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Touring Santiago on two wheels

In Chile, biking is beginning to take root — as both tourist fun and a choice for commuters.

Both Green Bicycle and Trips on Bicycle sprung up as Chileans seriously begin to consider biking not just a fun ride, but also a means of transportation. The capital is relatively flat, contaminated and congested and it doesn’t rain much: perfect conditions to move about on a bike.

Bikers argue that adopting a two-wheeled mode of transport would make a huge difference in reducing traffic and smog. But with insufficient infastructure for biking, as well as the lack of respect from drivers, most Chileans remain hesitant to hop on a bike, for either their commute or just an afternoon ride.

So, like the chicken and the egg, what comes first? The bikers or the lanes?

Michelle Clark, a nurse from Australia, and Green Bicycle guide Daniela Werner during a tour at the fish market in Santiago.
(Pascale Bonnefoy/GlobalPost).

It appears the cyclists are there, and as in everything Chilean, they have a myriad of organizations to represent them. Ciclistas Furiosos (Furious Cyclists) was one of the first, and for the past 15 years, has organized bike rides for hundreds of Santiago residents through the capital the first Tuesday of the month.

Then there is Ciclorecreovia, which has gotten two municipalities in Santiago to close off several kilometers of roads to cars on Sunday mornings so residents can bike, skate or stroll.

“Cycling is really taking off. Everyone we know in the business — selling bikes, tours, or people who use bikes as a means of transportation — they all say there is a boom,” said Murphy.

The government has taken the hint, and since 2007, the regional government of Santiago has been implementing a "Master Plan for Cycling Routes," which involves constructing almost 430 miles of special bicycle lanes by 2012.

Although happy with more lanes, cycling organizations complain that the ones that exist are often too narrow, sometimes too dangerous and lack proper lighting, signs and parking places for bicycles.

Hundreds of bike lovers were able to participate in a consultation process to analyze the plan starting last June. Four months later, they delivered their conclusions to city government officials, outlining the main perils and barriers, identifying the most dangerous spots and proposing routes that would help bikers not only go for a ride on Sundays, but also allow them to bike to work, school or otherwise use the bike as their main means of transportation.

Last June, President Michelle Bachelet introduced a bill in Congress that would encourage the use of bicycles, facilitate connections between bike routes and the public transportation system, promoting their use in government policies, plans and programs and allow (but not oblige) municipalities to allocate funds for bike lanes and related infrastructure.

Tomas Marin, of Ciudad Viva’s Center for Active Transportation, hailed the bill as a first step in the right direction, despite its defficiencies.

“This law won’t solve everything, but it creates a legal framework that can be improved over time," he said. "We shouldn’t be too anxious. It took Holland 30 years to achieve what they now have.”