Recife: The bike as a tool for the right to the city in low-income communities

The city of Recife is developing cycling initiatives to achieve a more just and sustainable transport system. Among these are the ‘Cycling Masterplan’ and Ameciclo’s Bota pra Rodar project – initiatives that are also key to achieving climate resilience and and social justice in the city.

Article, 14 February 2024
Frontrunner cities: connecting climate action and social justice
A series exploring how climate action can contribute to transformative outcomes in cities in the majority world
Group of people riding bikes.

Cycling event in Caranguejo Tabaiares, Recife (Photo: Ameciclo)

Recife’s environmental vulnerability is exacerbated by its poor urban infrastructure, particularly mobility and transportation, which accounted for 57% of its total emissions in 2017. 

Recife has seen a rise in car and motorbike ownership by 154% (to 723,830) and 366% (to 163.429), respectively, in the last 16 years (in Portuguese). Recife is the most traffic-congested city in Brazil and was the 15th most traffic-congested city in the world in 2021. 

Furthermore, the rapid growth of the city has been accompanied by a failing public transport system, characterised by poorly serviced, expensive road and rail networks, a disconnected cycle network and narrow and poorly maintained pavements, with ever-increasing privatisation of services and fares.

Hardest hit is the 40% of the population living in ZEIS (special zones of Interest) or ‘favelas’ on steep hillsides and in precarious stilted homes along the rivers of the low-lying city. The time-consuming, inadequate and unaffordable public transport network highlights a deep inequality within the workings of the transportation system. 

These issues are amplifying the challenges for poor urban communities in obtaining decent livelihoods and quality services, restricting their ability to connect to places that cannot be reached by walking or cycling.

Since 2012, following the unveiling of Brazil's National Urban Mobility Policy (NUMP) (PDF), there has been a growing emphasis on the 'cyclomobility' agenda in Recife, aimed at strengthening active transport in an urgent attempt to reduce carbon emissions in the city. 

Today Recife serves as an exemplary case. The urban agenda is steering the city towards achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, aligning it with global initiatives such as ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability) of which the city became a member in 2015. 

This commitment has transformed transportation into one of the city’s four top priorities alongside energy, sanitation and resilience. Chosen as a model city for the Urban-LEDS Project in 2015, Recife is linking its climate change mitigation to socio-economic development.

Like other local governments in cities around the world such as Paris, Recife recognises the impact of low-carbon investment through increased cycle mobility. Its Climate Action Plan includes establishment of 355km of cycling infrastructure by 2037, reducing transportation emissions from 1.74 million tCO2e in 2017 to 203,000 tCO2e by 2050. The work is well under way, with bike-sharing schemes already in place. 

There are, however, many shortcomings in the plan, with uneven distribution and even a lack of coverage in areas that have serious transport problems. The community-based organisation Ameciclo has been working in parallel to combat mobility gaps and associated spatial inequalities by gathering data, advocating at national policy level and mobilising community networks in an effort to push for more inclusive cycling mobility.

Bota pra Rodar is a transformative project because it increases the numbers of cyclists on the road and therefore contributes to enabling the ‘right to the city’. It also facilitates autonomy for women cyclists, who have been growing in number according to the Bota pra Rodar monitoring platform. This in turn contributes to the democratisation of spaces. Bota pra Rodar is undoubtedly one of Ameciclo's most important projects and directly impacts people's lives

Thuanne Teixeira, former coordinator, Bota pra Rodar project at Ameciclo

Bike culture: climate action to transform an unequal city

Recife is the capital of the federal state of Pernambuco inhabited by 1.5 million people (PDF in Portuguese). It is a coastal city with dense and uncontrolled urban expansion and is prone to flooding and landslides. Recife is listed as the 16th most vulnerable city in the world (in Portuguese), with its most vulnerable inhabitants living close to riverbanks and canals, in neighbourhoods that are characterised by a lack of basic infrastructure and inadequate.

The first city in Brazil to declare itself in a state of climate emergency, it has recently been recognised as the fourth Making Cities Resilient 2030 (MCR2030) Resilience Hub in the Americas and the Caribbean and the tenth globally.

In a positive move in 2014 the Cycling Masterplan (PDF in Portuguese) for the Metropolitan Region of Recife pushed for a specific cycling strategy to improve the cycling infrastructure. With a total route length of 500km, it was to be a gradual catalyst for the expansion of the cycle network and completed by 2024. 

An Origin–Destination survey in 2018 highlighted that 64% of the region’s residents went to work or school on foot (55%) (in Portuguese) (55%) or by bicycle (9%), while 19% did so without decent infrastructure, with the majority unable to afford public mobility costs. Recife is also home to one of the 1,700 cycle-sharing schemes around the world, a city network aimed at shifting its citizens out of individual vehicles towards active transportation.

Although much is being done to address the transportation problems in Recife, according to Ameciclo’s Cycling Observatory (in Portuguese), only 25% of the proposed cycleway has been completed since its initiation, while, in contrast, official government sources suggest the network is already 83% complete (in Portuguese).

Map of Recife, Brazil.

Current state of Recife’s cycling network (Photo: CicloMapa)

CicloMapa (in Portuguese) mobility indicators suggest the existing 200km network is predominantly concentrated in the city centre and higher-income neighbourhoods, with gaps in the outskirts where the majority of the city's cyclists reside. Additionally, major avenues in the city with high volumes of traffic have no designated cycle paths and are dangerous.

Studies suggest (PDF) that policymakers and transport planners still need to better understand mobility issues, particularly for the urban poor, if a more inclusive and equal system is anticipated.

3 million tCO2e
In 2017, the city’s greenhouse gas emissions totalled just over 3 million tCO2e. Among the three highest-emitting sectors (stationary energy, transportation and waste) transportation accounted for 1.74 million tCO2e of the total.  

Community organisations often play a crucial role in advocating for more inclusive roles for marginalised citizens in decision-making spaces, and in the case of Recife’s ‘cyclo-activists’, Ameciclo has actively sought to do this.

Engaged at every stage of the cycling masterplan's development, they provided crucial data on cyclist traffic in the city, advocating for institutional support to create equitable and just transport for all in the city. In creating spaces for communities to mobilise and find solutions to their transport challenges, their community has become a frontrunner in more equitable and sustainable mobility in Recife – reducing waste, creating job opportunities and contributing to the city’s move towards resilience.

The Metropolitan Association of Cyclists of Recife (Ameciclo)

Ameciclo was founded in May 2013 as part of a ‘cyclo-activist’ movement to fight for the 'right to the city' of Recife and to contribute to achieving social equity and environmental change through political advocacy, research and social mobilisation.

Political advocacy at Ameciclo

Ameciclo advocates for change to public policy on mobility issues, collaborating with legislative, executive and judicial government branches of Recife. Most recently the Plano Ciclovias Emergenciais Já (in Portuguese), a plan for an emergency cycling network during COVID-19 lockdowns, proposed the provision of safer transport options for essential workers so they did not have to use public transport.

In 2021 Ameciclo campaigned for Campanha Somos 85% (in Portuguese), seeking to engage public officials in dialogue to shift public investment towards the 85% of the population already using sustainable modes of transport (according to the 2018 Origin–Destination Survey). The campaign was a success, and a ‘letter of commitment’ (in Portuguese) was signed by the mayor, João Campos.

According to the 2021 Cyclist Profile Survey undertaken with NGO Transporte Ativo (PDF in Portuguese), 82% of those interviewed said they used a bicycle to get to work and 86% said they cycled more than five days a week. Road safety and lack of infrastructure were highlighted as barriers while speed and practicality were hailed as motivators for cycling.

Research projects at Ameciclo

Data gathered and openly available on the Ameciclo platform supports the association's advocacy efforts, contributes to research outputs and is key to influencing public policy decisions. Some major work to date includes a quality of the city's cycle network surve (in Portuguese), socio-economic profiles of cyclists and flow patterns around the city using disaggregated data.

Social mobilisation

A key activity at Ameciclo is collective action. Bike use and bike culture are promoted as safe, inexpensive and environmentally beneficial options while also promoting democratisation of roads. One innovative project, Bota pra Rodar, is a bike-sharing scheme that has already been replicated in Queimados (Rio de Janeiro) and Boa Vista Federal District.

A man standing in front of store, looking at a display of bicycles and accessories.

Ameciclo headquarters in 2018 (Photo: Ameciclo)

Bota pra Rodar: bike sharing to improve lives for vulnerable communities

Bota pra Rodar (‘Cycle it out’) was set up in 2015 to directly address socio-economic inequalities among poor communities that experience challenges in getting around and gaining access to better livelihoods and services (such as clinics, schools and churches), and even in visiting relatives across town. By promoting a cycling culture in poor communities, where bikes were used on a daily basis to get to work, it became apparent that there were not enough bikes to go around.

Inspired by the global bicycle-sharing movement, particularly the Amsterdam White Bicycle Plan pioneered in the 1960s by counterculture movement Provo, Ameciclo began collecting abandoned bikes from high-income areas. In 2022, 120 bikes were repaired and distributed in low-income communities with poor access to transport. The association has 1,100 members and 6,000 followers across three communities: Caranguejo Tabaiares (Ilha do Retiro neighbourhood), Santa Luzia (Torre neighbourhood) and Entra Apulso (Boa Viagem neighbourhood), which were set up in 2016, 2021 and 2022 respectively. 

Originally each neighbourhood received 20 bikes for their sharing schemes. The schemes regularly face challenges with theft and vandalism, and limited maintenance skills, with only 28 bikes currently on the road. Nevertheless, 109 cyclists (37 of whom are women) are registered. The vast majority of cycle journeys are for getting to work. More than 700 journeys, totalling 4,344 hours of travel, have already been recorded.

The campaign is run predominantly through existing social networks and promotes cycling and self-organising around local needs, and works towards a more cohesive and resilient community. A four-step process is followed, which consists of a collection campaign, community integration, training workshops on bike culture and mechanics, and a shared-bicycle system. 

Weekly meetings take place which offer knowledge exchange around citizenship and collective action, and provide technical support on bicycle mechanics and information on the bicycle’s potential as a source of income. Most bikes are collected on foot by volunteers or hired cycle couriers.

A group of individuals sitting around a table, engrossed in their work on laptops.

A general meeting at Ameciclo headquarters (Photo: Ameciclo)

Community workshops, for example in Santa Luzia, are managed by participants and provide training in basic bicycle mechanics, entrepreneurship and financial sustainability. Half of the spaces are reserved for women and are run in partnership with organisations such as the Cepas-Santa Paula Frassinetti Centre, which provides the venue, and the La Ursa Tours bike project, which supports in setting up businesses and cooperatives.

The project is managed by a community leader, who has a wide network of contacts and works with other leaders on related initiatives, building on inter-institutional actions across the city. Goods and services are produced and managed collectively with support from Ameciclo’s communications team who interact directly with members.

The right to the city and social justice

Recife experiences some of the worst socio-spatial inequalities in Brazil, so a key aim of the initiative has been to collectively reflect on what it is to be a cyclist in the city, connecting urban struggles with the need for the (re-)appropriation of collective public spaces, with the bicycle as the catalyst, in accordance with the moto ‘for a more sustainable city and a more humane and democratic urban environment’. 

Considering mobility to be an essential right that promotes other fundamental rights, the project facilitates freedom of access for men and women around the city, be it for work, their children’s schooling, or for socialising, in a safe, affordable and sustainable way.

A group of people wearing masks standing beside bicycles.

Cycling event in Caranguejo Tabaiares, Recife (Foto: Ameciclo)

Bike activism and climate justice

As the Ameciclo community has grown, its members have actively engaged in climate action, developing a charter (PDF in Portuguese) that recognises how bicycle sharing can free up valuable living space.

They recognise their vulnerability to climate change is connected to the inequalities of the city's development, particularly given that 25.3% of Recife residents live below the poverty line. Their long-term aims are to:

  • Reduce the demand and aspiration for motorised vehicles, thus reducing traffic congestion and emissions
  • Contribute to waste reduction by salvaging bikes from potential landfill disposal  
  • Promote the circular economy through recycling and reusing bikes for income generation, and
  • Reduce emissions by 9.54g CO2 for every kilometre travelled and actively advocate for improved cycling infrastructure where it is needed.

Looking ahead

Bota pra Rodar has been duly recognised both nationally and internationally, winning the Promoting Bike Mobility Award in Brazil 2017 and being one of the first initiatives chosen to represent Brazil at the World Bicycle Forum in Mexico. It also participated in the Urban Mobility Summit in 2020.

The organisation has a positive, direct impact on the lives of the city's most socially vulnerable population and it is expanding its work in other communities in Recife, connecting them with the existing network. Currently, there are discussions about expanding into the Communidade de Pilar, a low-income area in the city's oldest neighbourhood, which is dominated by the tourism industry. In recent years it has attracted the attention of property developers and has gradually gentrified, threatening the security of the local community. 

Ameciclo and its network aim to empower this community, using its position to advocate for a more equitable solution for the community. Finally, Ameciclo will continue to collaborate with institutions to invest in a more equitable active transport infrastructure and support Recife to realise its potential to be a resilient and sustainable city.

Further reading


Head and shoulder photo of Gustavo de Araújo Barros.

Gustavo de Araújo Barros is a coordinator of Ameciclo, a student of architecture and urbanism at the Federal University of Pernambuco, an advocate of Safe and Sustainable Mobility and a creative tourism driver in Recife.

Head and shoulder photo of Thuanne Raissa Fonseca Teixeira.

Thuanne Raissa Fonseca Teixeira holds a Master’s degree in design, is a member and former coordinator of Ameciclo and former coordinator of the Bota pra Rodar project.

Head and shoulder photo of Anneliese Paes Leme.

Anneliese Paes Leme is a geographer, associate at Ameciclo, member of Ameciclo’s supervisory board, and coordinator of the Ameciclo's Oficina Escola (school workshop)