Lessons in "Living" Cities from Santiago

Santiago, Chile prioritizes cycling and walking. Photo by Eduardo Llanquileo.

This blog post is a part of the catalyzing new mobility program and receives support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

Last week in Santiago, Chile, the Plaza Italia was once again crowded with bicyclists for the monthly cicletada. Local bicycling organizations and enthusiastic individuals meet up on the first Tuesday of every month, joining the movement for sustainable urban transportation, cleaner cities and healthier citizens.

The movement in Santiago owes much to Ciudad Viva (“Living City”), a community organization devoted to citizen-led urban planning, as detailed in case studies by Ciudad Viva’s founding member Lake Sagaris. The movement developed originally in 1997, then known as Coordinadora No a la Costanera Norte, in opposition to a local highway project. It united low-income allegados, or renters and homeowners from the Independencia commune; vendors from the Vega, Santiago’s main market area; residents and business people from the Bellavista arts neighborhood; and professionals living in Pedro de Valdivia Norte.

Ciudad Viva‘s central members chose to stay together and are engaged in what the organization calls “active transport:” changing policies, attitudes and infrastructure necessary to encourage more walking, cycling and accessibility to public transport. They formed international partnerships reaching far beyond Latin America, though their success is largely owed to their ability to engage with local pedestrians and cyclists to provide a voice to local government officials.

Their successes include public transit reforms based on those in Bogota, the improvement and “Green Map” listing of Santiago’s cycling routes based on citizen input, the development of a woman’s cycling school, and creating the local publication “La Voz,” distributed for free by volunteers.


Commuting by car is growing faster than clean auto technology or road expansion. Driver-centered transportation policy must be replaced with encouraging the use of public transit and creating direct disincentives to driving in order to replace the car as the easiest transportation choice.

Cars are seen world over as an obvious pairing with higher income, but more people choosing cars means more people sitting through longer commutes. The sedentary and stressful act of sitting in traffic has been correlated with significant mental and physical health risks, including increases in cholesterol, blood pressure, obesity risk, and tripling the risk of heart attack, even when studies have controlled for socio-economic factors, smoking, drinking and family history. Air pollution from automobiles has led to respiratory problems in urban areas and more early deaths worldwide than vehicle collisions. In Latin America, 85 million people in 26 densely populated cities like Santiago are exposed to particulate matter from car exhaust, leading to 10,000 to 13,000 premature deaths per year.

Developing cities around the world find themselves in similar, if not worse, situations. Consider New Delhi, India, where airborne particulate matter is four times the acceptable health-risk level at 250 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3) and concentrations of nitrogen oxide (NOx) are at 50 to 55 μg/m3—well above the tolerable level of 40 μg/m3.

These unhealthy increases are directly correlated with the rise of vehicles in Delhi. In 2009, an estimated 150.6 million kilometers were driven on Delhi’s roadways, compared to 79.2 million kilometers in 2002. Delhi has seen improvements in anti-pollution technology, but the fixation on increasing roadways for drivers has concentrated pollution levels, as cars, trucks, tuk tuks and other automobiles idle in bottlenecks and rush-hour traffic.


To discourage driving, governments must integrate cycling and walking into public transit. Cyclists, public transit users and walkers all have needs that could be readily addressed if they are given a voice. The integration of all of their needs into complementary plans promotes the use of each mode, as seen in studies by Lake Sagaris and Anvita Arora. A survey of 3,600 bus commuters in New Delhi showed 7 percent of people used buses for short distances and 20 percent owned bikes (only 1 percent used.)

57 percent of commuters saw switching to bicycles as a real possibility but only after significant infrastructure improvements. Listening to their needs and making simple improvements, such as protected bike lanes, bicycle parking or public bicycle schemes, could encourage different choices and visibly invite drivers to switch to non-motorized transport. Significant integration of these three systems—walking, cycling and public transit—could make owning a car unnecessary for many commuters.

Cars, as status symbols with the advantages of door-to-door service and cargo space, are often the first choice for those that can afford them, despite costs, traffic and health risks. NGOs can be the acting front in contending with governments that promote driving with their preoccupation with the needs of drivers. However, beneficial change could become a reality, with a strata-crossing citizen’s movement like that seen in Santiago.

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