Lisbon Cycling Case Study: How a Hilly City is Catering to Bicycles

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    Lisbon, Europe’s answer to San Francisco, is a city with a rich culture and history. Offering picturesque views with its narrow streets and alleys, as well as a warm climate all year round, the Portuguese Capital has become increasingly popular with tourists from all around the world. It certainly boasts a unique charm.

    Its cobbled streets and steep slopes are infamously traversed by tram, with the popular 28 whizzing through even the tightest of streets. But in spite of the challenges posed by the city’s terrain, the people of Lisbon have embraced cycling as a mode of transportation. Increasingly, it’s becoming common practice, and is no longer merely a recreational activity.

    This article looks at the cycling culture in Lisbon, exploring how it has changed to accommodate the global two wheel trend. We’ll look at the infrastructure that’s been made implemented for cyclists over recent years, as well as considering the challenges that cyclists in the Capital may continue to face.

    A tram on a narrow street in the Alfama district of Lisbon. Image credit: Canva Pro

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    Lisbon: A Hilly City Encouraging Cycling

    Despite its challenging topography, Lisbon has been working hard to promote cycling as a mode of transportation both for its residents and its visitors. Whilst the hills do pose significant challenges to cyclists, this hasn’t deterred people from cycling there.

    The city’s municipal authorities have invested in cycling infrastructure to make biking easier for everyone. Extensive cycle paths have been built that run from the centre to the outskirts, and public bike-share schemes such as Gira have been introduced with reasonable success.

    Today, Lisbon is considered to be one of the more bike-friendly cities in Europe, but, it still has a long way to go. With cycling part of Lisbon’s new strategic mobility vision for 2030, Move Lisboa, we can expect to see further investment.  Let’s take a look at some of the statistics around bicycle usage there.

    Cycling path Lisbon
    A cycling path in Lisbon. Image credit: Canva Pro

    Bicycle Usage in Lisbon (Statistics)

    Regarding bicycle usage in Lisbon, U-Shift have been enormously helpful in their research.

    In collaboration with local governance in the city, they’re recording bicycle usage in order to inform future policy making impacting bicycles. This means not only have we already seen some promising change, but we’re also likely to see more in the near future.

    Here are some interesting stats about bicycle usage in Lisbon:

    • From 2001-2011, there was a 30% increase in the number of cyclists in the city. (U-Shift)
    • In 2019, the city recorded an average of 55,000 bike rides per day. (U-Shift)
    • By 2030, Lisbon is predicted to reach around 200,000 bike rides per day. (U-Shift)
    • Post-confinement, there was a higher cycling frequency than pre-lockdown. (TRIP)
    • In 2017, still only 0.6% of the trips in Lisbon were made by bicycle. This pales in comparison to some European cities which boast 40%. (ECF)
    • The city reported a 25% growth in the number of cyclists between 2019 and 2020. (LPP)
    • 17.5% of private bikes in Lisbon are now electric, as opposed to 5% in 2018. (LPP)
    • ‘Gira’ bikes have already covered over 12 million kilometres across 6 million trips. (LPP)

    Whilst Lisbon has seen a moderate growth in the number of cyclists, it’s clear from these statistics that the culture of cycling doesn’t yet match many other European Cities. Some progress, but still much room for improvement.

    Cyclist in front of Vasco Da Gama Bridge in Lisbon
    A cyclist zooms past the Vasco Da Gama Bridge in Lisbon. Image credit: Canva Pro

    Cycling Infrastructure in Lisbon

    Considering that Lisbon didn’t introduce its first 3 kilometres of cycle ways until 2001, there’s been some clear improvements in the infrastructure for cyclists since then.

    • The largely flat waterfront boasts 20 kms of bike lanes, used predominantly for recreation. (Lisbon Bike Map
    • Of the 6 major bike routes in greater Lisbon, at least 4 serve tourists as well as residents. (Ride Lisbon)
    • Contrary to popular belief, over 70% of Lisbon’s streets are flat or have very mild gradients. (ECF)
    • From Cascais, there is a particularly beautiful 7 km cycle route that will take you to the stunning beach of Praia do Guincho.
    • There are around 1600 ‘Gira’ bicycles available to rent across the city network. (LPP)
    A woman on an electric scooter riding in a bike lane next to the Tagus River in Lisbon
    A woman on an electric scooter riding in a bike lane next to the Tagus River in Lisbon. Image credit: Canva Pro

    Bike Lanes in Lisbon

    Greater Lisbon boasts an extensive network of bike lanes covering approximately 84 km with plans to extend these to 200 km by 2030. These lanes weave through the city center and stretch along the scenic riverfront.

    They’re generally designed with cyclist safety in mind, and are usually either completely separate from the roads (such as on the waterfront), or have a significant degree of physical separation from the road (such as between Martim Moniz and Arroios/Alameda).

    They’re also pretty well marked, and are visible to motorists and pedestrians. Whilst these demarcations don’t necessarily command the same respect as they may do in Germany or the Netherlands, they are nonetheless there.

    IMage credit: lawrence goozee

    Lisbon Spend on Cycling

    As part of a wider recognition of the importance of sustainable transport, Lisbon has allocated a significant portion of its budget to improving cycling infrastructure. It’s also due to recieve $400,000 dollars from the Bloomberg Initiative for Cycling Infrastructure.

    Whilst it’s difficult to determine exactly how much money has been spent on improving cycling across the city, at least $400,000 of it will be use to connect 20 schools and 20,000 students through safe and secure bike paths.

    The city has pledged a commitment to promoting active and eco-friendly transport options and alternatives to cars, and spending on improving cycling is undoubtedly part of this. Hopefully, we’ll also see an increase in the number of bikes in Lisbon in the near future.

    VIDEO: Cycling through lisbon.

    Cycling Rules in Lisbon

    There don’t appear to be any cycling rules particular to Lisbon, other than the usual obligations to respect traffic signs and signals and other road users, particularly pedestrians.

    Cycling on the designated bike paths using adequate protection is encouraged, however, cycling on the roads or without a helmet is not prohibited. In general, all roads can be used by bicycles, however the 30+ bici zones on neighborhood streets (marked with a green stripe), are notably safe as the traffic is slower.

    There are also a significant number of ‘coexistence zones’, where bicycles and cars alike are obliged to give way to pedestrians.

    ALSO READ: Car-Free Cities Around the World: 12 Great Urban Examples

    Is Lisbon Investing in Urban Mobility?

    Lisbon is making significant investments in urban mobility, with cycling as a central focus. Not only are they developing cycling infrastructure, the city is also investing in another sustainable forms of transport, such as e-scooters, trams and the metro system.

    By the end of 2023, its projected that €252 million will be invested into the transportation network, aiming to shift 150,000 motorists out of cars by 2030.

    Some of the investments in urban mobility, such as in micro mobility, have had shortcomings. The roughly 12,000 e-scooters operated by 9 different companies in Lisbon are regularly seen littered or left obstructing bike lanes and impacting cyclist safety.

    Whilst the infrastructure has been put in place, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it will also be respected.

    Woman renting an e-scooter in Lisbon
    A woman renting an e-scooter outdoors in Lisbon. Image credit: Canva Pro

    Is Cycling in Lisbon Safe?

    Cycling in Lisbon on a whole is safe when done cautiously. Lanes for cyclists are clearly distinguishable and are usually separate from motor vehicles and pedestrians. However, it’s still likely to encounter obstacles such as cobblestones, potholes and tram lines.

    In addition to these potential hazards, attitudes in Lisbon are not the same as they are in other European cities. Whilst efforts are made, such as the obligation to maintain a 1.5m distance between a car and bicycle, cyclists are not currently treated with the same respect as road users that they command in cities like Utrecht, Berlin or London.

    There are some initiatives being taken to counter this. Lisbon is committed to promoting the global network of ‘Zone 30′. This measure aims to calm traffic, encourage space sharing and reduce the speed of vehicles. All of this is excellent news for the safety of who knows how many cyclists in Lisbon.

    A typical Lisbon street by day.
    A typical Lisbon street by day. Image credit: Canva Pro.

    Cycling Accidents in Lisbon

    With Lisbon’s commitment to cycling safety yielding largely positive results, it’s disappointing to see that there is a high number of incidents involving cyclists on the roads compared to other European countries.

    In 2019, 26 bicycle users died on the roads. In 2021, yet another cyclist, a 37 year old woman several months pregnant, was struck down in a particularly horrific manner after a car collided with her bicycle from behind. The motorist, it was claimed, ‘failed to see the cyclist’.

    According to Américo Silva, the issue of cyclists’ vulnerability on roads is still not something taken seriously enough in Lisbon. Judging by the widespread demonstrations, she’s not the only one who thinks so. It’s clear Lisbon still has a long way to go.

    video: Cycling in lisbon still has its challenges.

    Bicycle Theft in Lisbon

    As with any city, Lisbon faces the challenge of bicycle theft. To mitigate this, cyclists are encouraged to use sturdy locks and park their bikes in designated areas.

    It’s always suggested that you take precaution with your bike. Keep it in sight whenever you can, and lock it inside whenever possible. Whilst there’s little to suggest that Lisbon is worse than other cities, it’s always wise to know how prevent bike theft.

    Is Lisbon Bicycle-Friendly?

    Lisbon’s efforts to promote cycling and improve the city for bicycle users have largely been a success. They have made remarkable improvements to infrastructure, promoted comprehensive educational programs, and engaged residents and tourists alike.

    In 2020, the capital won the European Green Capital Award for its efforts to create a more sustainable city. Its efforts to make it more bicycle-friendly were indeed partly to thank for the award. “Less cars, more bikes“, has been the motto for the city of seven hills for some time.

    The Gira bike scheme is also very approachable. As a bike rental system with over 140 docking stations across Lisbon, it’s an affordable and convenient form of micro transport for tourists and residents alike.

    There are also people aiming to make Lisbon more bicycle-friendly. Ana Pereira, Lisbon’s Bicycle Mayor, is hoping to reduce the cultural, financial and logistical barriers to entry for could-be cyclists.

    Vasco da Gama bridge in Lisbon
    A cycling path runs underneath the Vasco Da Gama Bridge in London. Image Credit: Canva Pro

    A Lisbon Cycling Revolution?

    Lisbon’s transformation into a bike-friendly city is an inspiring and surprising example of positive change and reform. The city’s commitment to sustainability has helped them to create an environment where cycling is thriving.

    Whilst there are obvious limitations in accessibility due to the terrain in some districts (notably Alfama and Graça), the city is setting an example that with a little investment and a lot of patience, cycling can become prominent in even the most unexpected of places.

    Of course there are issues. Concerns with Cyclists’ safety are still high, and over tourism is having an unexpected impact on the availability of rental bikes, as well as the improper use of them.

    Lisbon clearly has a lot to earn from other European Capitals, but it’s definitely making efforts to create a green, urban environment which favours two wheels over four.

    ALSO READ: Banning Cars: Should Cars Be Banned from City Centers?

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