Cycling around Lisbon

In traffic

I was working in Portugal last week. Initially I was reluctant to go so far for what was essentially a one-day workshop. But when João Bernardino, who’d invited me, offered use of a bike whilst I was there, and said Lisbon’s community of cycling activists would like to meet me, it became more attractive. It was a fantastic experience, the hospitality of everyone I met truly exceptional.

Ana Pereira greeted me at the airport. Ana is one of the founders of Cenas a Pedal – not ‘just’ a bike store or workshop, but a more total project striving to sell everyday cycling in a place where such cycling is still rare. It’s the sort of pioneering place every city needs, and which will multiply and prosper as cycling’s popularity grows.

Ana, on the way to the ferry

Ana rode a pedelec –the sort of bike perhaps most likely to democratise cycling in a hilly, low-cycling city such as Lisbon. She guided me out of the airport and along some big and busy roads to the city’s 1998 Expo site, and from there into a fierce wind along the Tagus River to the ferry at Cais do Sodré where we met João.


A true gentleman, João rode his wife Filipa’s bike and gave me his own. From Cacilhas on the Tagus’s other side we rode south towards the remote monastery where the workshop was to take place. The roads were full of cars; the dedicated cycling infrastructure was sometimes good, but too discontinuous to be really useful.

Joao en route to the monastery


The Arrábida Monastery sits high above the Atlantic Ocean on the wooded slopes of the Arrábida Natural Park to the south of Lisbon. It’s a stunning place which feels a world away from the capital.

Arrabida Monastery

With a free day before the workshop’s opening dinner, I rode east along the coast to the port city of Setúbal. I set out in thick fog but the road was quiet, it was a lovely ride, and the air cleared as I dropped towards the sea. It was the first time since October I’ve ridden without gloves, and the warmth made me impatient for spring – alas my first ride back home saw me battling through a blizzard!

Above the beach

Setubal cafe

The workshop was part of a European project investigating the long-term future of transport. We were discussing and developing scenarios based on the ‘mega-trends’ considered likely to shape people’s mobile lives over the next half century. One ‘expert’ amongst others from different fields and around the world, I felt like ‘the cycling guy’. It’s important cycling’s represented in such spaces if it’s to have hope of moving from the margins, so it was good to be there and I was happy to play that role.

But the highlight of my trip was Friday night; the workshop over, I shed my suit and had some fun! From my hotel Hercules, Ana Santos, João and I rode to Cenas a Pedal where we met more people and rode together – “a mini-Critical Mass!”, as Ana from Cenas a Pedal described it – to the book store, Ler Devagar, where I was to speak. This is a vast anarcho-dream of a place – evidence of its former life as a printworks is everywhere, bicycles dangle from above, books are of course piled high, and then there’s beer, wine, coffee, music, and lots of signs of the space’s centrality to alternative social and political networks; to me it felt like heaven!

Hercules, Ana and me in Lisbon

Talking in Lisbon

Ana Pereira began the evening’s conversation by explaining the work of MUBi, the Portuguese association for urban cycling. MUBi advocates urban cycling as an ordinary means of moving around. Car ownership and use have exploded across Portugal over the last generation, and whilst it’s on the up, levels of utility cycling remain very low. Mário Alves of MUBi told me that the proportion of commuter trips made by cycle in the city is currently 0.6%. There’s some dedicated cycling infrastructure and some of it’s pretty good, but it’s woefully disjointed and there’s too little actual cycling for that dedicated space to be consistently recognised and respected by pedestrians. On the roads cars dominate, and whilst I was impressed by the patience of drivers, it felt a harsh and unforgiving cycling environment. Like so many other places, to ride here you’d have to be either committed or desperate.

Lisbon intersection

Lisbon cycle path

Committed cycling

This is the context in which MUBi is working, and – with minimal resources – doing an extremely impressive job. But besides MUBi’s various projects aimed at promoting cycling, MUBi campaigners themselves – some of whom I met on Friday night – are crucial to the struggle for cycling. Passionate about the bicycle and clearly recognising the difference more cycling would make, they are cycling’s keepers, continuing to shine a light through the darkest days of automobility, actors of the greatest importance to future life.

This bears on one topic of my talk at Ler Devagar. We need strong sub-cultures of cycling to sustain our favourite practice through the darkest times (though from a sub-cultural perspective these can also of course be the best of times too). And as cycling’s staunchest advocates we’re the ones who are best placed to speak and work for more cycling. From what I saw MUBi is clearly doing a magnificent job on both these counts.

But there may come a time – and probably Lisbon is a long way from it, and in the UK we are closer – when activists would do well to examine their strategies for popularising cycling, and ask whether those strategies result from the identities they’ve developed in order to sustain cycling through bleak times, and whether they might at some point come to stand in the way of –rather than facilitate – making cycling a more normal practice in which identity is a less central factor. As I say, I think cycling’s current marginality in Lisbon society makes such questions remote. And MUBi is well equipped to deal with them when the time comes. I know some people disagreed with what I said at Ler Devagar, but their willingness to hear, and to respond so constructively and respectfully sent shivers up my spine. Wherever I go, I’m struck by how cycling’s in such safe hands.

I’m a lucky man to be made welcome in strange places. In particular I have to thank João Bernardino for inviting me to Portugal in the first place, and also Ana Pereira, Ana Santos and Mário Alves for their extraordinary hospitality whilst I was there. Ana Santos and Mário are organising this year’s International Cycling History Conference. It was an honour to share their company for the evening, and to get a taste of Portugese social life. Such community is our strength, and power.

At the airport

Hey! I returned home to the clearest news yet of the urgently needed paradigm shift away from the car and towards the bicycle as an urban mode of transport. As an unrepentantly critical sociologist I’ll always find problems, but the promised changes to London over the coming decade are good news indeed (and reassurance to many of us that perhaps we’ve not been so idealistically deluded after all!). As my new friends in Lisbon might say, “Viva a velorution!”

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11 Responses to “Cycling around Lisbon”

  1. Ana Pereira Says:

    Hey, thanks for sharing! Maybe someday we drop by with our bikes to visit you. 🙂 I’m extremely curious to see what’s it like to cycle in the UK!… Watching videos and reading stuff online paints a not so appealing picture, but maybe reality is more balanced. 🙂 It was a pleasure to meet you and to think about the ideas you presented. Thanks again for coming!

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Ana. You are always welcome here in Lancaster (and if you don’t manage to bring your own bikes, I’ll find ones here for you to use). It would be lovely to show you and anyone else who is interested around. Lancaster is a bit more cycle-friendly than Lisbon, possibly, but not much! But the countryside in this part of the UK is superb. I saw you’ll be at Velo-city in Vienna in June, so see you there! Cheers, Dave

  2. Bernardo Campos Pereira Says:

    Great description of the current scene around Lisbon. Unfortunately I didn’t arrive in Lisbon on time for your talk but I’m hoping you return here soon with the bicycle revolution expected/hoping for an all out take over of the city from this Spring on.

  3. disgruntled Says:

    Assuming we are emerging into the light in the UK, what do you think are the new strategies for encouraging cycling that we should be looking to adopt as activists? (apart from campaigning for the sort of infrastructure that encourages mass cycling in the first place of course)

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Blimey! I was just about to switch off my computer for the weekend! I think I probably need the weekend to think about that (and to hope that a few people say some intelligent things in the meantime ;-)) I have a few thoughts off the top of my head, but I’m meant to be cooking dinner, so hopefully they’ll turn into something more ‘profound’ and ‘substantial’ by Monday. Great question, really great question … Blimey.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      So it’s been a typically busy past few days and I’ve not got my thoughts in response to this question beyond where they were on Friday, but for what they’re worth (and in the belief that writing often leads to, rather than simply follows, thinking) here goes …

      My immediate response is that we need to get better at universalising the new ambitions for cycling – the kind of ambitions you’re working to normalise via the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, and which I’m trying to normalise – in my own way – here. Lots of other people and organisations are of course also involved in this effort to normalise ‘thinking big for cycling’, and we’ve just seen the first effects in London. But politicians, policy-makers, practitioners and everybody else will only start thinking bigger about cycling if there are big ideas about cycling out there for them to draw on. Cycling needs to be big everywhere, not just in London, so we’ve got to keep banging on about how important it is, how big it should be, and how much resource re-allocation it requires.

      I think we (cycling advocates in general) have got too deferential in the UK; we’ve learnt to be thankful for tit-bits. We should stop doing this, seize the initiative, and become much more comfortable with being much more intemperate.

      I’m not saying we should become more zealous, or more antagonistic, not at all; only to have more courage in our convictions (that bicycles are a big part of the answer) and to be very serious about demanding and expecting the resources (especially money) which it requires to make it an ordinary practice.

      I’m very deliberately responding to the question at the level of discourse here, because I think the discursive ‘battle’ still needs ‘fighting’ and ‘winning’. Everything will (or won’t) follow from that, and other people (especially local people) are much better placed than I am to know what specific strategies will best mainstream cycling in specific places.

      One of the problems, I think, is that ‘the cycling promotion industry’ (for want of a better term) has become part of a ‘transport system’ which remains predicated around the car (and more high-profile, high-status projects). So we don’t have a ‘big discursive voice’ conjuring up grand visions and making grand claims on cycling’s behalf. That’s why the Cycling Embassy is so important, and why individual bloggers have become so important – these ‘new voices’ are filling a gaping void. But we’ve only just started, we’re still talking mainly to ourselves, and the conversation is in its early stages. Some of the ‘traditional cycling organisations’ are currently doing a brilliant job of re-orienting themselves, recognising/understanding/responding to the new stakes, and in the process they’re becoming a key part of the way forward, rather than (always the risk) a brake on progress. Within cycling advocacy we must build bridges, not walls. But whenever and wherever possible we must talk outside of cycling advocacy, and not in a slightly apologetic, slightly embarrassed way. There is nothing embarrassing about cycling; there is no need to apologise for being fierce advocates of one of the most obvious practices with the capacity to ease our planetary transition to sustainability and sanity.

      Following on from this, one specific strategy might be workshops by and for cycling advocates in which we can raise our collective consciousness and re-educate ourselves, to shift visions, ambitions, discourses away from the ‘old paradigm’ (“anything and everything which seems to look kindly on cycling, however little, is to be welcome”) and towards the ‘new’ one (“cycling is going to be big, cycling is a key route to re-structuring our everyday lives and spaces, and cycling advocates can have a new role – no longer simply pioneering the (marginal) practice of cycling, but now pioneering the new (currently ridiculous, insane) demand that cycling is for everyone and must/will become the main mode of vehicular urban mobility”).

      All movements for social and political change are animated by a revised view of what’s real and what’s desirable; all actors in social and political change must at some level adopt a consciousness which is at odds with convention; and all movements ‘demand the impossible’. We’re already seeing some aspects of ‘the impossible’ getting converted into ‘probable’; but we’ve got to continue building convictions – both our own and those of others – that cycling’s not simply an insertion into the world-as-it-is but actually a fatal disruption to that world, one that’s necessary in order to build a new one.

      That’s my first, immediate response. Probably not very satisfying? But one which is ‘true’ to where I’m coming from, I think.

      Thanks for asking the question. Obviously, I’d be interested to know your answer/s (mainly) and what if any thoughts you have on mine (secondarily).

      • disgruntled Says:

        Wow – much to take in there. I think this is useful, and very timely as we’ve been discussing much the same sort of issues within the Embassy… not sure I can muster a coherent response just at the moment but there’s a lot of food for thought there

  4. chrisrust Says:

    Thanks for this Dave, I found it because we are planning taking our tandem to Portugal next year, rural areas seem great for cycling but as there’s a campsite in the middle of Lisbon I’m very tempted to see what it’s like. Can’t be much worse than Sheffield where somebody will try to kill you most days :o) At least there seems to be a proper 5 mile cycleway from near the campismo into the city centre (Ciclovia Lisboa Cidade)

    Also thanks for your comments about the activist identity and how it may get in the way of promoting cycling as mainstream transport. Boris Johnson has been saying something like recently that but in a horribly cack-handed and unobservant way (he seems to imagine that Dutch urban cyclists pootle along like Miss Marple when actually they take no prisoners). I’m trying to switch away from what cyclists want to why we need to tackle the traffic monster for everybody’s sake.

  5. Guest Post Part 5 – Cycling in Lisbon | Cycling in Christchurch Says:

    […] everyday cycling in the near future. One figure noticed in researching this article was that only 0.6% of the population used a cycle regularly. There are a variety of mountain bike routes around the city and many of the bikers noticed were […]

  6. David Sucher Says:

    Thanks for the comments on Lisbon, which seems to have some similarities — hills, population size, prosperity — to Seattle, where I am.

    I am trying to find _hilly & rainy_ cities which might offer models for Seattle bike planning…places which are in advance of us….and I can’t seem to find any so far. Alas.

  7. Jonny denton Says:

    Hi David (Sucher) you should consider Bristol, UK has invested heavily in pro cycling in the last few years and benefited from the uk cycling boom. although obviously still plenty to do. However from your perspective a very hilly city. Happy to discuss with you further

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