Learning from Bogotá. A seemingly unlikely bike friendly city.

. .

As so many of my posts and personal stories, this one starts with a phrase I use rather often. Here it goes:

When I first moved to the United States, many people around me must have thought I was crazy. I was the foreign kid who spoke no English, the one with a mullet so amazing that even professional hockey players envied it. When I finally did start to speak the language, the questions I asked and the things I said seemed unusual to the Americans that now surrounded me. Like the time that I said "Oh...you people actually eat ranch dressing? I thought it was something you had made out of glue and farts in order to play a joke on me." Similarly, I remember asking a fellow student what streets in the city in which we lived would be closed on Sunday, and only open to bicycle traffic. The kid looked at me like I was insane, and not just because of my professional-grade mullet. I wanted to know which half of the major streets and avenues would be closed, so that I could ride a bike that Sunday. No answer came. And it was because of questions like that, that I eventually ended up eating my lunch alone in a bathroom stall.

Still, my question was valid. After all, I had grown up in Bogota, a city of 8 million, where nearly 80 miles of the biggest avenues are closed every single Sunday to car traffic. Some of you who have been reading this blog for a while may remember me mentioning this before. It's called the ciclovia, and it's been happening every single Sunday (and holiday) since the late 1970s in Bogota. It's used by 2 million people every week. It's where I learned how to ride a bike, and where Bogota's citizens go out to ride their bikes, run and socialize. It's also part of the city's plan for keeping its population (its poor population in particular) healthy and active. Additionally, Bogota also has what may be the largest network of fully sheltered bike paths in the world (186 miles/300.9 kms). These paths and bike lanes were largely engineered under mayor Enrique Peñaloza, who was always adamant about the fact that simply painting lines on a street doesn't make for a true bike lane. Additionally, he always felt that if a six year old kid can't ride their bike safely on a bike lane by themselves...it's not a bike lane. Another favorite message by Peñaloza is that "A protected bicycle path is a symbol which shows that a citizen who can only afford a $30 bicycle is worth just as much as one who can afford a $30,000 car". If this is true, and I believe it is, what do American cities say to its poor and disadvantaged citizens by way of their infrastructure, or lack thereof?

One of Bogota's many sheltered bike paths, which include a designated pathway for pedestrians.

If you're interested, I wrote about one of my recent visits back to Bogotá a while ago. You can read that account here. At first glance, Bogotá is a seemingly unlikely city to be as bike-friendly and unusually progressive as it is. It's also an unlikely place for such infrastructure to be put into place, when you consider that (comparatively) wealthy American cities are unable to build such things. But that paradox is itself perfectly Colombian. Here are three videos that shed some light on the ciclovia (first video), a rather wacky idea that has become the model for similar projects all over the world, as well as the city's bike paths (second video).

Have a safe weekend.

Ciclovia: Bogotá, Colombia from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

Lessons from Bogotá from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

Interview with Enrique Peñalosa from Streetfilms on Vimeo.