not only air pollution, but  energy use and CO2 emissions worldwide.

Active mobility is often underestimated, but if you think about it, bicycles could be the ultimate icon of sustainable transport. As the far right takes power in countries across the planet, including most recently Brazil, city level solutions offer real hope and the best bet for change.

 

 

Notes:
JP Amaral is an active member of the international Bicycle Mayor Network initiated by Amsterdam based social enterprise BYCS, and co-founder of the Bike Anjo Network (bikeanjo.org), currently coordinating the “Bicycle in the Plans” project.  He has a bachelor degree on Environmental Management at the University of São Paulo and has been working  in sustainable urban mobility since 2008. He is certified as an auditor on the BYPAD methodology – Bicycle Planning Audit, and is the Bicycle Mayor of São Paulo. He is also fellow member of the Red Bull Amaphyko network for social entrepreneurs and of the German Chancellor Fellowship program for tomorrow’s leaders from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, working with international cooperation towards cycling promotion, especially between Brazil and Europe.

 

Bike Anjo  (Bike Angels) is a network of voluntary cyclists who engage people to use bicycles as a mean of transforming cities – from teaching how to ride a bicycle to identifying safe cycling routes for São Paulo inhabitants and building national campaigns.

 

The Bicycle Mayor Network  is a global network of changemakers – initiated by Amsterdam based social enterprise BYCS – that radically accelerates cycling progress in cities worldwide. The individual  use the power of their network to influence politics and the broader public to start cycling. Bicycle mayors transform cities, cities transform the world.

Bike to Work experiment video (with subtitles in English)

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