BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Shiny yellow bicycles are changing Buenos Aires’ urban landscape.
The bikes are part of the city’s EcoBici program, an initiative by the Buenos Aires government to promote sustainable, clean and inclusive transportation alternatives.
The project, which was launched in 2010, includes 750 bicycles and 29 stations.
Users can borrow a bike from one station and return it at another, at no cost, enabling them to take advantage of the city’s 100 kilometers of secure bike paths.
Each bike path is separated from automobile traffic by a concrete curb. The network connects neighborhoods such as Parque Patricios and Boedo, on the south side, as well as Villa Crespo, near the city’s downtown area, in addition to integrating hospitals, universities and tourist attractions.
EcoBici has 75,000 users, who take an average of 5,400 trips by bike each day, according to Guillermo Dietrich, the deputy secretary for transportation in Buenos Aires.
“By 2015, the goal is to have 200 stations, 3,000 bicycles, 36,000 trips per day and more than 150,000 users,” he added.
The total number of people using bicycles, each of which comes with a helmet, has quintupled since the system was introduced.
“The proportion of trips made by bike went from 0.4% in 2007 to 2.5% today. Our goal is to reach 5% by 2015,” said Dietrich, who uses a folding bike to commute to work.
EcoBici is changing the habits of Buenos Aires’ residents.
“Now, you can pedal between distant neighborhoods. This allows students and workers to move around without using a car or a bus,” said Sebastián Fosati, who operates the Plaza Güemes Station in Palermo on Buenos Aires’ north side.
To use a bike, residents must present their ID and a utility bill, which confirms their address. Tourists must submit a photocopy of their passport and contact information for where they are staying during their time in the Argentine capital.
“Users have an hour to return the bike. If they think that they won’t be able to meet the deadline, they have to pass by two stations and extend their return time,” Fosati said.
Riders who don’t return the bike within an hour grace period and haven’t communicated with EcoBici to get their time extended are fined $1,500 Argentine pesos (US$271), the same amount levied against riders who return a damaged bicycle.
Riders who also miss a deadline, don’t wear a helmet or damage a bicycle are suspended from using the service for a week, with two-time offenders banned for a month, three-time offenders for two months and four-time offenders expelled from the program.
One of the most frequent users of the station is businessman Ricardo Jalil, 47, who lives four blocks from Plaza Güemes.
“I have a car, but I don’t use it because the traffic in Buenos Aires is chaotic,” he said. “I can get downtown more quickly on a bicycle.”
The program’s website allows users to check the availability of bicycles at each station.
“In general, the quality of the bike path infrastructure is good, as is the safety equipment for cyclists,” said Néstor Sebastián, president of the Urban Cyclists Association of Buenos Aires.
However, Sebastián is critical of the lack of public parking spaces for bicycles in the nation’s capital.
“The construction of bicycle parking areas near the major subway stations would allow for a better use of the public transportation system,” he said.
Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri recently decreed parking lots must provide bicycle parking spaces for a fee that cannot exceed 10% of what it costs to park a car.
The city of Buenos Aires has signed agreements with NGOs, banks and universities to encourage the use of bike paths.
A loan from Banco Ciudad, for example, allows customers to pay for their bicycles in up to 50 monthly installments of $20 pesos (less than US$4).
The government also introduced the concept of “businesses friendly to sustainable mobility” for companies to encourage bicycle use among their employees. Google, Coca-Cola, Telefônica, Intel and more than 100 other companies are involved in the program or initiative.
The city also promotes mass bike rides, which generally take place on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.
The next step for EcoBici involves installing fully automated stations, allowing users to take and return bicycles using magnetic cards, without the need for an attendant.
Automation will reduce the waiting time for removing bicycles, according to the city.
“We will begin installing automated stations at the end of the year and expect to have the entire system fully automated by mid-2014,” said Dietrich.
The 29 stations are open from Monday to Friday, 7a.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturday, from 9a.m. to 3p.m, and closed on Sundays.
As the system expands, some stations will open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.