Please note, this is my impression of Lisbon from an afternoon of attempting to cycle (and from discussions with local campaigners) not a comprehensive study tour!
I enjoy cycling in cities and have taken to two wheels in Mumbai and Panama City in the past and New York, London and Rome more recently so I was keen to try the streets of Lisbon at the end of our summer holiday in Portugal.
I’d arranged to meet some local campaigners to talk infrastructure and advocacy, and to give my husband a break from my incessant cyclist spotting:
Me: Look, there’s someone on a bike! It’s another Brompton!
Husband: *eye rolling incomprehension as to why that might be interesting*
Like many cities in the throes of summer, the streets were packed with tourists wandering aimlessly, disregarding all attempts to keep them on the pavements, and disgruntled locals trying to get on with their lives. Some car users had obviously done the Roman driving test and were putting their new parking technique into action by leaving their motors double parked, blocking entire streets.
Lisbon streets felt quite hazardous, with the tram tracks snaking their way across the city, accompanied by hills steep enough to push my thighs and rental bike to their respective limits. These obstacles were compounded for me by the one way streets so I seemed unable to avoid them, leaving me wheeling my bike more than riding it.
My friends Tito and Patricia rescued me from endlessly cycling around the pedestrianised Praca do Comercio by taking me to try out one of the few pieces of cycling infrastructure in Lisbon, a lovely green path perhaps a couple of miles long. Splendid. Unfortunately it suffers from the issues that plague cycling infrastructure across the world – it’s not part of a network and it doesn’t go where people want to travel.
After our enjoyable, if short, ride to the end of the path, we hauled our bikes over the railway bridge to try the path by the water, which links up to this usable but shared use confusion zone. Pedestrians, bikes, cafes crowded with people drinking alcohol in the sunshine adjacent to the sea. What could go wrong?
After putting my hill climbing and tram track dodging capabilities to the test, Patricia and Tito handed me over to Ana, a cycle campaigner who runs a cycling social enterprise in the city. We found that advocacy in both our countries has some distinctive similarities – volunteer run, under resourced and over stretched – but the barriers to progress were different, possibly reflecting the cultural and political situations as well as the personalities involved.
I tagged along with Ana to a meeting arranged with Pedro, the R&D lead for a Portuguese cycling company that had been involved in developing the new ebike for the Lisbon bike share scheme. The bike was on display at the World Bike Tour, and I felt distinctly A-list as we cycled past security and into the exhibition area. The bike share promises to be cheap, with the electric assist helping on those thigh-testing hills. The prototype even had a phone holder to
keep an eye on Twitter ensure you can keep your city map right in front of you as you ride.
We didn’t get to try out another segregated cycle way on the other side of the city as my rental bike was due back so I pedalled and pushed, thinking about a glass of Vinho Verde in the evening sunshine, my way back to the shop. Then carried my bike up two flights of stairs before this:
Lisbon has many attractions – fantastic architecture, excellent food, good weather and easy access to lovely beaches – but superb conditions for cycling is not one of them yet, and is unlikely to be for some time. However, it is evident there is a latent demand for cycling – the cycling businesses look like they are booming and there were more than a handful of fully kitted out roadies and mountain bikers, as well as tourists and locals weaving between the pedestrians on the pavements.
Looking at the Lisbon streets now it’s hard to imagine many parents choosing cycling as a convenient and safe transport option in the near future. But perhaps people used to say that about car choked Amsterdam forty years ago.