What has become of my Bogotá research?

Five years ago, I produced the blog here as a kind of “reports from the field” site, where I could share with friends and colleagues back home what I was up to, and also begin to process the kinds of themes I was encountering, in my ethnographic fieldwork on urban bicycle culture and politics in Bogotá, Colombia. Over 800 people followed it, and then it went…stagnant.

But I didn’t go stagnant on the research, writing, and thinking. The research I did in Bogotá–and the blog I produced here–got me thinking a lot about the complicated and contextual relationships between cyclists and bicycle infrastructure, sparked by the skepticism and selective use of bike lanes I found among Bogotano cyclists, who did not automatically trust the infrastructure built for them with much fanfare, or assume it was always appropriate for them to use. I ended up writing up these thoughts in an essay called “On the Mundane Significance of Bike Lanes…And the Pursuit of Anthropology in the Here and Now.” It was published here, in this book.

In developing that essay, it struck me that there is a kind of ‘common sense’ in the U.S., rooted in technological determinism, that “if you build it, they will come,” in other words, all you really need to get people to use the bicycle as a form of everyday urban transportation is bike infrastructure, especially bike lanes protected by bollards, planters, etc. which give a sense of security. Bogotá complicates that story–explained in my “On the Mundane Significance of Bike Lanes” essay–and there is plenty of critical thinking out there about it in the U.S. as well (such as here, and here). Adonia Lugo, another cultural anthropologist, has shared some very thoughtful and important writing and advocacy on the notion of ‘human infrastructure’ as a way to adapt the dominant discourse of contemporary traffic engineering while redirecting it from its technological reductionism.

Beyond the bicycle and bike lanes themselves as socio-technologies grounded in everyday social relations, what fascinates me about all this is the common-sensical notions that circulate around these matters, which (as we anthropologists are fond of saying) are neither common nor sensical. In other words, what might be constituted as ‘common sense’ in one cultural, geographic, or historical context seems strange or downright foolish in another. With that in mind, I launched on more systematic (meta)thinking about how that category of knowing–‘common sense’–intersects with and shapes discourse around urban bicycle use. In my college, when you are promoted to Full Professor, you are asked to deliver a kind of valedictory lecture on your work, so I decided to use mine to explore this topic in a lecture entitled “On the Anthropology of Bicycles and (Un)Common Sense, available here:

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Scrutinizing Bogotá’s Miraculous Transformation

Ciclovia shot 2014This interesting article in The Guardian just came across my transom. It’s about anthropological research that scrutinizes Bogotá’s apparent urban transformation during the past twenty years by looking critically at the gap between how the story has been sold internationally and on-the-ground realities in Bogotá, where much of the bally-hooed change has either not materialized, or just reinforced certain pre-existing social hierarchies. It’s a theme that aligns closely with my own research, though my ethnographic focus is distinct.

As I was leaving Bogotá to return to the U.S. back in late-June, one of my anthropology colleagues at the Universidad Nacional told me about a book project she was working on with a similar critical focus and she invited me to make my own contribution. Getting to our meeting had been a bit of an ordeal as my cheap Colombian bicycle, perhaps sensing that I would soon be abandoning it, decided to go haywire on me. Crossing through an intersection three or four spokes shot out of the rear wheel, one of them right into my tire, resulting in a quickly flattening tire, and–somehow–generating one of the worst chain sucks I’ve ever witnessed. I’m a handy bike mechanic but it took me a good twenty minutes to massage–and strong arm–the bike back into useable shape with no tools, and we limped to the meeting (very late now) with me covered in grease and nasty Bogotá street grime.

Protesta 2014After my profuse apologies and efforts to not get grease all over the chair I was sitting in, she explained that the project she was working on examines how Colombia’s declining homicide rates, new constitutional protections of ethnic rights, its initiatives to demobilize paramilitaries, and its efforts at urban renewal have become the basis of a widely-circulating narrative, promoted by the U.S. and Colombian governments and media outlets throughout North America and Europe, of Colombia as a model for successful policy innovation. The way the narrative had been constructed and circulated, she argued, had greatly oversimplified some incredibly complex and unfinished dynamics that were still playing out. A point anthropologists often make, and it was hers too, is that “innovative” policy solutions don’t enter into historical, political-economic, and cultural vaccuums, and in fact the dynamics associated with these domains continue to shape the social field as well as the ways these policies are interpreted and implemented. It captivated me immediately because it was this very narrative of Bogotá as innovative bicycle city that I had come to scrutinize.

Four wheelerSo with her invitation to think more deeply about this issue, here’s what I’m working on now:

During the 7th World Urban Forum of 2014, Bogotá received a coveted Urban Sustainability prize, recognized for its initiatives to lower water and energy consumption, promote the use of recycled construction materials, and strengthen non-motorized transportation through the addition of new lanes to its already expansive network of bicycle lanes and tracks. Bogotá’s image as a global beacon of transportation sustainability, in particular, has circulated widely during the past decade, in part thanks to the abilities former mayors Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa have had to communicate on a global stage their administrations’ urban revitalization and alternative transportation initiatives between 1994 and 2003.

In those initiatives, the bicycle was singled out as a protagonist in constructing a new “citizen culture” and in enabling all citizens, regardless of socio-economic status, to have equal right to the city. The expansion of the city’s weekly ciclovía events and the creation of the largest bicycle network in the Americas has generated interest among northern audiences and urban leaders struggling with their own problems of mobility, and led the BBC in 2011 to declare Bogotá a “biking paradise.” But during the past decade, even as more people have taken to the bicycle as an everyday mode of transportation in Bogotá, successive city administrations have ignored or downplayed the bicycle as a priority in dealing with the city’s ongoing mobility problems, and huge numbers of people continue to express skepticism about bicycles as a viable transportation option.

In response to poorly-designed and now crumbling infrastructure, many bicycle riders express a strong sense that the “golden years” are over, and the city is experiencing the rise of an increasingly assertive citizen bicycle advocacy sector struggling to communicate the relevance of the bicycle to a skeptical public and policymakers. This paper, which is based on ethnographic fieldwork among Bogotá bicycle advocates and city officials involved in bicycle mobility issues, explores why so many Bogotanos themselves problematize the image of the city as a biking paradise, the reasons the image still circulates transnationally, and the quotidian struggles involved in constructing a new bicycle culture and politics in the city.

Beginning to Pull Together My Findings

My family and I have been back from Bogotá for about a month and a half now, and though I’ve been submerged in summer teaching and finishing a new textbook on cultural anthropology for Oxford University Press, I haven’t stopped thinking about my fieldwork in Bogotá and the issues it has raised for me as an ethnographer of urban bicycle mobility. I was recently invited to give a talk on my research at the University of Vermont’s Transportation Research Center, where I am a faculty affiliate and involved in Vermont-based bicycle research. A video of the talk, entitled “Getting Around Bogotá by Bicycle: Some Ethnographic Reflections” in which I tentatively share some of my findings is above.

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.


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