From the ARCADE Issue 32.1 feature, “After Growth: Rethinking the Narrative of Modernization.”
Subscribe to receive ARCADE in print.

Photography by Claudio Olivares Medina

Bikers in Bogota

Bikers in Bogotá, Colombia.

“When Peñalosa ran for the mayor’s seat back in 1997, he refused to make the promises doled out by so many politicians. He was not going to make everyone richer. Forget the dream of becoming as wealthy as Americans: it would take generations to catch up to the gringos, even if the urban economy caught fire and burned blue for a century. The dream of riches, Peñalosa complained, served only to make Bogotans feel bad.” —Charles Montgomery, Happy City

On a very cold January morning in Washington DC, I was running to find a great spot to view and sketch Obama’s second presidential inauguration on the Washington Mall. The only way to access the city was by foot, metro or bicycling. There was palpable excitement in the air and no traffic, no sounds of cars— pedestrians and bicyclists circulated freely without fear. This was a democratic city.

At that moment, I began dreaming of an ideal world where pedestrians and bicycles were, perhaps, valued above automobiles. But then I realized this place is real: Bogotá, Colombia.

Bogota Bike Sign

The story of this democratic city began in the dark, chaotic days of the early 1990s when Bogotá was dominated by corruption, crime, pollution and automobiles. The city was controlled by the elite, who were exerting their power by constructing more and more expressways that created physical barriers between members of society. During this soul-crushing period, a time dominated by an insulated ruling class and corrupt politicians, two positive voices from unexpected sectors of the society came to the rescue. The first was the visionary Antanas Mockus, a mathematician, philosopher and professor who became the mayor in 1995. His ideals were based on educating all sectors of society in order to end the corruption that had crippled the city. The second was Enrique Peñalosa, a liberal independent, self-made politician and new urbanist. He was elected mayor in 1998 with the agenda of making the city a place for all citizens.

Mockus and Peñalosa’s administrations set the foundation for a fair city. Although these two men began as rivals, they ultimately united in this one goal. Mockus eliminated institutionalized political favors and corruption in local government and enacted legislation that worked to minimize the disparity between classes by placing a premium on education. Peñalosa’s integrated the city by developing green areas, pedestrian paths, bicycle lanes and an extensive public transportation system called TransMilenio. This diesel-powered public transit system comprises buses that use exclusive lanes on existing road infrastructure, a visionary and economical system that has eliminated the city’s dependence on automobiles.

A CITY FOR ALL

“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” —Enrique Peñalosa, Agencia EFE

Buses in Bogota

Peñalosa’s vision for a vibrant city in a poor country began when he realized that most of the problems and obstacles he faced came from traditional construction budgets for the development of highway systems. One of the first efforts of his administration was to stop an expensive elevated-expressway system to be located in the heart of the city; it would have been used almost exclusively by those who were wealthy enough to own automobiles. This project would have destroyed a large part of the city and created more divisions between classes. In Bogotá today, pedestrian walkways are considered first, then bicycle lanes bordered by vegetation, followed by small automobile paths.

CICLOVÍAS

“If we’re going to talk about transport, I would say that the great city is not the one that has highways but one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can go safely everywhere.” —Enrique Peñalosa, Urbanized

Biker in Bogota

It must be noted that long before this era of positive change, in 1976, Bogotá was the first city in the world to start a Sunday biking program called Ciclovías (bike path). In the ’90s, Peñalosa made the Ciclovías safer and added permanent Ciclorutas (bicycle routes) all over the city. The Ciclovías is now an event that happens every Sunday and holidays in Bogotá and in other cities in Colombia, such as Medellín and Cali, where the main streets are blocked off to all automobiles. In Bogotá, nearly 2.5 million citizens, which is about 30 percent of the population, take advantage of the 120 kilometers of Ciclovías inside the automobile-free city. Ciclovías is a unifying force.

BICYCLE CULTURE

“A protected bicycle way is a symbol of democracy. It shows that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is just as important as a citizen in a $30,000 car.”—Enrique Peñalosa, Urbanized

Bikers in Bogota

Bicycle culture in Bogotá is not limited to the activities of the Ciclovías or Ciclorutas. For many street vendors, the bicycle supports their entrepreneurship, which plays a major role in the local economies of Columbian cities. For example, in Barranquilla, my hometown, the national postal service and some private postal companies still deliver mail by deploying bicyclists in many areas of the city. Colombian culture has placed bicycles at the center of everyday life.

It’s true that many cities around the world have used the bicycle as a main source of transportation for generations, but the new bicycle revolution, which impacted the physical fabric of cities, began in Colombia.

If a nation like Colombia, once a failing state, can become a rising star in Latin America, and do so with very few resources, imagine the possibilities for the United States if it chooses to follow Colombia’s lead.