Latin America’s urban cycling culture: A model for other regions?

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Cyclists take over the streets of Bogotá during the weekly Ciclovía event. Photo: Gabo G./Shutterstock
Photo: Gabo G./Shutterstock

Whenever one thinks of urban cycling, cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen come to mind. But what about Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Santiago, or Mexico City? Some of these urban agglomerations are starting to call themselves “World Cycling Capitals,” a claim that usually coincides with the adoption of bicycle-friendly public policies and investments. In 2015, Maria Victoria Ojea described how Latin Americans had “fallen in love – once and again- with their bicycles.” This movement has grown even stronger since then, partly thanks to the exponential growth of bike-sharing systems, e-bikes, and other forms of micro-mobility.

Many Latin American cities have a chronic issue with traffic. In 2018, the INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard ranked Colombia’s capital city of Bogotá as the 3rd most congested city in the world, followed by Mexico City (4th) and São Paulo (5th). The study calculated that drivers in Bogotá spend up to 272 hours stuck in traffic every year.

On December 15, 1974, city officials gave US-educated architect Jaime Ortiz Mariño and over 5,000 fellow bicycle enthusiasts permission to shut down traffic on 12 km of roadways and ride their bicycles freely through the center of Bogotá for 3 hours. This marked the birth to Ciclovía, a movement that started as a citizen protest and has progressively turned into a celebration: today, Ciclovía is largely perceived as a weekly opportunity for local residents to reclaim urban space and promote alternatives to the private car.

Every Sunday and holiday between 7 AM and 2 PM a sea of cyclists, joggers, and street vendors take over 76 miles of streets in Bogotá, which are fully or partially closed for the occasion. The event typically draws some 1.7 to 2 million people, or about a quarter of the city’s population. Nearly half the participants pedal for at least three hours. All kinds of non-motorized transport modes are welcome. Ciclovía’s director, Bibiana Sarmiento notes that, in a highly stratified society like Colombia’s, one of the things she loves about Ciclovía is its egalitarian nature. “No one cares about what social class you’re from: everyone is welcome, and everyone is equal.” In Bogotá, the city estimates the cost of organizing Ciclovía to be less than $0.10 per user each week. Hundreds of cities around the world are now replicating Ciclovía and other car-free experiments with the goal to reshare urban landscapes.

Currently, Bogotanos make more than 800,000 cycling trips per day, according to the most recent official travel survey. That is more than the number of daily taxi trips and almost half of the trips made by cars. According to Bogotá’s Bicycle Manager, David Uniman, the city of Bogotá has 480 km of bike lanes—a number that is expected to continue growing in the future. In 2015, cycling accounted for 6% of daily trips in the city, but Uniman hopes to reach 10% by 2020, or about one million trips per day. “The competitiveness of the bike is indisputable,” he says. “Two years ago, we surveyed people as to why they bike. We got the same results as surveys in Copenhagen and Amsterdam: it saves time.” One of the priorities of the newly unveiled bike plan (Plan Bici) is Quinto Centenario, a 25-km bike lane crossing running north to south across a variety of low, middle, and high-income neighborhoods.

In October 2016, the Colombian legislature enacted Law 1811: An Act to Grant Incentives to Promote the Use of the Bicycle Throughout the Country and to Modify the National Transit Code. The law explicitly recognizes the negative impacts of motorized transport on the environment and encourages bicycling by offering workplace incentives for public officials such as a half-day of leave per 30 days of bike commuting trips. It also requires public buildings to accommodate 10% of the parking spots for bicycle parking and discounted fares for inter-modal trips between cycling and mass transit systems such as BRTs. Peru has followed suit with the recently enacted Law 30936 in 2019, and other countries in LAC are currently studying and debating similar frameworks to support and promote urban cycling as a sustainable, affordable, and inclusive form of transport.  

For the first time this year, Bogotá claimed the 12th spot in the Copenhagenize Index, the most comprehensive ranking of bicycle-friendly cities across the world. That puts the Colombian metropolis ahead of Barcelona, Berlin, Montréal, and Vancouver, and behind heavy hitters like Copenhagen or Amsterdam. As other major Latin American cities step up their cycling ambitions, we should expect to see more of this in the near future. For instance, the city of Lima, with World Bank support, plans to retrofit no less than 1,300 kilometers of roads to make them safer and more bicycle-friendly.

In the face of climate change, cycling is one of the most effective ways we can reduce transport emissions in urban areas—a point that came across loud and clear at the latest C40 World Mayors Summit in Copenhagen. The urban cycling culture emerging in LAC shows this kind of change is indeed possible, and could serve as a great source of inspiration for megacities around the globe.


Felipe Targa

Senior Urban Transport Specialist, World Bank

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