WASHINGTON, DC, September 22, 2012 - Every Sunday from 7 am to 2 pm, 121 kilometers of main streets and thoroughfares in Bogotá, Colombia—a city of almost 8 million people—are closed to vehicular traffic to allow the city’s residents to bike, jog, roller-skate, skateboard, and stroll. There are hundreds of vendors along the route, mostly offering fruit products and health food. The route is also dotted with bicycle repair stations, health promotion spots, and, at several parks along the course there are open-air aerobics classes, free to everyone.
Known as “ciclovía,” this model is being copied in cities around the world and even a few cities in the US.
An idea from the 1970s
Ciclovía began as an experiment in 1974, the brainchild of a group of university students, mostly cyclists, as a way to bring attention to the lack of public recreational spaces in the Colombian capital. On December 15, 1974- Sunday- the city’s department of transportation closed two of the main streets for cyclists, roller-skaters, joggers, and walkers. The city’s residents responded overwhelmingly, as thousands showed up on their bicycles and roller skates to enjoy a day of car-free streets.
Due to the popularity of the event, Bogotá established four bike routes in the city shortly afterward. Beginning in September of 1982, it closed 54 km of roads and streets to vehicular traffic every Sunday for 6 hours. People came out in droves to exercise, walk, or just people-watch.
Soon it became a tradition and an institution. In a city where more than half of the residents live below the poverty line, people could come out and enjoy the streets and physical activity for free. It also became a vehicle of social integration; ciclovía became a place where rich and poor mingled and enjoyed the city together. In a country where social classes are still largely divided, this is a rare experience. In Colombia of the 1980s, it was rarer still.
With many other Colombian cities and then other cities around the globe copying their model, ciclovía became a point of pride for all Bogotá’s residents.
Ciclovía Today: A Bogotá Institution
Today the ciclovía covers over 121 km and grew from a few thousand people on bikes to a weekly event that caters to over one million people. And it is no longer about merely closing streets.
The ciclovía provides bicycle parking and maintenance stations throughout the route, where residents can store or make basic repairs to their bicycles, skates, or skateboards. There are also several RAFI locations, which promote physical activity and healthy habits through exercise and remaining active. RAFI locations perform free physical evaluations and recommend a workout routine for both children and adults depending on their specific fitness level. They provide information about obesity, diabetes, the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle, and the benefits of an active lifestyle. The ciclovía also offers children’s activities, such as origami, drawing, etc.
There are also several “recreovías” located in parks and plazas along the ciclovía route. The recreovías offer six different types of aerobics classes, which are open to the public. The classes include, stretching, strength training, rumba dance, and a children’s hour where families can work out together. The recreovías are often also used as venues for free concerts, music, and dance events.
For those who do not own a bicycle, there are several bike rental locations and parks along the route where bicycles are available for use within a designated area free of charge. There are also extreme sports locations offering rock climbing, bike trials, and skateboarding. The ciclovía even has four veterinary stations where pet owners can get basic medical attention for their animals, as well as vaccination and information on care, feeding, and handling of pets in public spaces. Like any well-planned large-scale public event, there are over 74 public bathrooms available to users of the ciclovía along the route.
How and why it works
Every Sunday morning at 6 am, trucks begin closing the routes to vehicular traffic by placing plastic barriers and metal signs diverting traffic and providing information to drivers and users of the ciclovía. Vendors start to set up their stations and staff member take their positions along the route. Everything is up and ready by 7 am. Streetfilms.org filmed for 12 hours on a regular ciclovía Sunday in Bogotá. There is a great segment on the video showing exactly how everything is set up.
The most visible representatives of Bogotá’s ciclovía are the “Bikewatch” members, in yellow and red uniforms. They direct traffic, provide information, render first aid, help with lost children, report crime, and some even teach some of the aerobics classes in the recreovías. Bikewatch members are recruited among college students and are usually young and very enthusiastic about healthy living and sports.
Ciclovías are not expensive for a city to implement. A 2011 study by the Universidad de los Andes and published in the Journal of Urban Health estimated the yearly cost of Bogotá’s ciclovía to be around $6 per capita. This includes expenses paid by the city like Bikewatch training and other staff salaries, traffic barriers, equipment, etc., but it also includes private costs like bicycles, roller skates, etc., which are considerably higher. In the end, the expense to the city itself is around $1.7 million per year for 72 ciclovías (every Sunday and on major holidays), which works out to about $.25 per capita in direct costs to the city.
But Bogotá and its residents are getting a great return on their investment. The above study found that there was a cost-to-benefit ratio of 3.23 to 4.26. In other words, for every $1 spent on ciclovía and related expenses, there was between $3.23 and $4.26 in direct medical savings due to an overall increase in fitness rates among the population.
Yet medical savings are not the only way ciclovías result in economic gains for a city and an improvement in the quality of life of its residents. “So often our streets are not places where people want to be,” says Mike Samuelson of Open Streets Project. “They can be dangerous and dirty. People think of them as tools for getting from Point A to Point B. Open streets remind us that streets can be places for people: to play, to socialize or just to relax. By turning our streets into inviting places, we benefit the local business owners who will have thousands of potential customers walk by his or her store; the neighborhood residents who will be able to take advantage of the temporary park created by the open streets event; and folks from across the region who will be drawn to the initiative to explore a new part of the city.”
Ciclovías also help reduce pollution, noise, and demand for fuel. Ciclovías help to develop social capital and have a positive impact on everyone’s quality of life. They provide a healthy and productive use of public spaces, allowing families to spend time together while being active. Ciclovías work because they take advantage of existing infrastructure on a day that usually does not disrupt business. On the contrary, ciclovías increase business for most of the commercial establishments along the routes. They also boost the local bike-related industry and create a demand for bike mechanics and other related fields.
Ciclovías are also great because they are free to all of the city’s residents. Due to cost and scheduling considerations, for many, it may be the only way get a little physical exercise and remain active. Unlike joining a gym or participating in certain sports where a team may have to rent a field or pay for equipment, ciclovías provide spaces for people to exercise completely free of charge. Literally everyone can go out and jog or walk, regardless of age, fitness level, or how much money they make.
“When done right, open streets are community events,” says Mike Samuelson. “They provide a space for residents, businesses and other community stakeholders to interact with one another and discover new parts of their city and neighborhood. We’ve seen two things happen in other cities with open streets: participants discover stores, parks and spaces that are close to their homes that they didn’t know about (or didn’t realize were so close) and they feel a renewed pride in being part of their city.”
Ciclovías also promote alternative forms of transportation. For example, for people with fears of cycling in the city, ciclovías provide a safe place where they can learn to ride with other cyclists, pedestrians, etc. and gain confidence on the road by completely eliminating the threat of vehicular traffic.
Streetfilms.org has another very interesting film about how ciclovías, bike routes, and other livable cities projects have had a positive impact on everyone in Bogotá. “We can talk about how open streets provide safe space for exercise and promote local businesses, but what participants remember is the chance to see their city from a different perspective, both physically (from the middle of the street) and on a more emotional level, by seeing new aspects of their city and neighborhood,” says Samuelson.
Ciclovía in a city near you…and in DC-PLEASE!!
The concept of Bogotá’s ciclovía is being replicated and adapted in several cities in Latin America, including Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru. Several US cities also have their own ciclovía programs including San Francisco, New York, El Paso, Baltimore, and Miami.
It seems like there was a burgeoning DC movement for a ciclovía in 2009, but the idea has progressed slowly. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) tried to close certain streets for a ciclovía in 2009, but was unable to because street closures would disrupt bus routes.
However, an open streets project in DC has been moving forward. When DDOT was unable to get the necessary support for a ciclovía, it created the yearly Feet in the Street event, which will take place next Saturday, September 22, at Fort Dupont Park. Additionally, DC has a weekly open streets initiative in Rock Creek Park on Beach Drive between Military and Broad Branch roads.
In the film Lessons from Bogotá by Streetfilms.org, Aaron Naparstek states that in US cities, it is not an issue of funding, but an issue of priorities and political will. According to David Cranor of The Wash Cycle, getting a ciclovía in DC would take a mayor who supports the project and the willingness of DDOT to take the idea on again. Proponents of this vision could possibly find an ally in Mayor Vincent Gray, “I see open streets as fitting in perfectly with Mayor Grey’s One City platform,” says Samuelson. An open streets project would “connect different neighborhoods together across the city.”
The city residents would have to show interest in the project as well, says Cranor. Mike Samuelson agrees, “before DC can think about holding 20 or 30 open streets in a year, it needs to start on a smaller scale. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) and several blogs have been pushing for an open streets in DC, but until we see buy-in from politicians and DDOT, or at least a willingness to more fully discuss the idea, we aren’t going to see open streets in DC, and we are going to continue to fall behind cities across the country and around the world that are promoting their neighborhoods and communities through open streets.”
Bogotá es DC: Distrito Ciclero by Juan Manuel Robledo: http://theturningwheels.tumblr.com/post/31984719134/bogota-es-d-c-distrito-ciclero
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