Building a cycle-friendly Antofagasta

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Giacomo Salvatori is a 22 year student from Italy. Interested in CREO, we travel abroad to get a deeper approach of the plan. He´s currently carrying out a research about the economic feasibility of projects regarding cycle infrastructure. In this article, he shares a first approach with us.

Antofagasta and bicycles have a difficult relationship. The city has grown without taking into account the needs of this important mean of transport and now, with its roads busy with car traffic, its elongated shape and steep hills, it doesn’t seem to be perceived by its inhabitants as a cycle-friendly environment. Seeing a cyclist on Antofagasta’s streets is an all but impossible occurrence, especially in business hours. The share of people riding a bike to work is absolutely marginal, and the only chance to encounter more than one lone cyclist at a time, is in weekends along the coastline: apparently people choose to cycle along paths that are already somewhat equipped for their presence, and in general they avoid any kind of contact with motorised traffic. As a consequence, the use of the bicycle is mostly recreational. Downtown, it’s more common to see people riding their bike on the pavement than on the road. This behaviour – apart from being probably illegal, even though the law is not very clear on this (Art. 2 Ley de Tránsito) – means slower speed for cyclists and severe interference with pedestrians.

In my experience as a cyclist in Antofagasta, I can see why people are afraid of cycling: drivers are not used to cope with bike traffic, and this means that they tend to ignore cyclists, or get too close and create potentially dangerous situations. The solution is experience: cyclists that ride often are confident and know how to predict the cars’ movements, and drivers in a cycle-intensive environment learn to understand the needs of cyclists and to care about them. Statistically, there is a very strong negative relationship between the number of kilometres cycled in a country and the risk of accident between a car and a bicycle. This apparently contradictory figure is actually good evidence of how experience is a very important component of safety: if every driver is also a cyclist they will be more careful towards these road users.

Why cycling?
The reasons for advocating a substantial increase in bicycle traffic are several, and can be usefully displayed with some data.
First of all, cycling helps dramatically in increasing the level of health of people who start cycling regularly: activating an inactive person leads to a 25-50% reduction in the risk of premature death, since it almost halves the risk of many common diseases such as cardiovascular illnesses, obesity, five types of cancer, type-2 diabetes, osteoporosis and hypertension.

Cycling regularly, as do people who cycle to work, is a great way of activating people, as shown by the figure that non-cyclists have on average a 39% higher mortality rate than habitual cyclists. And if you think that cycling is too dangerous, think again: for every new cyclist that loses his life because of a bike accident, 20 new cyclists’ lives are saved because of better health; and this is without taking into account the additional safety granted by new cycle paths. Apart from reducing the risk of contracting serious illnesses, regular cycling provides a general better health that is commonly assumed to cause a 1% decrease in absenteeism at work, meaning a substantial social benefit for the economy.

The other major reason for promoting cycling is, of course, the benefit coming from the reduction in motorised traffic, which means less air and sound pollution, congestion, wearing of road infrastructure, and environmental costs connected with car use, such as disposal of used oil and tyres.
It is important to point out that, contrarily to what common sense might suggest, cyclists inhale three times less CO, benzene, toluene and xylene than motorists; on the other hand, they inhale 25% more NO2, but this is offset when the cyclist chooses less trafficked roads.

There are many other social benefits of an increase in cycling: less traffic means less investment in future road infrastructure improvement and less car parking costs, since a bike parking spot costs approximately 5% compared to a car parking place. The creation of a complete bike path infrastructure will then lead to other major improvements: increased comfort and security of cyclists, reduction of accidents and of the severity of accidents, travel time reduction – it might seem incredible but in city traffic bikes don’t have a significantly lower average speed than cars -, more accessibility to the market for low-budget workers, less costs for public transport expansion and for school bus services.

Why Antofagasta is suitable to become a bike-friendly city
Coming from Europe, it is difficult to understand why a city with such a perfect weather for cycling has so few people on bikes. The Netherlands and Denmark are among the most cycle-friendly countries in the world even though their weather, with high likeliness of rain and very cold winters, is nowhere near the ideal for cycling.
Here, I see a lot of people commuting closed in their cars, colectivos or micros, although there are not many better places in the world where to enjoy open air all year long.

Of course there is a problem with the hills. But most of the commuting takes place between the norte-alto sector and the city centre, and in this path there are some good opportunities for building cycling infrastructure with a gentle slope, to reach the hills as effortlessly as possible. In other densely populated sectors, like the south with the Parque Brasil-Angamos vector or the north with Rendic-Pedro Aguirre Cerda, the slope is not a problem at all.

How can public intervention prompt the cultural change that is needed to turn more and more people to cycling?
There is a lot of work to be carried on in order to create a true bike friendly environment. Change starts with education: people should be aware of the benefits of cycling, and of how they overwhelmingly outweigh risks and costs, and this can happen both in and out of schools, also with the help of cyclists’ organisations such as Asociación de Ciclistas de Antofagasta, Antofacleta and Antofagasta Mountain Bike.
Other important interventions are the establishment of economic incentives to cycling, traffic calming interventions, creation of bike parking bays and eventually a pilot project of bike sharing. But most importantly there is the necessity to build a good cycle path network, able to take people from the pavements, from the busses and from their cars on to a safe, clean and healthy mean of transport.
At CREO we are implementing a new way of assessing the economic feasibility of such projects that takes into account all of these factors, turning the focus from the idea that cycle infrastructure should be built only where there already is a lot of bike traffic, to the concept “build them and they will come”; and we do this because we think that improving the quality of transport is a key component in the pursuit of a general better quality of life.