Special to CalBike: Chris N. Morfas, CalBike Executive Director 1997-2003; photos by Chris Morfas
Greetings from Bogotá! It’s wonderful that CalBike is looking to the global South for examples of bicycling leadership. Certain trends in California make Latin America a useful source of peer societies. The Public Policy Institute of California reports that the state’s population is 39% Latino, and its level of income inequality is above that of all but five USA states. That suggests a place as similar to Mexico as it is to the Netherlands.
After 20+ years of daily bicycling in California (mostly in Sacramento, but also across the state and in cities around the world), I’ve lived in Bogotá, Colombia, since 2014. Bogotá has been a bellwether city for bicycling since the early 2000s, as word of its rapid bikeway development and Sunday streets festival began to make its way north.
I’m excited to share my experiences and observations of bicycling in Bogotá. My response to the environment here is undoubtedly rooted in the bicycling preferences and biases I’d developed over the years before arriving here. Through that lens, I’ll attempt to answer the question: Is Bogotá a bicycling leader or a cautionary tale?
Bogotá, Capital of Colombia
Context matters. Chances are, Bogotá, population 8 million, is a noisier, younger, poorer, and more crowded, dangerous, and polluted place than wherever you spend your time. The median age in Colombia is 31 (California 36.5, USA 38). Even by Latin American standards, car ownership is low, estimated at 25% of households. Population density is very high; one UC Davis professor estimated it at over 63,000 people per square mile on average (by comparison: Santa Monica, 10,500; Oakland, 7,500). About half the jobs in the city pay roughly $350USD per month. Thus, whereas fierce USA advocates are fighting to insert equity into transportation conversations, in Colombia, economic equity is at the center of dialogue on all political matters. Ambient air quality is at levels comparable to California’s polluted cities, with spot pollution from aged trucks or buses spewing nasty diesel exhaust almost unbearable at times. Murder is down 85% from the bad old days of the early 1990s, but theft and robbery are still rampant. And, oh, those motorcycles! A recent study suggested that Bogotá is one of the world’s most stressful cities in which to live.
But wait!! I guarantee Bogotá is also more fun and interesting than where you live. The city’s delightful dancing, music, restaurants, street art, parks, La Candelaria old city, coffee shops, museums, art galleries, public festivals, and complex politics, while less relevant to this discussion, make the city a lively, fascinating place to live or visit. Best of all, Colombians are such nice and resilient people. I’m so grateful to live among them.
Let’s Get Rolling
The bicycling scene in Bogotá is a rich palette of sensations and experiences that academics, mobility experts, and lay enthusiasts spend their entire lives dissecting. This short blog post can’t do justice to the history of bicycling in Bogotá and will barely touch upon the underlying social context in which bicycling takes place here. Nor will it discuss the hearty recreational cyclists tackling the hills high above Bogotá—itself at 8,660 feet above sea level. For today, there are two important words to keep in mind: Ciclovía and ciclorruta. They may sound similar to the untrained gringo ear, but they are very different concepts.
The Weekly Miracle
By now, you’ve heard of the Ciclovía. Since the mid-1970s, on Sundays and holidays, Bogotá has fully or partially closed sections of roadways to motor vehicles and opened them for use by people bicycling, walking, skating, playing, etc. Over the decades, the event has expanded to 75 miles, and on sunny days perhaps a million people or more participate. A million people on bikes! I’ve now ridden in 200+ Ciclovías, and it never ceases to amaze me. So much joy! So much freedom! It’s something every fan of urban bicycling should do at least once in their lifetime. Bogotá Ciclovía is undoubtedly among the world’s finest examples of repurposing space from autos to people and is my nomination for the coolest recurring man-made event in the world. It’s that special. The Ciclovía is reason enough to live in Bogotá.
Bogotá’s Ciclovía has been replicated in lesser forms in cities throughout the world, but especially within Latin America. One outstanding example is Guadalajara, Mexico, where the amazing Lucy Barriga relocated and spearheaded that event’s creation after managing (alongside Guillermo Peñalosa) the expansion of the Bogotá Ciclovía during the mid-1990s mayoral administration of Antanas Mockus. California, perhaps most notably Los Angeles, has created similar events. Still, it seems unlikely anything like the scale and frequency of the Bogotá Ciclovía can be sustained in the USA without breaking the stranglehold over streets held by expensive local police departments. The event in Bogotá—one million people, remember—has a near-zero police presence and no formal traffic control beyond orange dividers and cones. Colombians, over time, have learned to manage themselves during the Ciclovía. Could that ever fly in the USA?
“Cities on Speed: Bogotá Change” is a compelling documentary that highlights the creative political leadership of Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa during Bogotá’s turbulent 1990s.
Bicycling Capital of the World?
The ciclorrutas refer to the bike paths used for much of the daily bicycle transportation in Bogotá. They are rightly often associated with ex-Mayor Enrique Peñalosa. When, in 2018, during his second stint as mayor, Peñalosa declared Bogotá the “Bicycling Capital of the World,” he didn’t mean it in an aspirational sense. He meant it as a fait accompli. Other mayors have continued the process of building ciclorrutas, and the city now boasts of having 400 miles of bikeways, the largest network in Latin America.
Does this bit of braggadocio hold up to scrutiny? It’s complicated. How is such a claim to be evaluated?
Make no mistake: Judging by the numbers, bicycling is big in Bogotá. One credible source had pegged the city’s pre-pandemic mode share at eight percent. Some newer stats argue that the mode share may be as high as thirteen percent, as overall mobility levels remain dampened by the pandemic and the bus system (Bogotá has no rail) struggles to regain the public’s confidence. A 13% mode share in a city of 8 million people would place Bogotá among the world’s leading cities in daily bicycling trips. The amount of everyday bicycling in San Francisco would be a rounding error in Bogotá. The official measures of growth of bicycling in Bogotá track with the development over decades of the bikeway network, so one might fairly describe Bogotá as the world’s foremost example of “Build It, and They Will Come.” Mr. Peñalosa is entitled to hang his hat on that. Still, more recent research suggests that many of the recent converts to bicycling do so out of frustration with the bus system and lack of other options rather than a full-throated embrace of bicycling.
The bicycling numbers are undeniably impressive. However, assessing the quality of the Bogotá bikeways and the resultant user experience—and thus Bogotá’s relevance as a model for the wealthier USA in which one goal is to draw people out of cars and onto bikes– is a more contentious matter. In his ability to see the potential for bicycling in the chaotic Bogotá of the 1990s, Enrique Peñalosa was astonishingly visionary and ambitious. He was also term-limited and thus in a big hurry. During his 1998-2000 term in office, his administration constructed approximately 100+ miles of bikeways, an average of three miles of segregated bikeways per month for three years. Amazing!
But were they good bikeways? There’s no readily available evidence that Peñalosa either had in-house expertise in bikeway construction or that he imported any. There were no bikeway design manuals as we know them today. In 1998, Colombia was not only (obviously) pre-NACTO, it was essentially pre-internet. Peñalosa was on his own, expending political capital on behalf of bicycling in a perhaps unprecedented manner. He personally directed the project, often (so I’m told) pointing out where on the maps the ciclorrutas should be constructed. He also made the fateful decision of placing two-way ciclorrutas on what had been ostensibly pedestrian space above and to the side of the street instead of carving out in-street space. Essentially, Bogotá became an enormous, self-contained light/quick/cheap tactical urbanism laboratory for bikeways. Was Colombia in 1998 truly capable of building three miles of high-quality bikeways per month, or did the speed of deployment in tandem with a lack of experience and expertise create bikeways of dubious quality? This remains a daily conversation in the Bogotá Twittersphere and even within the ivory tower: ¿Por qué los ciclistas no usan las ciclorrutas?
This 2021 Cycling and Society video from Thomas Van Laake is an outstanding portrayal of the challenging conditions that Colombian urban bicyclists encounter and the efforts by Bogotá and other cities to provide adequate infrastructure.
So, who rides and what’s it like to bicycle in Bogotá? Bogotá is not an 8-80 paradise. The typical bicyclist is young, male, and poor. He’s not leaving a $40,000 SUV in the garage to ride his bike to work. He has no garage, much less an SUV. Bogotá has a 76% male/24% female bicycling split similar to that of other cities not in Europe (In macho, economically segregated Colombia, women face all sorts of mobility challenges). Bogotá averages 1+ bicycle fatality per week (out of, say, five million weekly trips). Thirty bikes are reported stolen daily; 10 of those involve assault or robbery at knife- or gunpoint. Bicyclists are sometimes murdered for their bicycles. An article in The Guardian spoofed Peñalosa, calling Bogotá the “Cycling Capital of Death.” Many bicyclists are seen carrying small wooden clubs to ward off robbers. It’s notable that, of my ex-pat friends who live in Bogotá. The one who is most comfortable bicycling here relocated from New York City, itself a pretty stressful traffic environment.
In fact, someone accustomed to bicycling in the high-freedom/low-protection traffic environment prevalent in North America could be excused for giving a thumbs-down to the entire bicycling experience in Bogotá. With its paternalistic ethos and inconsistent design, maintenance, and connectivity, the ciclorruta “network” is often incoherent and frustrating to the point of being insulting. My first exposure to it was riding with Peñalosa the day in 2014 when he delivered by bicycle the signatures to qualify his presidential candidacy. While grateful for the opportunity to witness a tiny slice of history, I found the ciclorruta experience very unenjoyable and have not since changed my mind. Away from the ciclorrutas, riding on city streets while dodging gigantic potholes, bot dots, and speed bumps while battling for space with buses and motorcycles is no bargain, either. Bogotá has actually turned me into a non-cyclist Monday thru Saturday; I find the walking and (non-peak) transit combination much more pleasant. Being a pedestrian has doubled my frustration with the ciclorrutas; they are so similar to the sidewalks that many bicyclists use sidewalks on the 90+% of streets on which there are no ciclorrutas.
From Quantity to Quality
Yet, bikeway design continues to evolve here, and there may be hope for me yet. During his second term of office (2016-19), Peñalosa welcomed Janette Sadik-Khan and her Bloomberg/NACTO Global Designing Cities Initiative team to aid him in implementing hundreds of small-scale pedestrian, placemaking, and bicycling projects. Some in-street bikeways were implemented, continuing a very slow shift begun under Mayor Gustavo Petro away from the sidewalk reallocation/theft ciclorruta model of Peñalosa’s first term. Current Mayor Claudia López has accelerated that trend. She declared during her January 2, 2020, inaugural address that she would build her new bikeways IN the streets, and she’s held true to her word. Under Lopéz’s direction, Mobility Secretary Nicolas Estupiñán has bravely taken advantage of pandemic conditions to establish the city’s first long-distance, in-street bikeways. They represent a very significant improvement in the quality of the bikeway network. The best indication of that is the bikelash from the city’s privileged-yet-miserable motorists!
Bogotá: a City Where Bicycling Matters
My surprisingly adverse reaction to bicycling in Bogotá is just one data point, and a privileged gringo’s one at that. Can the hundreds of thousands of Bogotanos riding their bikes every day be wrong, and one old, white dude, right? No, I don’t think so.
Young adult Bogotanos have jobs to reach or schools to attend. For them, mobility is a must, not an optional activity. Bicycling here is tough, but a segment of the Bogotá population is strong and determined enough to do it. The easiest alternative to riding bikes is taking buses, which can carry 6-8 people per square meter at peak hours (Don’t try that at home!). Time-wise, bicycling is competitive and predictable compared to other modes. For workers with few labor protections, the uncertainties associated with bus delays or transfers and the unreliability of sharing rides in a friend’s or family member’s car make those modes precarious. Bicycling is cheap. When you’re making $14/day, spending $1.50 or more on bus fare is a big hit on the budget, and a $5 taxi ride is unthinkable.
Thus, if we center a discussion of bicycling in Bogotá around social equity, arguing about whether or not the city offers a high-quality, “bike-friendly” experience seems trite. Beyond being bike-friendly, Bogotá is bike-important in a way that very few other cities in the world can match. Bicycling matters here. Every day, the ciclorrutas give hundreds of thousands of determined, resilient Bogotá bicyclists a lifeline to work or study—in other words, to opportunity, to hope. On Sundays and holidays, the Ciclovía enables Bogotá’s hard-working populace to exhale and take to the streets with family or friends in the world’s greatest celebration of active living. Other cities would be wise to emulate such vision and determination. Just don’t forget the design manual!
For more on cycling in Bogotá and other parts of Latin America, please join us for an Advance Symposium for the California Bicycle Summit on December 7, 2021: Lessons from Latin America. The session is free; pre-registration is required.
Chris Morfas maintains a standing offer: Come to Bogotá, ride your bike unaccompanied for two hours the next morning, and lunch is on him.