Streets are for people in theory, but why not in practice?

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Streets have always been a community gathering place since the beginning of civilizations. But why do we continue to elevate the car over people? Bogotá’s weekly Ciclovía is a regular reminder of how people can take back their streets to improve safety and access.

A full range of transportation options are on display: bicyclists and pedestrians in the left lane, a bus in the right lane, and wide crosswalks in the foreground.
Community members of all ages and abilities biking, walking, running at the weekly Ciclovía event in Bogotá, CO. T4A photo by Benito Pérez.

T4A Policy Director Benito Pérez visited Bogotá, Colombia in February and brought back his transportation takeaways. Read his blog on Bogotá’s transit system here.

The common experience we have traveling in our communities here in the United States is to hop in the car and drive at high speeds to our destination, park, and walk in. However, for many in urban, suburban, and rural areas, hopping in a car can mean troublesome delays, let alone health and environmental impacts.

This doesn’t even begin to account for many people in communities big and small who rely on bikes, transit, and walking to get to and from their destinations (with urban and rural areas seeing up to a third not having access to a private vehicle). Pedestrians and cyclists are often subject to unsafe roadway conditions, because they are deemed an afterthought to the movement of the transportation system, further reinforced by auto dominance in roadway design, operations, and perception.

Having traveled recently to Bogotá, Colombia in mid February 2023, I was exposed to a different culture of transportation. Though not perfect, Bogotá hosts a weekly community event, Ciclovía, that serves as not only a community amenity, but a powerful reminder that the streets of the city were and still are for moving people safely and effectively to their destinations.

What is Ciclovía?

Turning back the clock, Ciclovía in Bogotá started as a protest. The brainchild of Jaime Ortiz Mariño, the event started in 1974 to recognize the role and importance of affordable, safe, equitable, and sustainable transportation in the midst of a city and society rapidly urbanizing. Mariño had just studied architecture in the US and was worried that rapid urbanization in his home country would entrench costly auto dominance, thus his revolutionary push for cycling and engaging the community to take to the streets on a regular basis on foot, pedals, or other non-auto means.  The city’s administration formally sanctioned the event starting in 1976, providing support for the weekly event currently held every Sunday (and holidays) from 7 a.m. – 2 p.m.

The Ciclovia routes weave across Bogota. In Spanish: Mapa rutas Ciclovia por corredores
Map of Ciclovía in Bogotá, CO. Map from Bogotá Recreation and Sports Department.

Today, the weekly event has multiple routes, totaling up to 80 miles (128 km), that cross every corner of the city via neighborhood streets, major avenues, even expressways. City transportation department staff are deployed early on event mornings to set up temporary barricades (via cones and some water-filled barricades), support services and community programming, implement bicycle traffic calming at key locations where speed can be a factor, and (with police support) start detouring vehicular traffic away from Ciclovía routes. As the event kicks off, the community comes out in force, engaging in family walks, an easier and safer bike commute, community commerce (street fairs and food carts), and entertainment like concerts and group fitness classes.

A staff member places cones in the middle of the roadway, while cyclists and pedestrians start traveling
Cyclists stand on the sidewalk to the left of the roadway, waiting for set-up to finish

Ciclovía staff setting up and supporting the event in Bogotá, CO. T4A photo by Benito Pérez.

The success of Ciclovía in its nearly half century existence has elicited the event being replicated not only in other cities throughout Colombia (like Medellín and Calí), but the world. Looking at home here in the US, similar events inspired by Ciclovía have popped up in the last two decades, initially on an annual basis and at a much smaller scale (only a few miles or within a large community park). However, more events are becoming frequent and expansive, only drawing more attention to the need for safe, reliable, and accessible transportation alternatives and open streets for people as a result of the COVID pandemic.

Ciclovía in action. Video by Benito Pérez

Community event or regular practice?

Having experienced my first Ciclovía in Bogotá, there was a lot to take in. But beyond the novelty to me of this community event are key takeaways we should look to replicate as regular practice. Designing and opening streets for people opened up a wealth of opportunities.

Children were able to learn to use bikes, scooters, and walk the real world streetscape, which lended opportunities on navigating their community safely and expanded awareness of mobility choice and community amenities. People of all ages, including seniors, were engaging with each other throughout the event, lending itself to awareness of and yielding to each other through the rest of the week, if they happen to get behind the wheel of a car. There was also increased economic vibrancy along the routes, with people engaging commerce on bikes and on foot (people want to see more walkable communities, as our Foot Traffic Ahead report states).

Smart Growth America’s Foot Traffic Ahead report shows that there is a growing demand for walkable communities. Read more here.

Where do we walk or bike next?

Benito smiles for his selfie with bicyclists and pedestrians milling behind him.
Policy Director Benito Pérez enjoying Ciclovía.

Ciclovía was a wonderful event to have participated in while in Bogotá. It reminded me of the lengths we still have to navigate here in the US to make such a community event, already happening in dozens of US cities, transition from novelty to regular practice.

For starters, I would point to bureaucracy and the car-centric status quo, a major roadblock that needs to be overcome to retake our streets for people. That means things like federal transportation design standards like the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices or AASHTO’s Highway and Street Design Manual need fundamental rewrites, not conservative and inconsequential changes, to reprioritize our street design to emphasize safe and accessible movement of people.

Additionally on the bureaucracy front, there needs to be a revolution of transportation culture. This revolution needs to shake up our decision makers and our transportation professionals operating state and local transportation departments to fundamentally orient and humanize their mission towards moving people safely and efficiently with mobility choices to jobs and services, not jargon priorities like level of service (LOS), speed, traffic volume, or crash density. Only then can our own communities, here in the US, come out to the street, and recognize the vitality and importance of streets as a tool and asset for all people.

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