When listing the world’s great bike cities, a few mainstays usually come to mind: Amsterdam, Berlin, Boulder, Seattle. Often overlooked, however, is the smog-filled, traffic-congested, salsa capital of chaos that is Bogotá, which has earned a remarkable reputation as the most bike-friendly city in South America.
The capital city of Colombia, Bogotá has a population of 10 million (the fourth largest city in South America) and an altitude of 8,660 feet above sea level. As a whole, transportation in the city is modern and efficient, with an above-ground Transmilenio metro connecting the sprawling metropolis with speed and efficiency. Cars with commercial license plates are heavily limited in their ability to use the roads, with plates ending in even numbers only being allowed to drive on even-numbered days, with the same holding true for odd numbered plates on odd-numbered days during the work week. This is a city consumed by a mentality best expressed by its previous mayor Gustavo Petro, who said that, “a developed country is not a place where the poor drive cars. It is where the rich use public transportation.”
Cycling is the second sport in this soccer-mad country, with successful professionals such as Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran competing at the upper echelons of grand tour racing. Along with their commitment to public transportation, cycling has long been identified by santafereños (natives of Bogotá) as a great way to commute to work, exercise for pleasure, and help to protect their beautiful country. The city has 234 miles of cyclist-only bike paths, one of the largest such systems in the world, as well as designated green lanes on many of it’s major avenues and boulevards. In addition, the city is known for it’s Ciclovía, where on Sundays and holidays 75 miles of main roads are closed down to cars, resulting in hordes of cyclists, runners, rollerbladers, and walkers taking to the streets from 7 am to 2 pm.
Ciclovía was implemented in 1976 by Mayor Luis Prieto Ocampo as an official program promoted by the city government and the federal Transportation Department. Estimates now place weekly Ciclovía usage at over one million people, ranging from marathoners and competitive cyclists out for serious training sessions to entire families out for a walk in the sun (and in true Colombian fashion, followed by a picnic, some soccer, and always music and dancing). In addition to the closed roads, free aerobics and dancing classes are set up all over the city. Mechanics, water stations, and vendors hawking arepas, empanadas and dozens of fruit juices line the roadways, framed against the backdrop of steely Bogotá’s wooded mountains.
Following Bogotá’s example, ciclovías have taken hold in second and third cities of Colombia, Medellín and Cali, as well as in other cities around South America and around the world. Buenos Aires and Rosario in Argentina, Quito, Santiago de Chile, Guatemala City, Mexico City and Guadalajara, Lima, Baltimore, and Tel Aviv are major world cities that have implemented weekly ciclovías within the last decade or two. However, there is no mistaking the impact that Bogotá’s innovation and commitment to public transportation and cycling has had in metropolises of all kinds.