Citizen Power: with Mariana Salvador & Jimena Perez Marchetta

14 min read.
Mariana Salvador is a lawyer, founder of Santa Fe in Bici, Bicycle Mayor of Santa Fe, Argentina and in charge of the “Ambiente en Bici” initiative of the Provincial Ministry for the Environment and Climate Change. Jimena Perez Marchetta is co-founder of Argentina en Bici & Las Bicibles Salta, Bicycle Mayor of Salta, Argentina and part of the TUMI cohort of Remarkable Women in Transport 2020.
Mariana and Jimena are friends, bike-lovers, environmentalists, and pillars of their respective communities.

How did you first become involved in cycling activism?

J: As a child I used a bicycle, but the real starting point for me was when travelling to Berlin as an adult and seeing a woman riding a bicycle, dressed for work.  That’s where I first thought that the bicycle was a vehicle that could be used for my daily trips. With that experience, I returned to Salta in 2010 and bought my first bicycle to commute. It was a cheap, blue bike that was locally assembled and I remember rejecting having anything pink or anything like that. At first, I felt quite strange and scared, because I had to use a wide avenue and there were a lot of buses and trucks. I rode very early in the morning and it was stressful and tiring. A short time later, I became involved in organising through the critical mass movement.

M: I had lived my whole life in a small town. When I moved to the city, it didn’t even occur to me to ride a bike for long until I was given one as a present. Eventually I started biking, and I first felt a feeling of injustice when I was almost run over by a bus. It was also a time when I was reading a lot of revolutionary theory, and I felt that there was a connection with the feeling of injustice I felt on the street. That day I came home and made a webpage “for more bikes in Santa Fe” which later became Santa Fe en Bici, the organisation that I founded. Through this work, I understood how the power relations I had been reading about were reproduced in public space. I had such low self-esteem in the street and it bothered me. This gave me reason and strength to organise social movements.

Could you briefly paint a picture of your respective cities in terms of their context of urban mobility?

J: Salta is a city of around 800 000 inhabitants, although there has not been a recent census. It is located in a valley so it has a mix of flat plains and some climbs, and the city extends from North to South due to the hills. It has a really pleasant climate because even in winter it does not rain, it’s really incredible. In terms of mobility, in Salta approximately 200 thousand cars are moved per day in non-pandemic times. 5% of the trips are by bicycle and there are around 600 “collectivos”, transport buses. This is a very small amount in the context of more than 50% of trips being made by bus.

M: The city of Santa Fe is the second largest in the province, it has around 500 000 inhabitants. From a geographical and climatological point of view, it is also perfect for cycling. It is a small city, it is not so dispersed, which makes it ideal. From an infrastructural perspective however, it is not a bike-friendly city since the existing bicycle lanes have been built within a car-centric logic. They have a residual character, so they do not meet the standards of quality, width, directionality, comfort, security, and unfortunately the city continues to preserve this car-centric logic. Cycling organisations have done a lot for the development of a cycling culture, and youths between 15-35 years have started to use the bicycle more, but there is still a large population that has a very conservative character and that continues to consider the car as a status symbol. People drive the cars for seven block trips and expect to find parking in front of their destination. This cultural factor continues to be an obstacle to the incorporation of bicycle lanes or other actions that the municipality intends to take in order to make the city more bike-friendly. Much progress has been made, we are on our way to a more bike-friendly city, but continue operating under this car-centric paradigm.

Children’s workshops during the 2nd Argentinian Bike Forum. Photo by Foro Argentino de la Bicicleta.

In an article you co-authored, you discuss how Jane Jacobs’ lack of  formal training was used against her, yet she still wrote one of the most important books in the history of urban planning. What role do bicycle activists, who don’t necessarily have such training, play in the design of public policies? 

M: Definitely, she didn’t have a degree, yet she was one of the best urbanists. I believe that bike activists similarly are necessary to generate the changes we need. We are the users, we are the ones who inhabit the street, who walk it, who cycle it, and we have been trained a lot by it in that sense. Not only through practice, but also from a theoretical point of view. Such knowledge and engagement disrupts our structure of representative democracy where there are people who make the decision for others and then that decision affects those of us who use the bicycle. Activism plays an important role to ensure citizen participation or influencing governments positively by making changes from the inside.

J: Something I always talk about with Mariana and other organisers is that when governments invite us to something, they refer to us as “the bike kids”: there is a total underestimation of our capabilities and of what we can contribute as citizens. It’s almost as if it seems to them that we do this as a hobby, as though we have nothing more important to do, and there is no appreciation for citizen participation.

I also don’t think they give much importance to academia either as they don’t communicate. But when you come from civil society, and you do not have a traditional academic background or your studies do not have an obvious or direct link with what you are participating in, your opinion is not taken into account. I feel that all the time. What happened in my case is that I began to give talks in other cities, and recently things have changed as I became more known within the field. There are a lot of other members of civil society that have valuable perspectives, but are unknown and their views are lost. We tend to only give value to ones who stand out or who had the tools to carve out a space for themselves. In my case, I had the privilege of being able to travel, study, connect with other people, but in general as a society we tend to overlook the importance of children, not to mention women.

Mariana has mentioned a “new citizenship” that bicycle culture has created. A citizenship that has taken ownership of ideas around quality of life, health, social equity, and clean environment. How is bicycling a way to raise awareness and interests for other social issues that intersect with mobility? 

J: Today, we are living in a time where many different types of causes are beginning to emerge. The bike activism I knew used to only be about bicycles. Recently we started talking about other topics. In my case, it started when I began to understand intersectional feminism. It is not only about using the bike, and only using it for a matter of equity, or access to public space. It is also about environmental issues and other causes. I am a vegetarian, I sort my garbage, I try to buy less, reuse more, and I approach biking, collective work and my interactions with other people with this social conscience. It’s exciting to think that we are in a time where different struggles have really begun to cross in a way that they didn’t before.

M: I see the bicycle as a disruptive element that focuses the discussion around mobility as an essential for a functioning city. Currently, our transportation paradigm is polluting, non-inclusive, unhealthy, and the bicycle is a tool that gets into the core of that system of thought and kind of breaks it. It generates new possible paradigm shifts.  You put more bikes in a place and then other things come out: fairness of space, safety, health, or a better environment. Planning for active mobility with these questions in mind is central when configuring the future city we want to live in. 

J: I would add to this by mentioning that since I started riding the bike, I’ve realised that modernity teaches us that everything is immediate, everything is fast and everything is easy. You get into a car today and you no longer need to roll down the window manually but you press a button, you have another button that heats up the seat, another button to start the car, you don’t even have to make the key movement. The bike comes to break that pattern, it slows us down and creates physical effort and movement. It also makes you more efficient and conscientious. You can’t buy too many things on a bike, so you are more efficient with what you buy, and consume, you choose better, I think that whether you want to or not, you start to modify certain habits and you begin to realise the energy you consume and you begin to understand energy as fuel from another place. It’s a powerful feeling.

Street Art for the 2nd Argentinian Bike Forum. Photo by Foro Argentino de la Bicicleta.

There exists an element of romanticisation of European urban models when it comes to cycling. For different regions, however, there are some local, non-Eurocentric examples that may be more suitable. How do you feel about this dynamic in regards to bicycle activism?

M: I understood this from the beginning. I must admit, when I went to Copenhagen, I fell in love. But I also saw that when something was communicated from that place, people saw it as impossible, as utopian. “We are not Europe”, they never tire of repeating that. Then later I understood that Europe, and cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, had a lot to teach us but that we had to do the work of translating that teaching to our society, to our culture, and to our problems, which are not the same. 

From there I began to use the clarification of how important it was to take into account our own problems. The auto-industry has also had a very strong influence in Latin America and the car culture is ingrained in society and the typology of our cities. In Latin America, a good example is what Medellín has achieved. It is incredible what the city has done in that valley with public transport, with the subway, with the cable subway, and now with Mobility Secretary Carlos Cadena-Gaitán who is incorporating the use of the bicycle. 

J: In Europe there is a lot of desire to come to Latin America to say “well, that’s the way things are and that’s how they are going to be done”. I know that there are a lot of lessons that can be learned, but I also know that Latin American cities, before the arrival of the automobile, had their own logic of mobility.  In the 1970s, people would tell you about not being able to use the streets because there were so many bikes there. So far from wanting a European city, I want a Salteña and a Latin American city, as they were before. In this regard, no one discovered anything, human-powered mobility as a concept has always existed and does not belong to anyone. Latin America suffers from enormous inequality, and as Mariana said, cities are deeply rooted in the automotive industry and this has been a factor for such disparities. What also has to be said is that not all of Europe is homogeneous. There are plenty of very car-centric cities there and that needs to be recognised too. 

How do you think the bicycle can be positioned against the culture of the automobile? How is activism changing the minds of the people and governments in your communities?

M: I believe that the bicycle activist, either individually or collectively, has a class consciousness and sees that logic of power reproduction and inequalities that exists in the city. Bike activism can help you believe that other worlds are possible. Through different activities, we can create a virtuous circle that takes us out of that car circuit.

Today, currently, there is something that worries me a lot, which is how sustainable mobility is conceptualised in the context of climate change by governments. They have a techno-utopian vision and see a 2030 horizon where we have the obligation to reduce emissions by shifting to electric and hybrid cars. This vision falls short, because it does not solve other mobility issues and because it does not solve the issues of social sustainability, such as safety, unequal distribution of public space and others we have discussed. Activism that places the focus on active mobility is essential. There is a lot to do in terms of connecting and articulating with governments, educational institutions and leading more concrete actions. Change can be generated by awareness through group rides and cultural events for example. 

J: Sometimes we feel like it’s David versus Goliath. We are citizens who do not have a budget or much time, but that also inspires me from a personal point of view. Sometimes I’m told  “you would be happy in Amsterdam” and I say “I don’t know if I would be happy, what would I do in Amsterdam?” It really feels like I am where I need to be and with the people I need to be with. I think it is exceptional to be able to balance this scale more on one side than the other was. An example of this citizen power is through Argentina en Bici, with what we did with the Argentina Bike Forum. When we had the idea about the forum, we were only three people. There was Mariana and Juan, a colleague from Santa Fe. We were at a World Bike Forum pedalling in Mexico City, and it crossed our minds to do our own event because we thought that that’s the way we could convince more people to bike. There was no similar event in Argentina, and I truly believe we planted some seeds there. We were able to engage people in a dialogue they would have probably never encountered, and got people to see a lot of cyclists invading the streets in a city that had never had a similar mass of cyclists before. We are generating more understanding around this lifestyle. The more we are, the more hopeful I am.

There is a lot of energy around cycling created by the pandemic. There are more people who move by bicycle for health, distancing, etc. That is the situation right now. In the future there are risks that private vehicles will be used more, that public transport will suffer, so I wanted to ask what you think should be done to ensure that this increase is maintained over time.

M: In my city when the pandemic began, we formed the urban cycling roundtable from the Bicycle Mayor’s office, and we made a very solid request to the mayor to implement measures such as temporary bicycle lanes. That request was not heard. In fact, the only bike path that was made was done without citizen participation and generated a debate that still ensues. There was also a great increase in the private motor vehicle. I also believe that as Bicycle Mayor, I underwent a maturing process because my activism had always been confrontational. Being Bicycle Mayor gave me a more articulate role. Since things were not working out one way, I decided to propose other projects. So we are working with the municipality to create a movement of open streets for people. The way in which this city can save itself post-pandemic is by opening the city, opening the streets. Using the streets in such a way challenges the mentality that the street is always for purposes of car traffic. It shows that the street can be a place to dwell, encounter, and play.

J: I feel that it has been a very hard time for activism in general. There was a lot to do but there were also many other things going on. Most activists do not ask to be paid for their time and the time we could invest in activism was disrupted. In this context, it is important to have a compassionate approach and understand that we are people and to respect that. On the other hand, we are also at a key moment where many things we have been fighting for are becoming a reality. Local governments are saying that they will invest in the bicycle and talk about it more. That’s great, it is something that I would never have imagined to come so fast. It’s also not the time to relax, because words can be diluted. There was a moment in the US where in the 70s they called it the bicycle boom because a lot of people went out to use their bikes and then that disappeared. We need to accompany this current modal shift with public policies to promote it and help people understand why we use the bike. For this to be a global movement and to last over time, achieving meaningful change cannot be a one-place or one-continent thing, it must be a cultural shift.


Mariana (left) & Jimena (center) during the 3nd Argentinian Bike Forum. Photo by Foro Argentino de la Bicicleta.