Saturday, April 23, 2011

In Honor of Gabriela; Chile Criminalizes Cycling?

Shortly before leaving Santiago, I paid a visit to the new Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral, in what was formerly known as the Edificio Diego Portales. Recently renamed for the Nobel Prize poetess, it’s a controversial building because, after the military coup of September 1973 deposed President Salvador Allende and severely damaged the La Moneda presidential palace, General Augusto Pinochet’s governing junta set up shop in the utilitarian box until the Moneda’s restoration in 1981.

Originally built for a United Nations conference in 1972, the Portales itself suffered serious damage in a 2006 fire that destroyed about 40 percent of the structure. While it will never be an architectural charmer - most Santiaguinos appear to deplore the boxiness that makes it resemble a copper-colored Wal-Mart - it’s undergone a major interior transformation that includes several galleries and theater spaces, and a restaurant with a sunken patio away from the noisy nearby Alameda, the city’s main thoroughfare.

Certainly, as the junta occupied the Portales for eight years, neither they nor any other Chileans could ever have imagined the photographic display that’s here until the end of the month: an extensive exhibit, in stark black and white, of the work by Dutch photographer Koen Wessing (who died in February) of the days immediately following the 1973 coup. It includes scenes from Ñuñoa’s Estadio Nacional, where many prisoners perished, and even book-burnings. Those of you unable to visit in person can see part of the exhibit online here.

Banning the Bicycle?
One of the most preposterous proposals I’ve ever heard has just come out of the Chilean Congress: a law to ban bicycles except on designated bicycle lanes. The details aren’t yet clear but, on the face of it, it would appear to criminalize non-motorized two-wheel transportation even on roads like Aisén’s Carretera Austral, which has very little traffic on any kind. Bicycle touring might become illegal, even through the scenic southern lakes region, and companies such as Santiago’s La Bicicleta Verde, which offers bicycle tours of the city, would have to close down unless, of course, authorities create sufficient bicycle lanes to accommodate the capital’s roughly 600,000 active cyclists. At present, there are 250 km of bike paths for a city of six million residents.

The rationale behind the measure, which comes from the right-of-center UDI party, purports to be traffic safety, but statistics suggest that cyclists are involved in only 0.19 percent of traffic accidents, while pedestrians are involved in 7.3 percent of them. Bicycle advocacy organizations, such as Bicicultura and the Movimiento de Ciclistas Furiosos, have harshly criticized the proposal. It would also threaten the livelihoods of many in the informal employment sector, such as the cardboard recycler pictured here.

The UDI appears to have retreated from its earlier stance, suggesting that the measure would be contingent on construction of another 1,000 km of bikeways over the next decade, but this would be an infinitesimal percentage compared to the abundance of roadways for motorized vehicles. It would make more sense to widen highway shoulders throughout the country for the benefit of both cyclists and pedestrians.

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