Though rapid urbanization can impair mobility and quality of life, Latin American cities have responded to this challenge with creative, low cost, and high impact solutions. Some of these initiatives have set an example for the rest of the world.
In the last installment of this series, we examined the development of bus rapid transit (BRT) in Curitiba, Brazil, and its expansion to the rest of the region and the world. In this blog, we discuss another idea born from the ingenuity and resourcefulness of Latin America that has had a global impact: recreational ciclovía events. These events provide an alternative means of healthy recreation and physical activity for millions of people in the region using a method available in all cities: closing city streets and avenues to vehicular traffic and opening them to cyclists, skaters, walkers, runners, and more.
The origin of ciclovías
While many Latin American households have bicycles – mainly for recreational use – most cities do not have adequate spaces to enjoy them safely. Given this limitation, activists in 1974 convinced the Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia to close some roads to cars and buses on Sundays so that people could use the space for a walk. The idea became “Sunday Ciclovías,” and has lasted the last forty years in Colombia’s capital.
Bogotá’s ciclovías, which began with a small section of the city’s streets, now cover 121 km (75 miles). The event has a team of dedicated staff, volunteers, and police providing assistance and security, especially at intersections. Ciclovías include many forms of recreation, including aerobics instruction in parks and plazas, cycling, and even biking lessons for those who want to learn.
In 1995, Bogotá’s authorities were unsure of whether they would continue the 50 km (31 mile) ciclovía event. Guillermo Peñalosa, the city’s Commissioner of Parks, Sport and Recreation at the time, worked with Mayor Antanas Mockus to revive and expand the event. They created a permanent group within the city administration to organize and manage the event every Sunday and holiday (a total of 72 times per year). They have also gained backing from the private sector, mainly to provide signage and logistical support. Ciclovía was reborn, and now it is difficult to imagine it ever being eliminated or reduced.
Ciclovía helped spark interest in cycling as a daily means of transport. Today, more than 1.5 million people cycle in the city, and it is an integral part of residents’ recreational and physical activity. The event’s success has also proved the concept for the construction of a network of permanent cycle routes – now 376 km (234 miles) – which has helped increase cycling from less than 1% of trips in 1998 to 6% of trips in 2012.
Bogotá’s ciclovía has inspired similar events in more than 100 cities worldwide: Cycle-Recrovía in Santiago, Chile; Ciclopaseo in Quito, Ecuador; Paseo Dominical in Mexico City, Mexico; CicoloRuta in Caguas, Puerto Rico; Pasos y Pedales in Guatemala, Sunday Streets in San Francisco and New York City, among many others. One prominent example is the recent introduction of “Raaghiri Day” in India – a similar initiative that began in a suburb of the capital Gurgaon, and has spread throughout the country including to the heart of New Delhi.
Part of the formula for healthy urban life
Cities are faced with the difficulty of creating natural open spaces in dense urban areas. Closing streets and avenues to vehicular traffic is a great way to provide opportunities for recreation for millions of people, and also leads to significant health benefits:
- The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) promotes recreational bike paths as a means for physical activity necessary for a healthy life. This map of the Recreational Ciclovías in the Americas – edited by PAHO – includes 80 cities in Latin America.
- The Journal of Urban Health suggests that car-free events have the following cost-benefit ratios in their cities:
The estimated benefit of events in this study correspond to direct savings in medical costs, which is the main reason why the benefits outweigh the costs of closing existing infrastructure to cars. The cost to users is low, as they need not pay a gym fee or pay for specialized equipment to have space for physical activity. In addition, research indicates that these benefits are underestimated, because they don’t account for factors such as increased quality of life from recreational activities, the development of social capital, and the promotion of sustainable mobility. Read more about the study here.
This does not mean that cities shouldn’t plan adequate parks and public spaces – these are fundamental to quality of life – but it does mean cities also have the opportunity to repurpose existing infrastructure. Most importantly, by taking advantage of this opportunity to create car-free streets, cities can promote healthy lifestyles and active transport.