Words and photos: Cass Gilbert
Originally published in Issue #39
If the notion of a car-free capital sounds far-fetched, just take a look at the Colombian capital of Bogotá. On April 22, 2015, the city of more than 8 million celebrated Earth Day by radically transforming how people moved about the city center 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. Bicycles and pedestrians were free to move as they please.
I timed my journey to Colombia to finish on this very day, joining the shoals of early morning commuters cycling to work. What I saw was inspiring. 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 residents loose around 22 days yearly to traffic, and in 2013 there were 570 people killed in automobile accidents.
Out in the streets I saw all kinds of cycling contraptions: A self made, all-weather velo-mobile that included a passenger seat, integrated lighting, and a storage box for waterproofs. Throngs of BMX-like cargo bikes making deliveries around the city. An elderly gentleman pulling a trailer with four barking dogs. A young guy in a mirrored full face helmet on an incredible, shining, pedal-powered chopper.
At one traffic light 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 with the rules of the road, 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 in his, 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, and I even saw a fatbiker amongst the melee. The warmest smile came from a man on a tall bike.
Looking around, it was clear that taxis 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. But on the whole, it 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 15 years. Back in 2000 Mayor Enrique Peñalosa (now head honcho of the non-profit 8-80 Cities) organized Bogotá’s first, an event that was to repeated each year when it was institutionalized through a public referendum.
After all, there are plenty of good reasons for hosting such an event. Just like the weekly Ciclovía, car-free days aren’t just about promoting clean transport. They’re about encouraging healthy living and 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 also spring up, juices and healthy snacks can be found on every corner.
It doesn’t 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 working week. Commuting routes were set up dedicated to cyclists, based around the city’s 120 km 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.