Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Ciclovia Pioneer's Story

Gonzalo displaying a book of Ciclovia photos from yesteryear.
In 1982, during a visit to Rio de Janeiro, Gonzalo Medina was struck by that city's policy of shutting a shoreline avenue on Sundays to car traffic for the use of pedestrians and bicyclists.

La Ciclovia today, on Ave. Septima.
When Medina, an official with Bogotá's transit department, returned home, he convinced city officials to try the same experiment on the Circunvular, the avenue running along the city's Eastern Hills. After complaints that the closed road blocked access to a hospital, La Ciclovia was shifted to Ave. Septima.

Then, as now, taking space from motorized traffic for bicycles required convincing.

"Riding a bike was not only in bad taste," recalled Medina, but cyclists were seen "as people who couldn't afford a Renault."

Over the following years, La Ciclovia won supporters and confronted opponents, Medina says, including some who wanted to restrict or even eliminate the institution in order to open roads for cars. La Ciclovia overcame its most recent threat several years ago, when a senator introduced a law to shut down La Ciclovia two hours earlier. The proposal died after many Ciclovia users, as well as city officials including the sitting and previous mayors, expressed their opposition. Over the years, the city has also chopped some segments off of La Ciclovia, usually to make way for infrastructure projects.
The Ciclovía concept didn't begin with Medina's trip to Rio. In the early- and mid-1970s, a student organization named 'El Mitin de la Bicicleta' created a Ciclovia on Avenidas Septima and 13. A 1976 decree formalized the idea was formalized, but it's not clear to me how long it lasted.

Yesteryear's Ciclovia.
Since its humble beginning La Ciclovia has extended to hundreds of kilometers and added cycling courses and mass aerobics practices called La Recrovia.

The idea has also expanded across Latin America and into the United States, altho Colombia's version is still the largest and most frequent. There's even an International Network of Ciclovias organization to promote the concept. La Ciclovia, along with the TransMilenio express bus network and the city's bike lane network, once gave Bogotá a reputation for progressiveness and urban ingenuity, altho that image has since faded.

Medina says the biggest improvement to La Ciclovia over the years was Mayor Enrique Peñalosa's addition of the annual Ciclovia Nocturna, or night-time Ciclovia.

But the Ciclovia Nocturna happens only once a year, and part of its route is so packed with pedestrians that you can't ride a bike.

'One less car.' But La Ciclovia has not, unfortunately,
spurred a shift to clean transit for Bogotá.
 More important, it seems to me, is the way that La Ciclovia has grown into an essential Bogotá institution.
Various studies have found that the Ciclovia concept benefits not only participants' health, but also the economy, by saving on medical expenses.

 "I'm proud," Medina says of his work. "It was an important contribution."

 In Havana, Cuba, where Medina's wife works for the Colombian embassy, and where he says biking is risky, he continues pushing for better cycling conditions.

Learning to ride on Plaza Bolivar.
But to get more people pedaling, Medina believes that bikes must change there image from being 'the poor man's vehicle.' In Bogotá, most bicycle commuters are still low income people who ride bikes to save on bus fare. In Colombia's class-conscious culture, the middle class and wealthy want to be seen in cars - even if that means going into debt and spending hours trapped in traffic jams.

"There should be executives on bikes, so that the bike has status," Medina says.

Medina also advocates more space for pedestrians and cyclists, including car-free streets in the historical center.

Those measures would help Bogotá fulfill more of La Ciclovia's potential - to get Bogotanos to use their bikes not only on Sundays, but every day.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


mauricio forero l said...

What a Cool guy!!! I enjoy the Ciclovia for a number of years before I left Bogota, I would go from My apartment to La Plaza de Bolivar then the Crr septima all the way to 126 st and down to crr 15 ending in Unicentro...It was really an awesome trip. It would be wonderful to have a 24-7 Ciclovia all around the city.


Miguel said...

Yes, he's a great guy. A 24/7 Ciclovia? What a beautiful dream. Instead, we're heading toward 24/7 traffic jams.


Elyssa Pachico said...

Very interesting to learn about the history.