Every Sunday, the Colombian capital turns over its major streets to cyclists, pedestrians, and sporting events. This 45-year old city-wide program, promotes physical activity, healthy living, and an improved social environment.
As motorists and cyclists struggle to share the streets of our cities, both sides feel like the other takes up too much space. When a lane of traffic is removed to make room for a bicycle lane, motorists fume. If a bicycle lane is blocked by a vehicle, most cyclists will carefully ride around the obstacle, while a vocal minority will insist on forcing the vehicle to move, regardless of the reason.
I once witnessed a cyclist in Canada stand in front of a hearse that was blocking a bicycle lane next to a church just after the deceased had been loaded. The cyclist, refusing to go around, demanded that the hearse reverse unto a side street, while the grieving family looked on. Yes, a bicycle lane should remain unobstructed, and if it were another vehicle in another circumstance, the cyclist would have been right to stand his ground. Would that Canadian cyclist do the same thing in front of an ambulance in an emergency? One would hope not, but this is how territorial motorists and cyclists are about their share of the streets. There have even been instances of motorists leaving their vehicles to confront cyclists who they feel have gotten in their way.
These confrontations seem to be on the rise in many cities, but for one day a week in Bogotá there is peace in the streets. Since 1974, the capital of Colombia has restricted vehicular traffic on some of its major streets to make way for cyclists – every Sunday from 7am to 2pm. In a weekly event known as the Ciclovía, or Bicycle Way in English, between 1.5 to 2 million people out of a population of 7 million participate. There are people on rollerblades and skateboards, next to joggers and walkers with their dogs, all taking advantage of the car-free Sundays, and on major holidays too.
Each week, for several hours, residents from different parts of the city, socioeconomic classes, and ages take control of the streets. It is a grand exercise in egalitarian community-building, as differences between people are minimised, while the self-importance of some motorists is humbled, at least for one day. What began as a couple of closed streets over 40 years ago, now includes up to 120 kilometres of main arteries. Ciclovía’s promotion of physical activity and urban cycling is what made Bogotá a finalist for the 2019 NewCities Wellbeing City Award.
To manage the weekly program, the city positions more than 2,000 volunteers and 600 employees to make sure that people are getting the most out of their mass cycling experience. The staff report incidents and some administer first aid when required. While most of the participants are moving across the city, some are doing yoga, dance, and aerobics in public parks along the way. The whole event is funded by a phone tax and corporate sponsorships.
The success of Ciclovía has been partially replicated in cities such as Los Angeles, where it happens four times a year, but only on one street. More than 400 cities have a version of Ciclovía, many of them are in the Americas, but no city in the world has implemented it as widespread nor as frequently as Bogotá. Some even see it as a tool of urban planning, while others see it as a lesson for other cities to learn from. Still, Ciclovía is an influential part of the global cycling movement that is gaining in popularity.
It all started decades ago because of a group of young urban advocates, led by an architecture student named Jaime Ortiz Mariño. After a university scholarship in the United States, Mariño returned to Bogotá and was disappointed to see his hometown following the same development of urban sprawl that he had learned was terrible for cities. The automobile had taken over the Bogotá, leaving little room for bicycles, in the capital of a country that is known for cycling. This led Mariño and other like-minded Bogotanos, to advocate for more cycling on the streets of the city. As a result of their evangelical zeal to get more people into cycling, and to get public officials to value cycling as a vital mode of urban transportation, Ciclovía was born.
Even after that big victory, the event did not grow as quickly as expected. The early history of Ciclovía was not encouraging. At its inception, only two streets in the central part of the city were set aside for the event. Only 5,000 people participated in the first Ciclovía in 1974, and the next one was not until 1976 when it grew to four streets. Mariño’s group and his cycling converts would have to wait until 1982 for Ciclovía to become a weekly event. Even then, the event still struggled to achieve what its founders really wanted, which was a program with a more equitable and broader scope. Between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, Ciclovía’s growth was stagnant, with most of the circuit located in the upper middle class and higher parts of the city. It was during the late-1990s that the government got more involved, sponsorships increased, and many more kilometres of streets were added to the program. Today, there are over 16 streets involved, with more to come in the future, and about one-quarter of Bogotanos participate.
The circuit takes people next to parks, stores, restaurants, sporting venues, bike repair shops, and tourist sites, connecting every corner of the city. Data collected by the Instituto Distrital de Recreación y Deporte (IDRD), or District Institute of Sports and Recreation, the organisation that runs Ciclovía, shows that 46% of participants are on bicycles, 48% choose to walk, and 6% use rollerblades.
In a study that compared the public health outcomes, safety perception, and social equity between Ciclovía participants and frequent users of Cicloruta, the city’s 500-kilometre protected cycling network, shows how much safer Sundays in Bogotá have become. On a typical weekday, women make up 12.3% of Cicloruta users, but makeup 29.9% of Ciclovía participants. Residents who are married or in a long-term relationship, are less likely to use Cicloruta but are more than ten times more likely to participate in Ciclovía. On Sundays, people feel more willing to help other Ciclovía participants in the event of a fall, mechanical problem, or distress, than they would on Cicloruta the rest of the week. A Cicloruta user with a flat tire on a weekday could expect to get help from fellow cyclist 28% of the time, but if that same incident occurred during Ciclovía, the chances that they would receive help jumped to 73%. In general, Sundays were seen as safer due to a reduction in traffic accidents and crime. This brings more women out, more families, and people are more likely to engage with it each other in positive interactions.
Monday to Friday, the automobile still rules the streets of Bogotá, and as in other cities, the daily commutes of other road users are seasoned with fear. The attitude of road users on Saturdays is not like on weekdays, but still not like on Sundays. According to the mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, 6.5% of residents commute to work using the Cicloruta. More people would commute to work on weekdays by bicycle if Cicloruta was as safe as Ciclovía.
Sunday is the safest day, when accidents, air pollution, noise, divisions, and even selfishness are lessened. If one seven-hour event can change the mood and perception of a city for one day, it is a pleasure to see that other cities are finding ways to create those same positive results as often as they can as well.
Words Phil Roberts