‘Get yourself a bike, mate!’: how cycling is challenging Santiago’s social barriers
Cycling is now shedding its ‘loser’ image in the Chilean capital, and bikes are enjoying a renaissance. This movement around the city has, in part, brought greater social mobility, and is bridging long-term class segregation
Gideon Long in Santiago
Thursday 21 July 2016 07.30
Back in 1980, a Chilean bank ran a TV advert in which a man cycles across Santiago to meet his sweetheart. As he wobbles through the traffic, a bouquet of flowers in his hand, motorists, builders and school kids ridicule him. “Cómprate un auto, perico!” they shout – “Get yourself a car, mate!”
The hapless cyclist reaches his lover’s house and hands her the bouquet. She gazes adoringly into his eyes. But then she sees his bike. “Get yourself a car, mate!” she scolds him. As the ad ends, she hauls him off to the bank to take out a loan.
The advert was a big hit in Chile and its message was clear: bikes are for losers. If you wanna get a girl, get a car.
One generation later, and Chileans seem to have heeded the bank’s advice. Greater Santiago is home to 7 million people and over 4 million vehicles, and the numbers are growing. Chile has prospered in recent years and as people have got richer they’ve invested in cars.
But the lover on his bike is hitting back. As the traffic jams grow longer and parking becomes harder, frustrated Santiaguinos are looking for better ways to get around their city. The bicycle is enjoying a renaissance.
But given what it was like a decade ago, when I first arrived in this city, Santiago has made progress. The number of cyclists on major routes has risen by 15-25% a year, says Lake Sagaris, a professor of transport engineering at the city’s Catholic University. In 2006, cycling accounted for 3% of journeys. These days it’s around 6% – higher than in London or Dublin.
“A doubling of modal share in a decade!” Sagaris says. “Very few places in the world can match that.”