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Bogota, Colombia: 'A place for bikes, books and coffee'

In-depth
2 May 2018
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Like any self-respecting capital, even Bogotá, Colombia, has a chronic issue with traffic. In 2017, the INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard ranked the city as the 6th worst for its traffic and congestion out of 1,360 cities worldwide (it came right before London and just after LA, Moscow, New York, Sao Paulo and San Francisco).

The study calculated that drivers in Bogotá spend up to 75 hours stuck in traffic every year, which corresponds to the 30% of the overall time they spend driving.

But as often happens, bikes can help to limit the extent of the problem.

In 1976, the then Mayor Luis Prieto Ocampo signed two decrees to make official the ciclovía, an initiative that had been going on for two years already and that gathered cyclists in the centre of the city to ride their bikes.

Now, every Sunday from 07:00 until 14:00, several streets of the city (as well in other Colombian cities like Cali and Medellín) are closed to traffic and are reserved for cyclists, runners and skaters.

In addition, events and activities like yoga, pilates and live music are organised in the main squares crossed by the ciclovías (which literally means streets for cycles).

The ciclovías were further supported by the mayoral administration when Antanas Mockus was in charge from 1995 to 1997 – but the main development for the cycling system in Bogotá was probably the one that came after Mockus.

Mockus’s successor from 1998 to 2000 – Enrique Peñalosa Londoño (also the current mayor of the capital) – was the first to develop the city’s bike path network, or ciclorrutas.

These paths were built with the city’s topography in mind (very hilly from east to west and mostly flat from north to south) and divided into three different networks: a main, secondary and complementary one.

The main network connects the city centre with the most populated areas outside of the city, the secondary one brings the riders to the main and the complementary consists of additional paths that give continuity to the general network.

In total, Bogotá has more than 300km of ciclorrutas; that makes it the most extensive cycle path network in South America and one the largest in the world.

Although the use of bikes spiked since the opening of ciclorrutas and some of the traffic was calmed (according to the Secretary for Mobility more than 800,000 trips are made by bike in Bogotá every day), the new problem is that even ciclorrutas can get quite busy and become an ineffective way to travel.

And that was one of Peñalosa’s main points for his second term.

It took quite a while – and more than just the cycling paths provided by the administration – to hit those staggering 800,000 rides in a day.

'The first cycle routes were built mostly in the north [where most of the wealthy neighbourhoods are located and where the police force is predominant],' explains Mono Nuñez – writer and author of ‘Mi cicla y yo (My bike and I)’, which tells the history of Bogotá’s cycling evolution.

'But they weren’t used much because they were built on the sidewalks, and this was a rampant contradiction with the philosophy of the then Mayor, because he believed that sidewalks should be for pedestrians, and cyclists perceived those cycle routes as very dangerous.'

With time, more cycle routes were opened in the southern neighbourhoods of Bogotá and people used them more than the ones in the north as a real means of transport.

Yet because of the general lack of police in these areas, people got scared that their bikes would be stolen and even these routes weren’t much used for a long time.

'So this was the situation for the first ten years,' adds Mono Nuñez. 'But then, the internet changed everything.

'My point of view is that the news from other parts of the world [that cycling was turning into a big trend] finally infected us with its virus.

'Also, the fact that in the last decades many Colombians have travelled abroad, studied abroad, and brought some trends with them have helped the development of cycling.'

Furthermore, adds Nuñez, the fact that the newer cycling paths have been built on the road surface, and not on the pavement, has significantly improved the way Colombians look at commuting by bike and turned the trend into a social phenomenon.

'These [paths] are much safer as cyclists and pedestrians don’t compete for space, and motorists can clearly see cyclists. Since a year and a half ago, many more of those routes have been opened.

'We are living the best times for cycling in our history.'

To boost the use of the bike even more, the City Council and the Institute of Tourism organise different bike tours of the city.

Probably one the best ways to discover the city on two wheels – as well as to get over the jet-leg – is spinning the legs for a couple of hours after a very long flight.

The latest tour, launched at the end of April during the International Book Fair of Bogotá (FILBO) is the 'Coffee and Literature Bike Tour'.

The ride – with a length of 25km (done at the 2,600 metres of altitude in Bogotá, that can still be a good workout for some) –  starts in front of the Lerner Library on the 93 Street and then stretches through the 'Chapinero' district, an iconic borough known for its historic architecture, old houses and churches (but also its restaurants, theatres, museums and street food kiosks).

It then crosses the Teusaquillo, where most of the city parks and the University of Colombia are located. The 'Biblioteca Virgilio Barco', also located in this borough, is a public library and is seen as one of the nicest buildings in town.

From its roof-top (which doubles as an open-air theatre), the view of the mountains surrounding the Colombian capital is unique.

But one of the nicest surprises of the tour is actually the 'hidden' bookshops, like the 'Casa Tomada' in the district of Palermo, that are mostly unknown to tourists so far (particularly because they are sometimes located in old houses that don’t look like a bookshop at all).

'Bogota has such a rich culture around books and libraries and has many amazing public libraries,' says Diana Apache of the Department of Tourism for Bogotá.

'And experiencing the city in this way is definitely a new experience for locals and foreigners that want to enjoy the city in a very special way.

'This shows where are we heading as a city: Bogota as a place for bikes, books and coffee.'