On a trip to the Netherlands, Andrea Ribeiro Pinto’s vision of mobility changed.
She stopped using the car so much and took up the bicycle. Now, when the clock strikes half past five in the afternoon, the lawyer gets on her folding bike and sets off from her workplace in the Baixa area towards Chelas, where she practices boxing at the Academia Jorge Pina.
It’s only 5,3 km. Twenty-one minutes of pedaling. It would be a warm-up before entering the ring, but that’s not exactly what happens during this route: with each pedal stroke it’s as if the city’s progress were forgotten. The cycle path narrows until it disappears completely.
The journey that Andrea makes to Chelas mirrors what Miguel Padeiro, a researcher at the University of Coimbra, confirms in a study published in Cities & Health magazine: the most deprived areas of Lisbon are those with the least access to cycling infrastructures.
This was the conclusion reached by the researcher, crossing data on the geographical distribution of cycle paths and docks with an indicator of social vulnerability for each block of the city.
At the border between Beato and Marvila, Andrea no longer has a bike lane: cars are honking, little space for the bicycle. Marvila and Beato are therefore part of the most disadvantaged areas in terms of infrastructure, according to Miguel’s study.
The same happens in Graça, Alta de Lisboa, Restelo, and Ajuda, and also in the Historic Centre and Bairro Alto. These areas lack docks, cycle paths, sharing systems, network coverage, and connections between infrastructures.
Why is this?
There are several reasons for this. Some are socio-geographic: poorer communities generally live in more mountainous and densely populated areas, where it is therefore more difficult to build bicycle paths.
On the other hand, cycle paths give a good image, they attract those who like modernity, capital, outsiders, and tourism… and for this reason, it is usually chosen to build in the most central areas.
“If we want to show that we’ve built cycle paths, we won’t do it in the most invisible areas, but in central areas”, explains the researcher. In other words, the central axis, instead of Chelas.
That’s what Andrea feels when she enters the Estrada de Chelas: the street gets narrower and narrower. If up to this point were still a few bicycles along the way, there is no trace of more cyclists anymore.
No Gira or electric scooters
In Chelas there is not only a lack of infrastructure but there is also a lack of Gira. This is the map of the docks in the city:
It is an example “perhaps even more glaring” of inequality in mobility, says Miguel Padeiro. Gira, which arrived in Lisbon in 2017, is still mainly concentrated in the center, without reaching areas like Marvila. “There is a great secrecy around this issue, it is a black box, and no one can know why,” he says.
EMEL replies that the location of the Gira stations resulted from fieldwork carried out by a multidisciplinary team of CML technicians and EMEL itself, taking into account the physical characteristics of the location. And that the current network “will be progressively revised in dialogue with the Parish Councils”.
Miguel Padeiro understands that a shared system has to advance in stages: “I would also start with the noblest areas, even though I have this idea of social equality”. However, the Gira is already five years old and there are still areas completely uncovered: “There is immense potential in any part of the city”, he adds.
This inequality is not only in the bike-sharing system. The electric scooter operators also don’t make them reach the areas of greater social vulnerability.
Neither Bolt, Lime nor Link enter areas such as Marvila and Alta de Lisboa.
On the map of Bolt’s application (below), a “P” appears over these areas: “It is not possible to finish the journey here. The scooter will move more slowly here because there are many cars and pedestrians”.
Lime warns: “No Zone. Do not drive or take your vehicle into this area. It will not work and you cannot park in this area.”
Once again one has to ask: why?
Santiago Parámo, head of micro-mobility at Bolt Portugal, explains that Bolt “is dependent on urban centers embracing new solutions”.
“Progress often doesn’t happen all at once”, and so it is necessary to “implement infrastructure solutions in all parts of cities”.
A fish with its tail in its mouth? As there is no infrastructure, there is no network… and vice versa.
On Link, the warning on the map is even stranger: “No scooters. City laws prohibit movement and parking in this area.”
City laws? We questioned Link about this but did not get an answer by the time of publication.
Mensagem also made a test with a Link scooter to understand what would happen if you entered a forbidden zone.
At the beginning of Gualdim Pais Street (at the border between Beato and Marvila), the scooter slowed down and started beeping.
On Rua Gualdim Pais, Link’s scooter started slowing down and beeping.
Joana Zagalo, a 28-year-old marketing director who lives in Chelas, has something to say about this: “Everyone has access, and we because we live here don’t,” she says. “Taking into account mobility, the environment, and even financial issues, we needed to bet on a wider network of electric mobility solutions.”
Recently a new electric scooter operator has changed this paradigm: Whoosh, which seems mainly to limit circulation in areas such as Bairro Alto and Alfama.
According to Marco Rebelo, City Manager of Whoosh, the objective of the operator is to “advise the entities responsible for the development of the city’s infrastructures”, and for this reason, its area of operation has expanded.
“We feel that our services are not limited to tourists or residents of central areas, but also the outskirts of the city or housing areas with less offer of micro-mobility transport,” he adds.
Fear and political games
But why hasn’t more infrastructure been created in these areas? Why haven’t the sharing systems been extended?
Miguel Padeiro has an answer: fear. “Fear that there will be problems because people won’t use the cycle paths, fear of vandalism and social problems. There is the idea that it will be a waste”.
The subject of bicycles divides Lisboners, and many are still averse to the soft mobility change, as Mensagem verified through negative comments about bicycles in a group of neighbors in Chelas – where we posed a question to prepare this report.
“There is a very delicate political game here, hence the caution that has been shown by the executive,” says Miguel Padeiro.
Henrique Chaves, who is a sociologist and is doing a Ph.D. in Public Policies at the University of Aveiro, disagrees: “there are many people who want to cycle”. This is the subject of his Ph.D.: cycling mobility in Marvila.
The results will be announced soon, but in a survey of 396 people in the parish, many showed interest in changing mobility habits.
In Chelas there are already various initiatives that encourage children to use bicycles, such as the Roda Viva project, promoted by the Associação Descalçada and supported by the BIP/ZIP, which operates in Nuno Varela’s Kriativu space. “The children end up not missing these infrastructures because they have bicycles at their disposal here, and they always ride within the neighborhood”, he says.
The problem is felt more by teenagers and adults, as Henrique Chaves explains: “What I feel is that there is no opportunity for them to continue cycling when they grow up and have jobs”. In other words, when they have to leave the neighborhood for other parts of Lisbon. “There is a lack of cycle lanes in the city”, he adds.
Andrea knows the reality. “It’s the people who live here who need mobility alternatives the most,” she says.
And it’s true: after all, a Gira pass is only 24 euros, much cheaper than a Carris pass. The pass is only free for those over-65s and students up to the age of 23 (in some cases, 24).
Those who know the reality on the ground counter it. “Policymakers genuinely think that if they create bike networks in poorer areas they won’t succeed and that’s false,” says Miguel Padeiro. “If there is support, which is not just financial, but also comes from raising awareness among local associations, poorer neighborhoods will start using cycle paths.”
An Ipsos study published this year concluded that the safer people feel, the more they will cycle. And safety is, of course, part of the construction of infrastructures.
There are even examples of deprived neighborhoods that have changed their mobility patterns since cycle paths were built: it happened in London, in the United Kingdom, and Minneapolis and Milwaukee, in the United States.
Safety is not the word that occurs when accompanying Andrea.
On Avenida Santo Condestável, it is only the road and vegetation around. Many cars are circulating. In the middle of the sloping terrain, some tracks climb up through the neighborhood: they are the footprints of those who have nowhere to walk. Or to pedal.
What about health?
It is not only safety that is at stake here: it is also health. “People still don’t realize that there is a relationship between soft mobility policies and health,” says Miguel Padeiro. “People need means to be able to improve their health,” and cycling can be one of those means. It’s not a magic solution, of course, but it’s part of the way.
For example, in an area without a cycle lane, a person cycling is always more exposed to car exhaust pipes.
Avenida Santo Condestável flows into a large roundabout, where cars fight for their place. To avoid chaos, Andrea commits an infraction: she crosses the street from one side to the other and moves over the zebra crossing.
Finally, she is safe.
Arriving at Bairro do Armador, there are no bike lanes or bicycle signs. There are, yes, many parked cars. At the door of the Jorge Pina Academy, Andrea jumps off her bike and gets ready for training.
That’s when she notices a Whoosh scooter, the only one allowed in the neighborhood. Maybe it’s starting to change.