efe-epaSarah Yañez-Richards Montevideo

Fifteenth-birthday celebrations in Uruguay typically conjure up images of white-dressed girls taking photos with this capital's Gateway of the Citadel in the background.

But the University of the Republic will be celebrating another kind of 15th-anniversary celebration on Saturday at its School of Engineering, which boasts a bicycle parking lot that has facilitated far greater use of that means of transportation.

Food for attendees, including representatives of companies in the electric bicycle and bike equipment industry, will be delivered by vendors riding so-called "foodbikes."

The gathering also will feature workshops showing cyclists how to fix their wheels, chains and pedals and talks by various speakers, among them a group of cyclists who traveled by bike to Uruguay from the United States and a German engineer responsible for planning bike lanes in Berlin.

Saturday's celebration of the parking lot, which opened with space for 170 bicycles but now has room for 330, will be held just two days before World Bicycle Day on June 3, providing yet another reason to celebrate, event organizer Adrian Santos told EFE.

An employee at the Montevideo-based University of the Republic, Uruguay's leading institution of higher education, Santos said an economic crisis that erupted in early 2000 was the impetus for the creation of this space, since more students and workers were opting for bike transportation for financial reasons.

But economic necessity also led to an increase in bicycle thefts.

"For these people in extreme situations, the theft of their bicycle meant they could no longer study. So cyclists and authorities got together to see how we could create a monitored space," Santos said.

The bicycle activist said that users were initially charged a "symbolic" amount of two Uruguayan pesos (five cents), but that even so exceptions had to be made for the lowest-income users.

"I received a lot of testimonials from people who, after six or seven years in that situation, came and told us that because of being able to go to the (engineering school) by bike and leave it there free of charge they were able to finish their studies," Santos said.

The bicycle parking lot, which currently has free security and restrooms with lockers and showers, was a pioneering initiative in a city that now offers many of these facilities.

"For the past two and a half years, Montevideo has had a city ordinance that (requires) all public buildings to have a bicycle parking lot, all car parking lots to accept bicycles and all shopping malls to have space set aside for bikes," the expert said.

Juan Conte, a systems engineering student, said the showers at the bicycle parking lot were a key factor motivating him to ride his bike to the university.

"If they weren't there, I wouldn't be able to shower when I get there and I'd get to class all sweaty; that's not good," Conte, who lives seven and a half kilometers (4.6 miles) from the School of Engineering, told EFE.

syr/mc