If the notion of a car-free capital sounds far-fetched, just take a look at the Colombian metropolis of Bogotá. The South American city of more than 8 million celebrated Earth Day by radically transforming how people moved about the centre and its outskirts…
BETWEEN 5 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. only buses, taxis and emergency vehicles were allowed to circulate. Private cars and motorbikes were banned. An estimated 600,000 gas-guzzling vehicles were forced to stay parked. And, bicycles and pedestrians were free to move as they pleased.
I timed my bike tour in Colombia to finish on this very day, joining the shoals of early morning commuters cycling to work. What I saw was nothing short of mind-blowing! Main arterial roads, normally bumper to bumper with rush hour traffic, were almost bereft of vehicles. Instead, they were now usurped by residents, drawn from all walks of life, making the most of the clean air and quiet, safe streets. After all, despite an ever-improving public transit infrastructure, Bogotá isn’t without its weekday motorized quagmires. On average resident loses around 22 days yearly to traffic, and in 2013 there were 570 people killed in automobile accidents.
As I rode around the streets, I saw all kinds of cycling contraptions. There was a self-made, all-weather velo-mobile that included a passenger seat, integrated lighting, and a storage box for waterproofs. There were throngs of BMX-like cargo bikes making deliveries around the city. There was an elderly gentleman pulling a trailer with four barking dogs. And, I even stopped to photograph a young guy in a mirrored full face helmet on an incredible, shining, pedal-powered chopper.
At one set of traffic lights a cyclist told me he’d normally be on his motorbike. “But I’d cycle everyday if the roads were like this,” he added.
At the next light, I chatted to an industrial student on an Indian singlespeed. Later, I was stopped by a group of volunteers handing out pamphlets explaining the rules of the road to potential cyclists, along with insights on how best to handle irate drivers, and how to cycle responsibly. Pop-up mechanics helped keep chains lubricated and punctures at bay.
The rich tapestry of cycling life continued when I saw two riders with puppies in their backpacks. Another with an enormous bunch of flowers and another towing a Rollerblader. There was a man carrying two suitcases of books on his cargo bike. Various hipster single speeders weaved their way through the mean streets. The warmest smile came from a man on a tall bike who performed an impressive track stand when I pulled out my camera.
Looking around, it was clear that taxis too were enjoying a roaring trade. Undoubtedly, the TransMilenio — the largest rapid bus transit system in the world — was far busier than normal and overworked in places. I don’t doubt that some city residents were disgruntled. But on the whole, Earth Day seemed to work, and everyone I met and talked to embraced the idea emphatically too.
What’s more, this car-free celebration wasn’t even setting a precedent. The capital of Colombia has long been a pioneer of green initiatives. Aside from trailblazing the concept of the Ciclovía in the 1970s — the car-free blueprint now repeated each Sunday in almost every capital in Latin America — this metropolis has been running an annual Día Sin Carro (“car-free day”) for the last fifteen years, no less. Back in 2000, forward-thinking Mayor Enrique Peñalosa (now head honcho of the non-profit 8-80 Cities) organized Bogotá’s first, an event that went on to be repeated each year, after it was institutionalized through a public referendum.
Thanks to the work of local bike advocacy group Mejor en Bici (Better by Bike), 2014 saw the introduction of a completely car-free week in the capital.
And, just like the weekly Ciclovía, car-free days aren’t just about promoting clean transport. They’re about encouraging healthy living, connecting with neighbours, and creating closer communities. In the open space created, a wide assortment of smaller events are held, such as aerobics and yoga classes, art exhibitions, children’s activities and live music. Enterprising businesses spring up, juices and healthy snacks can be found on every corner.
It doesn’t even stop there. Thanks to the work of local bike advocacy group Mejor en Bici (Better by Bike), 2014 saw the introduction of a completely car-free week in the capital. Large swathes of the city were completely closed to cars for a whole working week. Commuting routes were set up dedicated to cyclists, based around the city’s 120km web of permanent “ciclorutas” and temporarily car-free “ciclovías” — the same network used every Sunday and on national holidays.
Earth Day marked my last day bicycle touring through Colombia, ensuring I left with unparalleled enthusiasm for this vibrant, progressive, and bike-friendly country. If a car-free day can happen in a city as frenetic, troubled and populated as Bogotá, it can happen almost anywhere in the world.
And if it can happen for a day or a week… then who knows what the future may hold.
(a version of this article originally appeared in issue 39 of Bicycle Times, 2015)