Colombian cycling aficionados will not easily forget 2014. With his win in the Giro d’Italia, Nairo Quintana gave to his country its most prestigious victory in road cycling so far. The country’s only other Grand Tour success dates back 27 years when Lucho Herrera’s claimed victory in the Vuelta a España 1987.  Alongside Quintana, other Colombians such as Carlos Betancur (winner of Paris-Nice), David Arredondo and Rigoberto Uran (triumphing in two of the toughest stages of the Giro) sit at the tip of an iceberg of passion.

The country is in love with cycling. A share of the credit for this has to go to the geography: with its altitude plateaus and never-ending climbs, Colombians have what it takes to shape great cyclists. The nation’s relationship with the bike, however, runs deeper. Cycling for leisure or transport is a regular activity in Colombia, and is encouraged by the public sector’s initiatives, the most famous of which is the ciclovía.

Ciclovías are regular car-free days that put long segments of a city’s streets off-limits to motorised transport. Launched in Colombia in the seventies, they are now popular – often known as “Open Streets” – all over the world. Public recreational programmes such as Ciclovías have proven to be cost-effective from a public health point of view, as they help participants meet recommended levels of physical activity.

Millions take advantage of Bogotá’s car-free streets

Ciclovía is Spanish for “bike path”. It’s nothing revolutionary on the surface.  But Colombia’s capital city Bogotá has attached a new meaning to these two words. Ciclovías are regular car-free days during which sizeable portions of the city are liberated from motorised transport and 100% dedicated to citizens who can run, cycle, skate – or just wander around and socialize.

Bogotá’s ciclovía offers more than 90 km entirely protected from cars, with marshals, safety assistants, bike mechanics, sports instructors and guides (all paid) on hand to make the experience enjoyable for everyone. The first experiments date back to the seventies, and the programme is now one of Bogotá’s flagship initiatives. The city has the world’s most impressive ciclovía programme, with 72 events held each year (every Sunday plus holidays).  Each time, between 1 and 1.5 million people take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy the capital’s roads unencumbered by cars.  The amazing success of the ciclovías has inspired dozens of other cities worldwide, especially in the Americas, to set up similar projects as in Mexico City (below).

 

 

If you’re going to do it, do it well

So what does it take to put on an effective ciclovía?

study has shown that buy-in from community partners, merchants, residents and city agencies is vital for the quality and the sustainability of an Open Street programme.

Large professional cycling events are therefore a perfect occasion to launch a public recreational programme, leveraging on the drive and on the togetherness that major sport events create in local business communities.

Richmond, Virginia, which will host the UCI World Road Championships 2015, has an annual ciclovía, “RVA Streets Alive”, where roads are closed to vehicles to enable cyclists and pedestrians to move freely in a festival atmosphere.

The Toronto-based non-profit organization “8-80 Cities” has developed a manual for ciclovía implementation as well as other resources to disseminate knowledge about the project. 8-80 is led by Gil Peñalosa, one of the world’s gurus of city planning for people’s well being and former Commissioner of Parks, Sports and Recreation in Bogotá. He is aware that certain local administrators may be reticent to organise such events because of concerns about disruption to businesses, road closures and angry voters: “Change is hard, everywhere; but you must do what is right, not what is easy,” advises Mr Peñalosa. “General interest must prevail over the wishes of a few individuals. The benefits go further than recreation for all: they include improvements to mental and physical health, the environment and economic development.”

To get a feeling of what a ciclovía is like, check out this 2007 short movie by Street Films.