Retaking the Streets of Puerto Rico…On a Bicycle

Ciclistas corriendo bicicleta en el Viejo San Juan, ciudad capital de Puerto Rico. Imagen tomada de video.

Cyclists riding bikes in Old San Juan, capitol of Puerto Rico. Image from video.

Transportation in Puerto Rico has for decades been dominated by automobiles. Even the government promoted the use of cars as the primary mode of transport for the citizenry, giving the country one of the highest rates of roads per mile.

Partly as a reaction to this, the use of bicycles has become popular in Puerto Rico in the last few years. The area of Santurce particularly has seen an increase in the number of cyclists pedaling around the streets. The popularity of bicycles is a little surprising, given that the island’s urban areas are not designed with bicycle riders in mind. As Professor María Moreno Viqueira says in an article for the magazine Cruce: [es]

En Puerto Rico la bicicleta siempre ha ocupado un espacio marginal. A pesar de que existe la “Carta de los derechos del ciclista y obligaciones del conductor”, los centros urbanos de Puerto Rico nunca han sido amigables con la bicicleta al carecer de vías y senderos para los ciclistas y de un sistema de bicicletas públicas, entre otros elementos.

Si en algún momento la bicicleta tuvo cierto rol en la sociedad puertorriqueña, el mismo estuvo limitado a la práctica solitaria de ciclistas profesionales, a la repartición de mercancías de restaurantes o supermercados, o sobretodo, a la diversión de los niños. Aunque en Puerto Rico existieron colectivos ciclistas desde finales del siglo 19 la bicicleta nunca ha formado parte integral de la vida cotidiana de la sociedad puertorriqueña. En Puerto Rico, al igual que en otros países, la bicicleta siempre ha estado asociada a la niñez o al deporte.

In Puerto Rico, cycling has always occupied a marginal space. In spite of the existence of the “Charter of Cyclists’ Rights and Drivers’ Duties,” Puerto Rican urban centers have never been bicycle friendly, lacking bike paths and trails or systems of bike sharing lanes, among other things.

If the bicycle did have a certain role in Puerto Rican society, it was limited to the solitary practice of professional cyclists, the distribution of goods to restaurants or supermarkets, or above all, the amusement of children. Although cycling groups have existed since the late 19th century, cycling has never been an integral part of Puerto Rican daily life. In Puerto Rico, as in other countries, the bicycle has always been associated with childhood or sport.

Soportes (o "racks") para bicicletas, como el que se muestra en la foto, se han instalado en distintos lugares de Santurce, reflejando el aumento en el uso de la bicicleta. Foto tomada por el autor.

Bicycle racks like the one in this photo have been installed in various places around Santurce, reflecting the increased use of bicycles. Photo taken by the author.

But the role of the bicycle in Puerto Rican society is changing little by little. Several cycling groups have emerged and even some messaging businesses like Ecomensajería and Biciresuelve, whose core business model is the use of bicycles to provide their services. The following documentary, directed by Global Voices author Alfredo Richner [es], explores the cycling movement in Puerto Rico and the challenges it is facing to convert urban areas of the country into zones that are favorable to cyclists:

[translation: Life on Two Wheels: The Urban Cycling Movement in Puerto Rico]

The transformation of the city into a safer place for bicyclists is becoming more urgent given the increase in cycling deaths due to automobile drivers. In an article for 80 grados, Manuel Valdés Pizzini voices [es] the fear that many bicyclists feel when they go out on the street:

Los ciclistas tenemos la horrible sensación de que existe una dejadez institucional con la vida de los ciclistas. Un artículo publicado por The New York Times y difundido por estos lares por la Coalición de Ciclistas de Puerto Rico subraya esa triste verdad. Hace dos meses que no salía a correr, por varias razones, pero… siempre lo pienso mucho, como si fuera la última vez que salgo con vida de mi casa.


Yo no le tengo miedo a la muerte, pero debo admitir que pienso en ella antes de salir. Sin embargo, cuando estoy corriendo se me olvida. Me protejo, voy con cautela, atento a todo, y trato de sobrevivir. Cuando voy llegando a mi casa sé que ha sido una jornada triunfal para la vida. ¡Esa es la que hay!

Cyclists have the horrible feeling that there is an institutional carelessness with the lives of cyclists. An article published by The New York Times and disseminated in these parts by the Bicycle Coalition of Puerto Rico [es] underscores this sad truth.


I am not afraid of death, but I admit I think about it before going out. However, I forget about it when I’m riding. I protect myself, I ride with caution, I pay attention to everything, and I try to survive. When I get back home, I know it’s been a triumphant day for life. That’s the way it is!

Even so, people keep riding bikes in the streets of Puerto Rico and more people are joining the urban cycling movement. Some have seen this phenomenon as a [method of] defiance to retake public spaces. About this practice, Professor Moreno Viqueira says: [es]

Otra muestra quizás más evidente del uso de la bicicleta como instrumento de protesta y medio contestatario son las rutas tomadas por los ciclistas urbanos. Las corridas de los [ciclistas] por los centros urbanos de Puerto Rico (donde las ciclovías brillan por su ausencia), la apropiación del espacio urbano por ellos (tanto de las numerosas carreteras o autopistas, como de las escasas aceras) constituye en cierta forma una acción política, un acto de rebeldía. De igual forma que el acto de hablar es el proceso de apropiación del lenguaje, el acto de correr bicicleta se convierte en el proceso de apropiación del espacio.

Another, perhaps more obvious, example of the use of the bicycle as an instrument of protest and way of rebelling are the routes taken by urban bicyclists. The cyclists’ runs through Puerto Rico’s urban centers (where bikeways are glaringly absent), the appropriation of urban space for them (as much the numerous roads or highways, as the few sidewalks) constitutes a certain form of political action, an act of rebellion. Just as the act of speaking is the process of appropriation of language, the act of riding bicycles becomes the process of appropriation of space.

The video below, made in 2011, offers an example of this type of rebellious appropriation. In it, you can see several cyclists riding in the Minillas tunnel in San Juan, a place where it is assumed that only cars travel:

On that occasion, Mariángel González, writing for the digital magazine El punto es…, interviewed [es] the artist D.e.M. (Giancarlo Carcavallo) about his passion for the cycling lifestyle and asked him to comment on the Minillas tunnel ride and other urban actions:

Mi interés por Bicijangueo resalta porque hace poco subieron un vídeo en el internet titulado “Splitting Lanes, Santurce” dirigido por Manuel Vélez, el cual presenta un estilo diferente de correr que no había visto en ninguna de las ciudades que he corrido en bici alrededor del mundo. Quedé impresionada por la temeridad de los chicos y fue entonces cuando le pedí a D.e.M. que me hablara más del mismo.

”Es una agenda un poco irresponsable, pero la adrenalina nos llama. Usualmente estas situaciones se presentan de 10pm a 1am. […] surge con necesidad de ir paralelo al conductor de carro y que hay otros tipos de alternativa de transportación. Uno está claro que pueden ocurrir repercusiones y uno está dispuesto a aceptarlas.” Las repercusiones a las que se refiere figuran entre un choque o que un policía les de una multa. Al final de cuentas, esto se resume en una decisión personal y las compara con un surfer corriendo una ola de 20 pies o un skater que brinca 30 escalones.

My interest in Bicijangueo (bike hangout) has been ignited because not long ago a video was uploaded titled “Splitting Lanes, Santurce” directed by Manuel Vélez, which presents a different style of riding that I’ve never seen in any of the cities where I’ve ridden around the world. I was impressed by these guys’ fearlessness and that was when I asked DEM to speak more about it.

“It’s an agenda that’s a little irresponsible, but the adrenaline calls us. These situations usually come up between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. […] one needs to ride parallel to the driver of the car and there are other types of alternative transportation. One is clear that there may be repercussions and one is willing to accept that.” The repercussions to which he refers could be a collision or that the police fines them. Ultimately, this comes down to a personal decision and compares with a surfer running a 20 foot wave or a skateboarder jumping 30 steps.

But those who want to contribute to the cause of cyclist safety on the streets don’t need to go to this extreme. As Rafi Robles, the founder of Ecomensajeríasays [es] in the digital magazine, N-punto:

En Puerto Rico ser ciclista urbano no es fácil y mientras más bicis estén en la calle cuando pase la fiebre, moda o como le queramos llamar, más gente permanecerá pedaleando, y ayuda a la causa.

In Puerto Rico, it is not easy to be an urban cyclist and if more bicycles are on the streets once the fever, or fashion or whatever you want to call it, has passed, more people will keep riding, and it will help the cause.

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