How bikes became important in Bogotá

How bikes became important in Bogotá

Taking up Space: How bikes became important in Bogotá

FORM recently held a two-and-a-half day symposium called PUBLIC (also sponsored by our partners at RAC). A major theme was cities and how to change them, and speakers from all over the world participated, from both within and outside government. One of these, the keynote speaker, was a man named Enrique Peñalosa.

Peñalosa was Mayor of Bogotá in Columbia from 1998-2001. In those three years, he participating in transforming his city from a pretty dire place, chaotic and full of slums, into something its citizens could be proud of. Much of this was achieved through changes in transport – by shifting the focus from individual motor vehicles, with the disproportionate amount of public space they take up, and focusing on other modes: buses, bikes and pedestrians.

For Peñalosa, footpaths are the difference between a developed and developing country. “The most crucial resource for a city is public pedestrian space,” he said in his speech during PUBLIC. “What makes the difference between an advanced or a backwards city is not subways or highways. It is quality footpaths.”

Peñalosa included cycling – which described in his speech as “a more efficient way of walking” – as an integral part of improved transport. To him, protected bikeways, like footpaths, are a matter of democracy: “It is a symbol that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally as important as one in a $30,000 car,” he said in his speech. “Are protected bikeways a right? I would think so, unless we think that only those with access to a motor vehicle have access to individual mobility.”

During his three-year term, Peñalosa made a number of changes to increase the number of cyclists in the city to balance out the number of cars. This was in 1998, when there were no cyclists in major cities like New York or London or Madrid, let alone in an 8 million person strong, vehicle-obsessed city like Bogotá. As in the Holland mentioned in a previous blog, cars had become a symbol of status in Bogotá; footpaths were clogged with illegally parked vehicles and rush hour was insane.

Bikes need infrastructure for people to use them, Peñalosa pointed out, and so he responded by building nearly 300kms of protected bikeways, stretching from the poorest slums to the richest neighbourhoods. He made these cycle-ways direct and he made them safe. “Is there any justification to have infrastructure allowing cars to move from A to B in a shorter route than a bicycle?” he asked. “When we build highways, we demolish everything to ensure they go the shortest way. But with bicycles we assume they’re doing it for the fun of it, so we make them weave all over the place.”

This change in infrastructure was the first step in bringing the number of cyclists in the city from nearly zero to the current number of over 700,000. Peñalosa admits that this is still not enough in a city of 8 million, and the city is in no way a cyclist’s paradise, but it has been a very definite start.

Additionally, Bogotá has Ciclovía, which Peñalosa didn’t initiate, but which was expanded under his watch. Ciclovía happens every Sunday in Bogotá, from 7am to 2pm, when over 120km of major roads are blocked off from motor vehicle traffic. Similar to the Netherland’s Car Free Sundays in the 70s, it’s a day when people can move safely around their city by bicycle, and have entire roadways to do so. It’s a way of sharing the roadways, and returning a balance to transport.

PUBLIC Symposium’s speakers provided a huge number of examples of ways they are improving things, but clear themes emerged. One of these included ways in which we should improve the use of public space, to make it community driven, open and personal. The humble bicycle cropped up a lot. As a mode of transport, most speakers agreed: bikes are an integral part of making our cities better.

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