Bogotá Is Building its Future Around Bikes

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In March, Bogotá captured global attention by creating a 84-kilometeremergency bike network to help essential workers get around during the early days of the Covid-19 crisis. Likesimilar efforts in Paris, Milan, and many European cities, the Colombian capital’s swift move to make room for bikes and pedestrians wasgreeted with acclaim by advocates for car-free mobility.

But Mayor Claudia López, an avid cyclist herself, might just be getting started. She’s counting on a vast expansion of bicycle routes as the best way for Bogotanos to move into the future. In February, López announced that the city’s development plan for the next four years would add a total of 280 additional kilometers of bike lanes to the existing 550-kilometer network. Currently, almost 7% of total trips in Bogotá are on bicycles, more than in any other Latin American country. But the city is aiming much higher: The long-term goal is to have 50% of total trips made in bikes or other micromobility alternatives such as scooters.

“If we are able to use our moment and our voice and our representation at this moment to push back against the car, it will be a great political gain and great environmental gain,” López said on a recent webinar organized by the Environmental Defense Fund. 

It’s a lofty target for the city tucked high in the Andes Mountains. Home to close to 8 million people, Bogotá is unlike many other metropolises in Latin America: It doesn’t have a subway system. Commuters rely instead onan extensive bus rapid transit system, the TransMilenio, that provides about 40% of the city’s trips in conjunction with other forms of public transit. But that leaves many other commuters in private cars. And with narrow streets and tightly packed neighborhoods, Bogotá traffic is epic. The city held the top spot last yearamong the most congested cities in the world, with drivers losing 191 hours per year to traffic delays, according to INRIX, a traffic data analytics company. Thanks to vehicle emissions, Bogotá also suffers the fourth-worst air pollution among Latin American capitals, according to a 2019 annual report by Swiss consulting firm IQAir.

Bogotá’s traffic troubles go back decades; so do its innovative efforts to tame it. In addition to establishing one of the world’s largest BRT systems, the city has cultivated a special relationship with two-wheeled transportation: This is thebirthplace of the Ciclovía, a mass cycling event that bans cars from certain city streets each Sunday. Since Bogotá held its first Ciclovía in 1974, the idea has spread to hundreds of cities worldwide. The city’s former mayor, Enrique Peñalosa,helped spearhead a transportation revolution over his two terms that made Bogotá one of the most talked-about global cities for car-free mobility. Last year, the city claimed the 12th spot in the Copenhagenize index of the most bicycle-friendly places in the world. 

But the pandemic has created new urgency around a bigger rethink of Bogotá’s streets. While 65% of households don’t own a car, 85% of the city’s public space is currently used up by motorized vehicles, Nicolás Estupiñán, Bogotá’s secretary of mobility, said in a webcast in June. “We need to provide even more infrastructure” for bikes, said Estupiñán, “and redistribute that public space further so we can guarantee that people can move around safely.” 

The new emergency lanes are part of that transformation. They’re designed to move as many commuters as possible to ease crowding on the TransMilenio: Each bus now must operate at a maximum capacity of 35%. Many bike lanes have been carved from the city’s main roads and highways and run parallel to the buses; others connect existing bike paths to new ones. “The city had already been working on a plan,” says Deyanira Ávila, who is in charge of bikes within Bogotá’s mobility agency. “Bike usage was up, but then the pandemic hit and we knew we had to act fast.”

To nudge more Bogotanos onto bikes, the city also dropped speed limits to 50 kilometers per hour citywide and declared that at least 20% of public and private parking must be put aside for bikes while the pandemic lasts. To rein in bike thefts, which jumped 24% in the first six months of 2020 compared to the same period a year earlier, the city established a bike registration database, carrying out awareness campaigns and opening stands across the city to reach more people. “Registro Bici Bogotá” includes the user’s contact information, as well as the bike’s specific characteristics and serial number, making it harder to sell and easier to recover if stolen.

So far, the bike-promotion efforts seem to be effective. On a typical day before the pandemic, more than 880,000 bicycle trips were taken in a day. Even though many commuters are working remotely and students are homebound as schools and universities are closed, the city estimates that bike trips are down only about half during coronavirus lockdowns. 

Among those who have picked up to bike commuting is Diana Moreno, an assistant nurse at one of the city’s main hospitals. Since she started riding to work in May, her commute has even been cut to 40 minutes from the hour it would typically take her via TransMilenio. The new bike lanes offer more than just a reprieve from a crowded bus ride. “It’s so relaxing,” says Moreno. “With all the stress we face on the job, riding your bike makes you forget. I don’t even mind when it rains.”

Bogotá may have a long way to go in taming in its infamous traffic, but it has also come a long way already.

The story of how the city became a global leader in urban cycling starts in 1974, when a group of bicycle enthusiasts got permission from local officials to shut down car traffic in more than 100 blocks of the city’s main arteries for an event they called “la gran manifestación del pedal” (the great pedal demonstration). More than 5,000 bicyclists participated. At a time when the development of Bogotá was focused on building roads for cars, the event served notice that bikes could be a legitimate way to get around the city, said Jaime Ortíz, an architect who was one of the original founders of the movement.

“It was such a radical stance,” says Ortíz. “Nowadays it’s very easy to talk about urbanism where the bicycle has a place. But at the time, we realized there was a need to advance in educating people.”

Less than two years later, activists pushed the city to make the event permanent, and Ciclovía (or “bike path”) was born. Every Sunday and holiday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., Bogotá’s streets fill with bikers, joggers, skaters and skateboarders. Hundreds of cities around the world have since adopted the idea and host their own regular Ciclovía events.

It took another 20 years before some of Ciclovía’s temporary lanes in Bogotá became permanent, and they have slowly expanded into the current bike network. This long-standing effort made it easier for the city to quickly roll out those emergency lanes at the start of its lockdown. “This is the genius of having begun very early implementing things,” says Carlos Pardo, who is head of the pilots program forNew Urban Mobility Alliance, which is part the World Resources Institute, a global NGO and research center. “It becomes much more feasible.”

Now cities like Lima, Quito and Mexico City are looking to follow in Bogotá’s footsteps. As part of its response to Covid-19, Peru’s government pledged to open 300 additional kilometers of bike lanes in Lima, adding to the roughly 200 kilometers it already had.

“This is the time to bet on sustainable mobility,” says Mariana Alegre, the director ofLima Cómo Vamos, an organization that has been championing bicycles since it was founded a decade ago. An online survey of more than 1,300 people published in May by Lima Cómo Vamos shows there is a shift in how people plan to travel in the future, with 30% saying they will completely change into a different mode after the lockdown ends. It also found that 11% of those who previously used cars indicated a preference to switch to bikes and 32% of those who previously used public transport also plan to shift to bikes. “I hope we don’t miss this opportunity,” she says. 

But cities seeking to make this mode shift must do more than build bike lanes, as the still-traffic-clogged streets of Bogotá can attest. Ávila sees an opportunity in getting more women to take up biking: Bogotá’s latest mobility survey published at the end of last year shows that of total bike trips, only 24% were made by women. New riders “need to feel safe so they don’t get discouraged,” says Alegre from Peru.

In addition to improving road safety, Pardo recommends implementing price signals such as higher parking charges. “We really need to start adopting mechanisms so people understand that they need to get off the car,” he says. But so far, Bogota’s city council has resisted any such move.

As lockdowns ease and more cars take to the streets, Bogota leaders expect increased resistance from drivers wanting to take back that space that bike lanes took, Ávila says. Much of Bogotá’s cycling infrastructure is still makeshift, with bright orange cones or blocks to mark them. But seeing riders claim space on main arteries such as Carrera Séptima has boosted the presence of bikes in Bogotá in a way that she thinks will endure beyond the current crisis. 

“Without the pandemic we probably wouldn’t have achieved half of what we have so far. Who would have thought we’d have a bike lane on the Séptima?” says Ávila. “Those that move more sustainably have a right to more space. We’re proving it can be done.”

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