Do you need to ride a bike to be Colombian?

Of course not. But it seems that the presidential campaign of Enrique Peñalosa seems to think so. Watch the ad above.

Here’s a translation:

“A bicycle is something you learn and never forget. It’s about maintaining momentum without losing balance. It’s about owning your destiny, believing in your dreams, and helping others achieve their own. It’s about your own force. It’s more than a bicycle. It’s our determination to get out ahead. The bicycle unites us. There are only a few days left to elect our future. This Sunday, 18th of May, let’s pedal for Colombia.” This last bit is an invitation to join Peñalosa on what his party website calls a “characteristic ciclopaseo” in Bogotá to close the campaign.

The first round of presidential elections are this weekend, and Peñalosa’s campaign seems doomed to not survive. These elections have been especially contentious, with some pretty major mudslinging and scandalous dirty tricks between the top two candidates that commentators say they haven’t seen in a while. Those candidates, the president Juan Manuel Santos and his main rival the ultra-conservative Oscar Iván Zuluaga, have accused each other of (contra Zuluaga) hiring a computer hacker to spy on the emails of the peace negotiators in Havana and even the president’s email and then getting caught lying about it and (contra President Santos) of accepting money from drug barons.

As the acrimony has deepened, many thought Peñalosa’s chance to rise above it all and gain the lead had come, because of his consistently positive message and his distance from the traditional political machinations that generate all the corruption and political stagnation associated with the top two candidates and their parties. But his response has been surprisingly subdued and, independent of that, some key figures on the left, including the mayor of Bogotá, deserted him and aligned themselves with the President to avoid an ultra-conservative take over. No doubt that took some wind out of Peñalosa’s sails. In these last days a key message coming out of his campaign seems to have been to unleash the bicycle theme, ramping up the bicycle discourse and projecting the bicycle as a metaphor for what can unite the country.

This country, as one history book calls it “a nation in spite of itself,” has been profoundly divided for decades. But even as powerful a symbol of Colombianness as the bicycle is, its resonance doesn’t seem to translate very effectively to the political arena. As one bemused colleague of mine at the university reflected, “I haven’t ridden a bike in years! You have to be crazy to ride a bike in this city! People want cars.” It’s not that this individual is anti-Peñalosa or even anti-bike, but when people’s notions of bicycles are filtered in such a way, one cannot but help see the limits of Peñalosa’s gambit.

Indeed, even though levels of car ownership are among the lowest in Latin America, development economists and national economic planners are expecting the number of cars in this country to grow as incomes have risen. Currently in Colombia, for example, there are about 8 cars per 100 people, with a bit less than that in Bogotá. But the visions of economic planners is that Bogotá should aspire to become more like Santiago, Chile (25 cars per 100 people) or Lima, Peru (22 cars per 100 people). For Bogotá, a city already mired in profound mobility problems, this is a horrific vision since it would lead to a collapse in the urban transportation system, of complete immobility. One government economic planner I spoke with recognizes the problem, but seems resigned. “I know, it’s terrible. But it’s a sign of our economic growth.” It makes you wonder, if Peñalosa projected a rosy future of car-driving Colombians, would he be on top?

Bici-Activismo and The Power of Bicycle Colectivos

IMG_0211During the past few years, bicycle colectivos have been sprouting up all over this city. A bicycle colectivo is a group of cycling enthusiasts who organize activities that express their love of the “caballito de acero,” or the “little iron horse” as many here affectionately refer to their bicycles. The basis of most colectivos is the organization of non-competitive group rides on city streets. Some of the hundred or so colectivos are formally organized and registered with the government, and others are informal. The largest and most seasoned of these is the group Ciclopaseos de los Miercoles, who organize a critical-mass style ride that attracts several hundred people on Wednesday evenings to explore some part of the city. The idea is partly to help riders gain confidence riding in traffic and see parts of the city they might not otherwise see because of fear, or distance from their home. The other part is to demonstrate to non-cyclists that cyclists are having fun…and are a relevant actor on city streets.

As a new book published in honor of the colectivos by the city’s culture, sports, and recreation department (El Libro de la Bici de Bogotá) attests, not all bicycle colectivos are focused on organizing fun rides in the city. Others are focused on restoring old bikes; providing training so that an underrepresented group, such as women or kids, can learn how to ride bikes safely in the city; spreading information about bike issues on the internet; promoting a stronger linkage between environmental activism and cyclists; or pressuring city government to support new pro-bicycle policies or perform the necessary maintenance on the extensive bicycle system that is already there.

IMG_2684Not all bicycle colectivos consider themselves politically-active or get involved in political processes related to bicycle transportation. But through their creation and involvement in colectivos, urban cyclists have been gaining new recognition as a social force. Colectivos have also been seeking and earning a voice in the politics of urban mobility, most recently in a new decree project promoting bicycle parking and cyclist safety in the Bogotá city council. The current mayor, in dialogue with pro-bike activists, has integrated bike issues into his development plan, and bike activists have even been hired in key positions in the city’s mobility bureaucracy. It is the bike colectivos that are helping shape and define the emergence of a new political consciousness and “bici-activismo” here. I have been tracking the different expressions of this activism in my research.

The bici-activismo that is taking shape is set against a backdrop of a city that does not have a strong tradition of citizen activism. As one of the city’s influential alternative transportation advocates has observed, “Colombia has never been characterized for its bursting citizen participation. Like the good conservative country it is, people are fine wearing a pro-something t-shirt or donating $10 a month to Unicef and saying ‘I participate.’ As for the rest, all that was needed was a fifty year war of the FARC to produce a massive mobilization, that has never happened more than once, against this movement. For other themes, little or nothing has been seen.” It is also set against a backdrop of concern that the extensive bicycle system and gains for cyclists during the Mockus and Peñalosa mayorships in the 1990s and early-2000s have been neglected by subsequent city administrations, and that if cyclists don’t defend and promote bicycle interests the possibilities for urban bicycle use will continue to deteriorate.

IMG_2693This weekend, one modest expression of the power of the bicycle colectivos was on display, in an event that took place to celebrate the World Day of Recycling called “Reciclovía,” a combination of the word “recycling” with “cycle way.” The event was convened by a citizen environmentalist colectivo, Bogotá Basura Cero (Bogotá Zero Trash), which wanted to bring public attention to the importance of recycling. How to do that? Invite the bicycle colectivos!

Responding to the invitation which was diffused through Facebook and Twitter–the critical organizing tools of bici-activistas here–late last Saturday afternoon, dozens of bicycle colectivos convened their members and other interested cyclists at one of five gathering points throughout the city. From these points, escorted by a colectivo like Ciclo Paseo de los Miercoles or young police officers on bicycles, each group rode to the city’s central park, Parque Simón Bolívar, a trip of anywhere between three and ten miles. The group I rode with had about sixty riders when we started and gained another thirty or so as we traveled.

Once everyone converged on the park from around the city–perhaps three hundred or so people in total–everyone was allowed to ride in the park, which is usually closed at night. A pedal-powered concert at a nearby mall followed. It was a ludic event, full of fun, laughter, and good times. At the front of the pack setting the tone was Bici Pachanga (Bike Party), a colectivo of about a dozen costumed riders mounted on exotic cargo bikes or fixies, and a tricycle with a sound system blaring techno-cumbia party music. Their participation was electrifying and drew a lot of attention from others sharing the streets.

IMG_2678But there were also political assertions at work here. Colectivos with widely different attitudes toward the bicycle put aside whatever differences they have with each other, and by the hundreds put their bodies out into traffic, disrupting the flow of automobile and bus traffic, communicating that they too deserve space on the roads. It also brought together two nascent citizen activist communities–urban environmentalists and cyclists–who have been working in solidarity together in recent years, to affirm their common goal of producing a cleaner city. All of this was on visual display, and the political message was hard to miss.

But there was another kind of power at work here as well, since the event also drew the official recognition and logistical support of various government institutions–the National Police, the city’s Institute of Sport and Recreation–as well as a major commercial center where middle class people shop–all in ways that traditionally marginalized cyclists don’t often experience.

There are many obstacles to bici-activismo here, ranging from political apathy of many citizens to the challenges of doing volunteer organizing when it means putting livelihood concerns to the side. Or the waxing and waning interest on the part of politicians in the plight of the bicycle (currently waxing). And the cultural perception that bicycles are for the poor, and everyone should aspire to own cars. But as a new site of citizen political consciousness takes shape around the bicycle, the forms of power that bici-activistas mobilize will be important to watch.


Nairo Quintana and Urban Cyclist Imaginaries

IMG_0294 Last week began the Giro d’Italia, one of bicycle racing’s most important international stage events. Colombians are well-represented in the race, and two in particular, Rigoberto Urán and Nairo Quintana, are expected to be top finishers.

As of today, Urán is doing very well–he’s in third place–but the race is still young and for weeks commentators here have said they think it will be Quintana who pulls off the win, given his second place finish in last year’s Tour de France and the fact that he and his Movistar team are in tip-top shape.

Quintana is a prominent national figure here, and he fits the classic stereotype of the Colombian racer from humble countryside origins who started riding bikes as transportation and turned into a international bicycle racing sensation. Everyone here knows the prototype. People are especially quick to refer to Lucho “el Jardinerito [Little Gardener] de Fusagasugá” Herrera, the great Colombian pioneer of European racing in the 1980s and early-90s. They almost always observe that he developed his formidable talents, legs, and lungs as a gardener riding to and from his jobs through the mountains outside of Bogotá on a bicycle weighed down with tools. Indeed the gardener with his weed-whacker, rakes, and shovels strapped onto a bicycle is a very common sight here in Bogotá.

Quintana is soft-spoken and timid, grew up in a family of potato and maize farmers in the Department of Boyacá (a department known as especially bicycle-crazy), and got his first bicycle at a young age whereupon he built his stamina and powerful legs as a transportation cyclist running deliveries around the farm and riding to school through Boyacá’s mountainous terrain. In his teens, he began riding with serious sport cyclists, though with casual intentions, and blew everyone away. With training and experience, he has become one of the most formidable escarabajos in Colombian cycling history, escarabajo being a term that means “beetle” and refers to the world-renowned abilities of Colombian racers to climb mountains. Colombia’s best international racers all come from the mountainous regions–Boyacá, Antioquia, Valle del Cauca, and Cundinamarca–and once you see how steep these mountains are, not to mention the high altitudes at which people here ride, it’s no surprise they do so well internationally.

IMG_1737Bicycling is, according to everyone, Colombia’s second sport, behind soccer. But as one friend here has pointed out, all of Colombia’s glories in international sport come from cycling, not soccer. Here in Bogotá, it’s not unusual to see people riding the streets–during Sunday Ciclovías and on any given weekday in the middle of rush hour traffic–out for a brisk ride on an expensive racing bike and full team kit, evoking the glories of Colombian racers like Quintana. As you leave the city and enter the Cundinamarca countryside, especially during the weekend, the numbers of sport riders surge, as does mountain biking; Colombians have developed a reputation as enthusiastic and highly competitive in mountain biking as well. (The photo here is Colombia’s largest mountain bike race that took place a couple of months ago in Boyacá with 690 participants, most of them from Bogotá.)

How do these sporting imaginaries relate to the urban cyclist? Obviously I can’t ask the hundreds of thousands of everyday cyclists, nor can I get in other people’s heads. But it’s pretty clear to me that there is no single imaginary of the urban cyclist, or that it necessarily has much to do with sport. For the majority of bicycle users–these being low income men (mostly, though women ride bikes too)–the imaginary of the bicycle is about convenience, saving money, and saving time, of being free of getting stuck in buses or traffic jams that affect getting to and from work, all set against a backdrop of a struggle for a livelihood. For others, many of them young, educated, and new to the bicycle, it is connected to efforts to reimagine Bogotá as a sustainable city (in fact, the city recently won a prize at the World Urban Forum in Medellín last month for, among other ecological initiatives, its promotion of bicycle transportation). For an even smaller number, it’s about associating with transnational urban trendiness and chic fashion. For still others, it is imagining themselves as active and healthy through their participation in recreation. These are not mutually exclusive imaginaries, and they overlap.

IMG_2094But for some it’s clear that the prominence of Colombia’s competitiveness in bicycle sport gives important symbolic significance and legitimation to their everyday practice of getting around. As a friend involved in bicycle activism observed, “Although riding as an urban cyclist isn’t sport, there’s a tie many of us feel to this history and its glories. It gives you passion and can help you in certain moments. It’s the same heart, the same feeling.”

The lines between the imaginaries of urban transportation cycling and sport, in other words, can blur here. As one of my informants recounted to me, Nairo Quintana himself said in an interview that drivers need to recognize that the next time they cut off a cyclist they might be cutting off a future champion. The bicycle, Quintana said, should be given the status it deserves, whose potential for transportation and sports are equally important to Colombians.

Cross at the Zebras! Intersection Action, Bogotá Style

IMG_2419During the past few weeks as I’ve circulated around the city, I’ve noticed some unusual characters hanging around intersections and sidewalks. I saw several people dressed in zebra costumes on the Avenida Séptima near Avenida Chile (Calle 72). They were talking to pedestrians and cyclists crossing the streets in the middle of the block in front of cars, encouraging them to cross at the “cebras” (“zebras”), or crosswalks at signalled intersections.  They are called cebras because they consist of white painted lines which over black asphalt look like zebra stripes.

Then over several days and in various parts of the city, I ran into these somber characters, several dressed for a funeral and a fellow with a megaphone yelling at people to cross at the cebras. Standing next to them was a gravestone. Here’s one up close:

It says “Antonio ‘The Lively One’ López. Here he lies, the most “watchful” one in the city, the one who was aware above all the other lively ones, he who ‘saved time’ and did not wear himself out looking for a secure crossing. He, the “lively one” now sleeps eternally.” There’s some fun play on words in it; the English translation doesn’t necessarily capture it.

They also handed out flyers like this, announcing in the last five years 26,000 pedestrian injuries and 1,300 deaths due to traffic accidents:


The facts are sobering. As a recent article in El Espectador explains, one pedestrian dies per day in Bogotá, and pedestrians (one of the largest mode shares in this city) are more likely than any other street users–bus riders, cyclists, or car drivers–to get hurt or killed when there is a traffic accident. Often they are innocent victims of careening cars or buses; but as the communications above indicate, pedestrians themselves are often at fault when they run in front of cars and don’t cross at the zebras and other secure crossings.

These “intersection actions” (as we might call them in the U.S.) are part of a city-wide campaign, put on by the Secretariat of Mobility, intended to promote safety and improved traffic flow. They are a long-standing phenomenon in Bogotá. The most legendary ones were performed during the mayorships of Antanas (“El Súper Cívico”) Mockus (1995-8; 2001-3). Among others: issuing soccer red cards to drivers and pedestrians to get citizens to pass judgement on the traffic infringements of others; firing the traffic police and replacing them with mimes for a few months to shock (and embarrass) people into following traffic rules; and painting black stars on the pavement where a pedestrian was killed.

These innovative initiatives were framed as cultivating “citizen culture,” that is, producing a citizenry that recognizes and follows laws as well as norms of basic courtesy and respect for others in public space–none of which (it is widely believed) many Bogotanos are inclined to do. (See here for a video of Mockus at lecturing at Vanderbilt about the theme.) And they worked…for a time. Since Mockus, city administrations have not prioritized these issues and some of the chaos and danger has, according to many, returned. Hence, the Secretariat of Mobility has revived such intersection actions in hopes of reversing the tide and reinvigorating what they now call “inteligencia vial,” or traffic intelligence, on Bogotá’s streets to improve one of the central problems of the city.

But there’s something else going on here that needs to be said. If you turn over the flyer and see the “Recommendations for Pedestrians,” you can see very clearly a central logic of transportation planning in this city that, one could argue, puts pedestrians and cyclists in a position of either inconvenience or vulnerability vis-a-vis motorized vehicles, whose flow is clearly prioritized over others. Look at “Ejemplo 3” at the bottom, which asks pedestrians to make three crossings, instead of making one direct crossing so as not to inconvenience drivers.

Secure Crossings

What pedestrian is actually going to do this? I actually put this question to one of the people running the intersection action, and I can’t say I got a satisfying response from a pedestrian point of view: “If we can reach even several people to change their behavior, that’s important.”

A striking coincidence is that the very same day I received this flyer, there was an article in the free public newspaper ADN arguing that the focus in the city needs to shift from making pedestrians solely responsible for their own safety (such as the campaign above does) to urban transportation planners whose poorly designed infrastructure produces high rates of accidentality for pedestrians. It is because they planned and built pedestrian bridges that in certain areas people avoid, not just because they are a pain to climb up and down but also because they are easy places to get robbed. Or they designed intersections and painted cebras in places that might be convenient for the flow of motorized traffic, but not for pedestrians. Both produce in pedestrians a tendency to make shorter and more direct crossings in places that are ultimately more dangerous for them.

Riding the Séptima, A Video Time-Lapse


Avenida Séptima (7th Avenue) is a major thoroughfare that connects the north and south through the center of the city. It is a corridor of economic and historical importance where many of the city’s most important government institutions, financial and commercial entities, universities, and a large park, Parque Nacional, can be found. When there is a protest march (relatively common here) it is often along this street. One of the most popular Ciclovía routes is on the Séptima and people come out in droves to ride, walk, run, or skate it. A cycling companion once told me that during Ciclovía the Séptima is also a corridor of social encounter, as middle class and wealthy people who live in the north and working class and poor people who live in the south, who otherwise don’t interact informally in this socio-economically divided city, have a chance to circulate on equal footing. So it is a critical transportation corridor with major symbolic significance in this city.

During the week, I travel up and down the Séptima almost everyday since my kids attend schools in the neighborhood of Chapinero, which is north of where we live. We typically mount a Transmilenio bus for these trips, sometimes a colectivo (one of the many buses that pick up and drop off passengers upon request), and every now and again a taxi. I usually don’t ride a bike on the Séptima because the traffic can be especially chaotic and unpredictable along here–one minute it is a stand-still traffic jam with motorcycles taking up spaces between cars–the next minute it is break-neck speed as the buses, private cars, and motorcycles all race to make up for lost time. All the time, colectivos and taxis unexpectedly swerve to the sides to pick up or drop off passengers.

Conditions for cyclists are extremely unfriendly: potholes and irregular asphalt, rushing traffic, doors suddenly opening, pedestrians wanting to cross in front of you, and most of all the incessant buses and colectivos threatening to cut you off.

But the cyclists are there. These cyclists have the option of riding a “protected” parallel cicloruta/cycletrack just several blocks away (on the 13th and 11th), but they choose to ride the Séptima–because it’s more direct, faster, and perhaps even because it’s more of an adrenaline rush. Some of these cyclists are deliverymen, riding cargo bikes and carrying heavy loads. Others are young twenty-something students (men and women), heading to class at one of the universities on fixies, cruisers, or mountain bikes. Still others are recreational cyclists, kitted out in their team Colombia racing jerseys. And many, if not most, are this city’s everyday cyclists who don’t draw a lot of attention to themselves–the working class men getting to and from their places of work.

I rode the Séptima this morning around 9am, just as rush-hour was winding down, with a time-lapse camera, starting at my daughter’s school on Calle 70a and ending at my apartment on Calle 26, a ride of about fifty blocks. In this section, much of the Séptima is six lanes wide, with a divider down the middle. Cyclists mostly ride in the right lane, but it’s not unusual to see riders in the left lane (what in the U.S. we might call the “fast lane;” here it is only “fast” because it is not interrupted by buses, taxis, or cars pulling over).

This 2 minute video shows my experience.

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