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Roads And Sidewalks: A Cyclist’s Dilemma In The Big City

SANTIAGO – Chile’s capital boasts over 220 miles (360 km) of bicycle lanes and the number of bike riders has steadily increased in recent years. In November 2018, a new “road coexistence” law came into effect, legally requiring cyclists to use bike lanes or roads. However, poor maintenance and road rage have led to an increase in the number of cyclists killed on Chile’s roadways.

Sebastián Ortega (24) lives in downtown Santiago – the district with the longest extension of bike lanes in the capital – and has been a cyclist for 10 years. He rides his bike far and wide across the city and told Chile Today, “I haven’t stopped since I learned to ride a bicycle.”

Sebastián Ortega on his bike.

Like Ortega, there are around 115,000 cyclists who commute to work every day in Santiago. The new Convivencia Vial (road coexistence) law that came into force on Nov. 11, 2018, requires bike users to use bike lanes or roads (if there aren’t any bike lanes), leaving them at the mercy of drivers. According to figures from the country’s road safety commission, there were 90 fatal accidents last year, a 30 percent increase over the previous year.

Ortega believes the new law offers cyclists legal protections but that the government has failed to publicize it: “the law is good, but reality on the streets is very different to what the authorities propose.”

Keeping A Safe Distance

Numbers from Carabineros show there were 3,840 accidents involving cyclists in 2019. Ortega himself admits having been involved in a few, but he has been lucky where others have not. “The worst accident was when a car driver opened the door of her car without looking in the mirror and I could not brake in time, so I flew through the window. But it was nothing serious, apart from a few scratches,” he explained.

“No more dead cyclists!” murals are common across Santiago. Photo taken by Sebastián Ortega.

The law requires drivers of motorized vehicles to keep a distance of at least one and a half meters (five feet), but Ortega feels that most drivers do not respect this: “it is a minimum distance and they do not do it, and on top of that they drive past you very fast.”

The cyclist is not impressed by motorbikes and bus drivers: “it has become normal for motorbikes to use bike lanes when road traffic is heavy, and bus drivers are always the most imprudent, they do not respect the safety distance.” The misuse of bike lanes by pedestrians as sidewalks is also a cause for accidents, he said. “You have to avoid pedestrians as they cross without looking or they simply walk in the bike lanes when the lanes are narrow enough already.”

“Far from being bike-friendly”

Despite the efforts to build more bike lanes to improve connectivity, Ortega thinks Chile is far from being bike-friendly: “We need everything, improved infrastructure, culture, and education for us to ride safely. The very few spaces that we have are falling apart or people use them as parking spaces, they set up stalls or you even find lampposts right in the middle of them.”

Ghost bikes can be found at many intersections in Santiago. These are memorials where cyclists have lost their lives in an accident with a motor vehicle. Photo by Sebastián Ortega.

Last November, in Providencia, hundreds of cyclists protested the high number of cyclists killed in roadway accidents, as reported by Cooperativa.

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