Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Seize the moment: A "Street Code" for Porto Alegre

Dear Porto Alegre and Brazilian Friends,

With all due respect, I propose that you give some thought to organizing to get strong citizen and multi-party support to exact "appropriate compensation" for Friday's horrible, dumb and indeed tragic event on the streets of your beautiful city. I would imagine that this is a one-time, not to be repeated opportunity to get something very important and far-sighted out of a shaken city administration. Timing is everything in cases like this. You should thus be able to exact what you need today far better than just one week ago. Or a month or more from now once the heat has dissipated. So go for it!

(I put this before you with the proviso that I know zero about the actual state of the law regulating drivers' behaviour in Porto Alegre, nor in Brazil. Of course it would be my great hope that something along these lines has already been read into the law. In which event the excellent banker, driver and criminal Ricardo José Neis will be handled by the courts in good order. Based on what I know, I can only hope that a fair and swift trial will conclude that he should go to prison or ordered to do community service in emergency services in your toughest hospitals for a couple of years for his heinous act. And of course forfeit his driver's license for at least ten years. But that's for the justice to decide, and in this case, today, let's stretch our arms well beyond than just that one man and this one event, and see if we can make some good out of all this unhappiness.

Proposition: I urge that the city should in response to this near tragedy adopt a "Street Code".

Let me see if I can clarify this quickly:

The idea is that in the event of any collision or accident on street, sidewalk or public space, legal responsibility to prove innocence is automatically assigned to the driver of the heavier faster vehicle. This means that a driver who hits a cyclist under any circumstances must under the law prove his innocence, as opposed to today where the cyclist must prove the driver’s guilt (something that is not always very easy to do and can be very expensive. As Mr. Neis will find out when he finally settles with his lawyers).

There is a good introduction in Wikipedia on this in French at, the high points of which I have quickly translated below. You can also find an article on the street code in the pages of World Streets, under the title " "Street code: A World Streets Campaign for 2009" -- (More references at the end of this article.)
Extracts from " Code de la rue"

In Belgium, we call street code (Straatcode in Dutch) Royal Decree of 4 April 2003 amending the Royal Decree of 1 December 1975 laying down general rules on police road traffic. This order has significantly changed the rules of the road (highway), considered unsuitable for urban traffic.

The main elements of the street code are:

* The full weight of responsibility impinges on the stronger vis-à-vis the weaker. Thus, a truck must adapt its speed and keep a safe distance when approaching a car, the car when it approaches a bike and the cyclist before an approaching pedestrian.

* Pedestrians have 100% priority at intersections.

* Bicycles are permitted to travel in both directions on a (designated) one way street.

* Skaters and people on push scooters must give way to pedestrians.

The Belgian example has been followed almost to the letter in France, starting with a study in 2006, and implementation in steps through this date.

Now is the time for Brazil, lead by the mayor and the people of Porto Alegre to adopt a Street Code to protect their citizens in the public space of the city.

Then once that has been accomplished to take the new law to one city at a time across the country.

And if there is anything we can do to help in this you know where to find World Streets:

But there is more.

# # #

About Critical Mass and Civility

Let's take a few steps back on this.

If we are to learn the full lessons from this experience we will do well to dig a bit into the overall situation to get a feel for the dynamics. Indignation over the murderous act is an appropriate reaction, and using this event to make a necessary change in the law important. But is that all there is to this story?

Truth to tell, we have over the years and in many places seen a quite large number of occasions in which Critical Mass rides have been conducted in ways that are more conflictual and on occasion less civil than they might be. On the margin at least, though yes this is very much a minority situation. Many of us who cycle every day and love city cycling run into problems with the "in your face" attitude that can crop up on the part of some of the CM participants. From a psychological point of view this strong sense of resentment is natural enough - indignation in the face of a situation that needs to be changed -- but that is no excuse. If we get these rides and public actions wrong we risk only to disserve our shared and noble cause and lose popular support in the process.

Here is what one long-time cyclist and cycling activist - from the UK  Dave Holladay - had to say in a message on this score this morning:
Whilst this is a regrettable incident I have felt both embarrassed and scared by the confrontational behaviour that some participants on CM rides exhibit. Let's see what emerges after the dust settles. Something obviously escalated the issue with the car reported to have followed the group for some distance and the driver claiming the cyclists were slapping the car - presumably part of an escalating situation of mutually antagonising action.

I contrast the cycling CM in London with the mass line skater nights where the skaters make no attempt to block the traffic for the sake of it but slip smoothly through the congested streets, making a far more effective call to those trapped in their tin boxes "join us, have fun, and get home more quickly" I've seen a US clip where a cyclist makes a deliberate effort to obstruct a driver and ends up with the bike crushed. If you want to take the moral high ground you don't sink to the level of those you seek to shame.

Life in civil society can be complicated with all our contrasting varieties of points of views and preferences. But if democracy is to succeed it has to be civil.

Now with this behind us, let's get on with the business of modifying  the Street Code. Starting in Porto Alegre. Right now!

# # #

Some References:
Earlier W/S articles under this heading
Code de la rue. Arrêté royal. Belgium. 4 avril 2003
Code de la rue – Wikipedia
Article: "Street code" (Code de la rue) in France
Code de la rue on Facebook (Québec)
Code de la rue website (Québec)
Livable Streets discussions of Street Code
What is Street Code?
Article: Code de la rue – Belgium (Use Translate here as needed)
Article:Code de la rue – France
Article: "Street code" (Code de la rue) in France

# # #

Key local contacts (With kind thanks to Adalberto Maluf)

The Mayor’s name is José Fortunati and his telephone is 55. (51) 3289-3600

Twitter of the City Hall – Porto Alegre

Municipal Secretaries of Transporte
Secretário Municipal de Obras e Viação
Cássio Trogildo
(51) 3289-8831/3289-8832

Secretário Adjunto de Obras e Viação
Adriano Borges Gularte
(51) 3289-8850

Planning at Transport Secretariat
Coordenador da Assessoria de Planejamento
Antônio Marcos Jeremias
(51) 3289-8837

Secretary of Sports
Secretaria Municipal de Esportes, Recreação e Lazer – SME
Av. Borges de Medeiros, 2713 – CEP 90110-150
Parque Marinha do Brasil
(51) 3289-4850 / 3233-6116
Fax: (51) 3289-4855
Secretário: Edgar Meurer

Politics and Local Governance
Secretaria Municipal de Coordenação Política e Governança Local – SMGL
Praça Montevidéo, 10 CEP: 90010-170
(51) 3289-3766 / 3669
Fax: (51) 3289-3614
Secretário: Cezar Busatto

Human Rights
Secretaria Municipal dos Direitos Humanos e Segurança Urbana – SMDHSU
Rua João Alfredo, 607 – CEP: 90050-230
(51) 3289-7022 / 7023
Fax: (51) 3289-7022
Secretário: Nereu DÁvila

# # #

About that photo:

Since we are getting together on this to get something positive and hopefully permanent out of this near tragedy and certainly learning experience, and since no one was mutilated or killed in the awful attack, let's celebrate life and the future. Here you have the wedding procession of  William Cruz and his lovely bride celebrating with friends in a Critical Mass demonstration of their own.  The great photo is by Thiago Benicchio, and you can find more at

Let us celebrate life.

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