Pedaling to Promote Change in Brazil’s Crowded Streets

2014

What does it take to popularize bicycling in Brazil, a country where owning a car—or multiple vehicles—is a middleclass status symbol? That’s the big question tackled by Lanny Uchoa, a business professor at Centro Universitário do Norte (UniNorte) and her student, Mayk Silva Ferreira.

The story begins nearly three years ago, when it was rare to see bicyclists in Manaus, capital of Brazil’s Amazonas state. Uchoa joined Pedala Manaus, which at the time was a fledgling group of volunteers committed to promoting cycling as a way to boost physical activity among the city’s residents—and, ultimately, spur serious conversations about urban planning. That’s no small feat in Manaus, a teeming city of nearly 2 million people turned into a regional hub by rubber barons. There has been virtually no urban planning in Manaus—as is true for many of the booming cities of Latin America and the developing world. Public transportation is chaotic. Traffic is often unbearable. “It was almost impossible to bike here,” recalls Uchoa, 40 years old. Cycling is often dangerous because there is little protection from vehicles. “People thought I was crazy.”

Uchoa helped start a “Bike Angel” school that quickly attracted more than 300 people. By the summer of 2013, she brought Pedala Manaus to UniNorte as a social responsibility initiative for students.

Enter Mayk Silva Ferreira. The son of a police officer and a housewife, Ferreira graduated from high school and then spent one year in Brazil’s Army. He returned to Manaus with dreams of becoming the first person in his family to attend university. So he registered for business administration courses at UniNorte. He worked from 8 a.m. until early afternoon and went to class from 6 to 10 p.m. During the first year, he says, it was difficult to adjust to the academic regimen.

“I’m going to change my city—for the better.”
Mayk Ferreira, urban cyclist

When Ferreira joined Pedala Manaus in the summer of 2013, he was 20 years old and very shy, and he didn’t even own a bicycle. Uchoa and Pedala Manaus’s small group of volunteers assigned Ferreira to lead a research project: stand on a downtown Manaus street corner for 12 hours, and count the bicycles that passed. He counted more than 1,100. In the following weeks, his duties expanded.

That fall, nearly 120 UniNorte students and other Pedala Manaus members prepared to meet with city officials. The goal was to convince the government to pave bicycle lanes. Ferreira was chosen to be Pedala Manaus’s lead speaker. He was nervous. City officials argued that Manaus had too few cyclists to justify the expense of special lanes. Still, Ferreira considered the meeting a victory and went home that night thinking, “I’m going to change my city—for the better.”

Weeks later, during the city elections, several candidates pledged to pave at least 20 kilometers of bicycle lanes each year. But so far, there’s been little action. Pedala Manaus’s members have not given up. Ferreira and Uchoa are teaching about 1,000 elementary school teachers about the positive health effects of bicycling—hoping the message will spread to their students. “We’ll go around government officials by planting seeds in the minds of youth,” Uchoa says. “We’re creating a movement.” In certain Manaus neighborhoods, businesses are voluntarily adding parking stations for bicycles. Pedala Manaus now has more than 4,000 members. There are now 40 other cycling groups across the city. Someday, Manaus will join other Latin American cities that are embracing cycling as one potential solution to traffic congestion. The governments of Mexico City and Buenos Aires, for example, are promoting downtown bicycle-rental stations. Bogota and Santiago are paving hundreds of miles of bicycle lanes—with concrete barriers to protect cyclists from drivers unaccustomed to sharing roads.

Pedala Manaus will play a powerful role in that shift. Mayk Ferreira has been invited to international conferences to explain the initial impact of Pedala Manaus’s work. His friends, and Lanny Uchoa, are marveling at his rapid growth. “He came to us just a shy little guy,” Uchoa says, “and now, he’s a great leader.”