First Encounters

I arrived in Copenhagen on Friday 4/5, about midday. I had flown here on KLM, the Dutch Airline, and through the haze of transatlantic overnight flight exhaustion, was greeted with this cup of coffee. Note the bicycle.

Note, Dutch stereotypes abound here, including the bicycle.

There is a friendly rivalry between the Danes and the Dutch about which country (and cities within each country) is/are the more bike friendly. Both countries have closely identified themselves on the international scene with bicycle urbanism and the creation of good cities through prioritizing bicycling as an an everyday practice. They have both worked hard during the past decade and a half or so to position themselves globally as knowledge creators eager to spread best practice models of bicycle policy implementation through ideologies like “Copenhagenize” and the Dutch Cycling Embassy.

I won’t take any sides here, but will say that most Americans, when they arrive in a city like Amsterdam or Copenhagen are taken aback by the sheer visibility of bicycles and people riding them. It seems to strain credibility that contemporary urban life can be grounded in the bicycle, for so many people. And in Copenhagen, those people are women (who are the majority of bicycler users).

And the American sense of urban order is destabilized, by cyclists wizzing by or stacking up at intersections in large numbers, such as this late afternoon scene near the train station in Copenhagen, on an important artery road:

Or by scenes like this, of bicycles strewn, seemingly willy-nilly on sidewalks that are already perilously narrow:

In Copenhagen bike racks around buildings proliferate, but the Danish idea of bike parking also involves parking a bicycle nearest to where you want to be. It is enabled by a particular kind of lock system on the rear wheel that prevents the bicycle from being ridden off (though not carried off, the suspicious American recognizes). This way of parking bicycles can force the pedestrian to take to the street, which can produce discomfort, a nagging sense that you’re doing something wrong, dangerous, even illegal…because the street is automobile, not people, space. But the relationship between people, bicycles, cars, and urban space is more complicated.

On small streets like this, cars are considered heavy and dangerous and the responsibility on the driver is to be careful. It leads to an interesting choreography I saw play out in Aarhus this morning, in the picture above, in which people sitting in a cafe spill out on to the street, bicyclists and pedestrians are coming and going, and periodically a car moves through. But the driver does it slowly and almost gingerly, swerving here and there to avoid walkers, people sitting in the street, and bicycle riders.

It’s not that either Denmark or the Netherlands are some kind of special Valhalla where there aren’t also very unfriendly, fast moving roads where cars dominate (I’ve seen plenty of those, not too far from where this picture is taken). And in the areas where bicycles are most common, as a pedestrian you have be hyper-aware of bicycle riders moving very swiftly from behind. But as far as first encounters go, most Americans are likely to experience a combination of pleasure, awe, and disorientation at seeing these kinds of things…

Posted in Denmark Research (2019). Tags: , , . Comments Off on First Encounters

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.

Some things I’ve learned as an urban cyclist in the centro of Bogotá

IMG_1925I live in the center of Bogotá and circulate between here and the north of the city everyday. Conditions for cyclists are quite variable elsewhere in this enormous city, but these are some of the things I’ve learned in my last two months about urban cycling in the centro:

1. Have no fear. It is necessary to have a lot of confidence in your abilities as a bicycle rider and to have no fear if you are going out into Bogotá’s chaotic traffic. Apparent risks and threats are myriad, from hostile car drivers and unpredictable taxis and buses that can squash you, to finding yourself traveling through a dangerous neighborhood. Many Bogotanos consider riding a bike too fearful in these circumstances and won’t do it. But…

IMG_10922. For practically all trips up to 5 or 6 miles, riding a bike is faster than getting places in a private car, taxi, bus, or Transmilenio. I hear it all the time from my informants and I experience it myself almost daily. One of my usual daily trips is 45-50 minutes on bus and 25 minutes on a bike. During the trajectory of a bus ride I can often keep track of cyclists over many blocks and the norm is for them to make out better than us. And riding a bike is predictably quick, while traffic conditions, which are often terrible, can really delay you in a car or bus. Part of the reason for this is that…

3. Riding a bike in the city is a liberating and creative practice. As a cyclist you have more options to use street space than do drivers of cars and buses, and cyclists here creatively use the spaces available to them—streets, spaces between motorized vehicles, sidewalks (it is legal to ride on them), and Ciclorutas—to move quickly. If you are a confident rider you have a lot of liberty to be creative—the police are indifferent and other road users assume that you’re just like them: out to get ahead anyway you can so they’re pretty tolerant of your moves. Connected to this issue is the fact that…

IMG_18464. Traffic signs are untrustworthy and intersections are negotiable. Different intersections often have individual norms that diverge from what the signs say, if there are any signs, that is. It might say “Ceda el Paso” (Yield) but then don’t see much yielding going on…You have to quickly assess the invisible norms and the contingent flow at that moment in order to make a decision. And when you’re stopped at an intersection and there is no cross traffic, some cyclists will wait for the lights but most zip right through. You also have to be creative because…

5. “If you ride in a straight line, you’re in trouble.” One of my informants made this observation in response to our hearing a story from a third cyclist about riding on the Cicloruta and getting hit by a taxi while he was crossing an intersection. There are myriad reasons for it: cars pulling in front of you with no warning, holes in the pavement, pedestrians stepping in your way, trash, etc. But you also have to beware because…

IMG_19246. If you swerve a lot you’re also in trouble. You need to have a keen sense of space behind, to the side, and in front of you if and when you swerve, and your movement has to be pretty precise. Someone or something might be in the space you want to move into—other cyclists, pedestrians, etc.—and chances are you’ve not been given any audible warning since aside from ubiquitous honking, there’s not a lot of communication between travelers.

7. You have to really trust your bike…even if you don’t trust it. Bogotá streets have steep curbs, cracks and holes in the pavement, and other physical irregularities. A bike takes a beating, and you have to trust it will all hold together. Screws loosen, tires get pinched, etc. so you always have to be monitoring the status of your bike. If there is a problem, assistance can be scarce, or worse, it can happen when you are passing through a dangerous area. I really have to trust my cheap bicycle to work, even though I don’t really trust it much, being accustomed to much higher quality urban bicycles at home.

8. Most people are indifferent toward your well-being as a cyclist. Most pedestrians and drivers of motorized vehicles, it seems, would just as soon run you over or get in your way, and let you get out of theirs. They are indifferent to the fact that you’re there. Courtesy is rare, and everyone assumes they’re out for themselves.

IMG_18939. Riding the Cicloruta in some areas can be like playing Frogger with pedestrians. There is an implicit transportation hierarchy in this city, with motorized vehicles on top, bicycles a distant second, and pedestrians even lower. One reflection of this inequality is that when the city built some of the earliest Ciclorutas, they put them on sidewalks, taking space away from pedestrians. Whether it is lack of space, resentment, or that indifference mentioned above, pedestrians are regularly walking in and crossing the Cicloruta without looking. Riding a a Cicloruta can sometimes be like the old video game Frogger in which you’re dodging one person after another to avoid hitting them.

10. Riding on the street with automobiles and bus traffic is much faster than riding the Cicloruta. Many of the most committed urban cyclists avoid the Ciclorutas because it is quicker and more efficient to stick with automobile traffic. On the Cicloruta you may have to stop to wait for cross-traffic or turning vehicles at every intesection and hassle with pedestrians. Although some intersections have ramps for you down to the street level (sidewalks are about 18 inches up), chances are there isn’t one, and you have to jump up and down off the sidewalks onto the street. Without all this stop and go, bucking and weaving, and up and down, you can get places a lot more quickly.

IMG_189511. Bike parking is scarce, substandard, and unreliable. This is a major concern of bicycle activists in the city right now and they are fighting for change on this issue. Bike racks are scarce and when available often packed with other bikes; many public parking lots don’t allow bike parking; and leaving your bike out for long, even if it’s locked, is generally considered risky given the number of bike thefts here. Experienced cyclists generally know where they can park, but if there’s nothing available, will cajole or negotiate their bikes into the store, café, or house.

12. Know your bike’s serial number. Where there is bike parking and it is inside the building or campus of a government institution, university, or corporation that has security guards at the front entrance, you have to register your bike when you enter and check it out when you leave. It can be a cumbersome process as the guard fills out a ledger or two slips of paper (one for him, one for you) with your name, ID number, characteristics of the bicycle…and the last four digits of the bike’s serial number. It’s helpful if you have all that info memorized. And don’t lose that little slip of paper, or getting your bike out when you leave can be a problem.

 13. At a traffic signal, take your spot at the front of the other traffic. When arriving at an intersection with a red signal light, cyclists don’t line up behind the cars, they filter their way—weaving through stacked up cars and buses—to take their spot at the front. As long as you don’t bump any of the cars with your handlebars, nobody minds.

14. At a traffic signal, take advantage of the flashing yellow light indicating a green light is coming. Following up from #13, here as in many Latin American countries, the yellow light on a traffic signal flashes briefly right before the signal turns from red to green. As a cyclist at the front of the line, this is your head-start. But beware of cross-traffic running the light.

IMG_188015. Get some accessories, especially a whistle. Elite urban cyclists here have whistles hanging on their helmets that make very sharp sounds, and they use them liberally and loudly to warn car drivers and pedestrians to stay out of their way. It is also somewhat common to see cyclists wearing face masks (everything from a bandana to full-on nuclear meltdown type breathing masks) to filter out noxious bus fumes.

16. You can squeeze between a stopped bus and a sidewalk…but watch for dismounting passengers. Since the buses called colectivos stop and go all the time, they regularly and unexpectedly swerve to the sidewalks all the time. If you’re riding on the right side of the road you have to make some quick decisions about what to do. I’ve observed and even myself squeezed between the bus and the sidewalk, but you have to time it superbly as passengers dismount right in front of you.

 IMG_188717. You mix it up with electric bicycles, motorized bicycles, mopeds, and even sometimes motorcycles on the Cicloruta. Hybrid bicycles are relatively common, and motorcycles are ubiquitous. They all move much faster than you can pedal. And they show up on the Ciclorutas, meaning you have to keep your eye out for them lest you swerve into one as it speeds up from behind you.

18. Many experienced urban cyclists claim to have developed claustrophobia of public buses. Experienced and committed urban cyclists have often reported to me that after gaining a sense of confidence and adpating to traffic conditions on a bicycle, they have liberated themselves from the drudgery of riding public buses—which is the by far the largest mode share here. They say that riding a bus is constricting and claustrophobic. They don’t like to be crammed in like sardines and they feel they’ve lost one of the things they most prize as cyclists, their freedom.


Buying a Bicycle in Bogotá

About three weeks ago, my family and I purchased bicycles. For me, the purpose of having a bicycle is obvious: riding one–to and from my work at the Universidad Nacional, running errands, etc.–is a form of participant observation. Having the actual experience of riding around helps me better understand what others tell me about it: the mundane frustrations, the excitement, the marginality, the feelings of moral righteousness as one passes automobiles snarled in traffic jams, the experience of taking it for repairs, and so on. The issues are complex and subtle.

Here is the bicycle I bought. I set it up as a utilitarian urban bike, with fenders and a rack:


For my family, on the other hand, having bicycles is pretty much solely for a recreational purpose: to ride them in Ciclovías, the Sunday morning tradition–a “rolling parade” as someone called it–here where numerous streets are closed to automobiles and people come out in droves to ride bicycles, walk, rollerblade, etc. as seen here with my son:IMG_0955Depending on where you buy it, purchasing a bicycle can be quite different from buying a bicycle in the U.S. There are some shops, mostly in the middle-class and wealthy northern part of the city, that sell mid-level and high-level imports (Specialized, Trek, etc.) and the layout of the shop, the selection of bicycles, the interaction with an attendant–and the prices–are similar to any of the some 4,000 shops you’d find in the U.S. But there are other shops–the majority–that are densely-packed, small-scale businesses where Bogotanos shop for bikes and parts that are concentrated next to each other in a few locations around the city. It’s bit like how retail is clustered in New York City: if you want to buy restaurant equipment, find the neighborhood where it’s sold and you’ll find a bunch of shops next to each other. So it is with retail in Bogotá.

So when we decided to buy our bicycles we chose one of those bike shop areas, a neighborhood called 7 de Agosto (around Calle 68 with Carrera 28), where there about two dozen shops.


One of the striking things about the shop we chose–and it is not unusual in the mainstream shops–is that the attendants were women. My wife responded positively, contrasting it with her experience in U.S. bike shops where she says she feels alienated by the masculinity and tech-heavy vibe. Here she felt welcome because the women we interacted with–the shop attendant who helped us pick our bikes, the woman behind the counter who handled the financial transaction–were asking about who we were, what we were doing here, how our kids (who were with us) were adjusting to life here, sharing with us suggestions about where to eat lunch nearby, etc. I asked the woman behind the counter why it was so common for women to be in the bike shop business and she explained jokingly, “Because we’re so much more intelligent and careful with money than men!” Many bike shops are family-owned and you’ll see spouses working together and their kids playing around the shop. Except for the high-end shops I’ve visited, one gets the sense that bike shop employees and owners are not “cyclists” as they often are in the U.S., that is, bike enthusiasts who identify themselves closely with bike culture and events. Here, the bicycle appears to be just another commodity to sell.

We bought the cheapest bicycles possible, Colombian-manufactured mountain bikes, for about $75 each. At this level, bike sizes don’t really vary so the process of picking a bike is not around sizing but which color or substitutions you want (front shocks, higher end shifters, etc.)–they’ll pretty much compose the bike you want. We didn’t test the bikes at all–lack of trust in strangers is a pervasive feature of life here, and it didn’t seem conceivable at this mid-to-low-end shop to even ask to try the bikes out on the city streets out front. One result is that it is very common to see people riding bikes that clearly don’t fit them, usually because the bikes are too small. When we made the purchase, they did not push accessories on us which I’ve seen is common in shops at home (locks, tools, fenders, etc.).

One of the important issues to get squared away right off the bat once you pay for a bike is for the shop to issue our “proof of ownership” card. Here’s mine:


Bicycle theft is a big problem here. One measure to deal with it–mostly ineffective at combating the problem, according to my friends in bicycle circles–is that police can stop you while you’re on a bicycle and ask to see your proof of ownership card. They have the ability to confiscate the bicycle if you cannot prove you own it. And apparently they do actually confiscate bikes, in big quantities, to the point that I’ve heard there is a huge mountain of bicycles in a police yard somewhere in the city where all the confiscated bicycles reside.


Getting Used to Getting Around in Bogotá

Traffic in Bogota

In my first weeks here, much of my time has been focused on family, as my wife Peggy and I help our three kids (ages 5, 8, and 12) get settled in emotionally and culturally into a new life that is unfamiliar to them. This includes navigating the effects of their culture shock and incomprehension of what people are saying to them in their daily interactions (they don’t speak much Spanish yet), as well as getting them started and settled in their schools–a preschool for the youngest and Spanish language school for the older ones. It also includes moving from Burlington, Vermont, an small-scale and intimate city where we walk and ride bikes most places–and can mostly take our safety in public space for granted–to an enormous city where traffic is usually pretty horrible and distrust of public space is the norm. It has been at times exhilirating and other times frustrating and difficult.

Some of our difficulties and tensions have emerged around getting to and from places; moving five people of different ages under any conditions in a large city is a challenge. Of course, we’re not alone, and it’s striking how much getting places consumes time, money, and emotional energy here. Indeed, it’s fair to say that one of the central concerns of peoples’ lives here, aside from having a place to live and a job or some other means to make money, is how to get to and from the places that are important or necessary in their lives. And it’s not easy–people often live distant from those places, and the infrastructure and social experience of moving around can be difficult and frustrating. Among the first things I’ve heard people comment on when you see them is how bad the traffic was, how crowded the buses were, or how unpleasant was the experience of getting there. One woman I know travels about 2 hours each way to get from her home to her place of work. Both are in the northern part of the city and as the crow flies less than twenty miles. But the circuitous bus routes and terrible traffic make it long and arduous. Her commute is not unusual in this city; she is one of literally millions who have similar situations.

We live in the center of the city but have to travel some fifty blocks each way to where the kids’ schools are. Soon I will be commuting to teach at the National University, which is twenty or so blocks away. We have options, of course–taxis, public colectivos (buses), and the Transmilenio bus rapid transit system. We also bought bicycles, which I intend to use to get to and from the university, but moving a family around by bicycle in everyday life seems pretty impossible (more on that in another post). As I said, moving a family of five is no simple logistical task–piling in taxis, which are mostly really small–and it can get somewhat expensive (about $5 each way for all of us on Transmilenio or a colectivo). The jostling and discomfort on public transport, which can get crowded, is a concern. Given the hassles and sense of distrust of public transit, most middle class families like ours would get a car or send their kids on school buses to get to and from school. Neither are really options for us, so we’re getting used to (the difficulties of) getting around in Bogotá.

It’s No Car Day in Bogotá

My family and I arrived a few days ago in Bogotá and we have been settling in to our new lives here, and as a result I’ve not been too active on the research front. But today I got out early to experience a unique event here in Bogotá, which is its annual “Día Sin Carros,” or Day Without Cars. My street, Carrera 5, which is often very busy, has been pretty quiet all day:

 no cars

As you can see, there’s a taxi here so “no car day” isn’t meant to be literal. In fact, a few blocks away on the main thoroughfare of 7th Avenue, the traffic was unusually bad during morning rush hour. But it’s pretty much all buses, taxis, delivery vehicles, motorcycles, and official government vehicles. Private automobiles are outlawed on city streets on this day, and though I’m sure they’re out there collaboration seems very high.

bad trafficSo what’s a Bogotano to do? Many ride the Transmilenio Bus Rapid Transit system to get to work and run errands, intensifying use of a system that is already heavily used. As one woman I know who normally rides Transmilenio to her job as a housekeeper complained, “This day is the worst, you really get packed in on the buses.”

TransmilenioBut what’s remarkable is how many people use body power to get around, mostly on two wheels:

Roller wheelsActually, this guy is an exception. Most people are on bicycles.

Promoting active transportation and especially use of the city’s major bikeway system is what this event is all about. It was begun in 2000, and while some people such as the woman quoted above complain about it, it has tremendous popular support. In fact, an effort to have Car Free Day once a month as opposed to once a year passed by popular vote but was defeated in the courts by resentful business owners who thought it would negatively affect retail shopping.

People come out in droves on bicycle, and it is not unusual to see people who do not otherwise look like hard-bitten everyday cyclists coming out on bikes they normally use for recreational Sunday Ciclovía events (car free streets). You can tell by their somewhat widened eyes and unstable movements in traffic.

new riders

I even observed several bicycle caravans helping college students get to their universities. In recent weeks, bicycle advocates have been organizing such caravans in preparation for today to teach people routes, what to wear, and to develop confidence in bike riding–which can be quite harrowing in Bogotá traffic even with the massive bikeway system of separated lanes. But no matter who they are, people are wearing their street/work clothes and riding bicycles that are meant for comfort and practicality and not speed.

Streets stay open to motorized vehicles, but on major streets one lane is cordoned off with cones for non-motorized use. There is some mixing of modes as you can see in this short video.

In some cases, whole roads–no, sides of a freeway–are set aside, as in this time lapse video:

In a city of this scale, No Car Day is a major logistical undertaking involving thousands of police and city officials whose presence can be felt in almost any major intersection.

PoliceI find it hard to imagine a North American city pulling this off. Not only would the resistance from suburban commuters be strong, but no city is currently prepared to handle the logistics. Bogotá can do it because it already closes down some 133km of city streets every Sunday and holiday for Ciclovía so it has the institutional experience and systems in place already.

P.M. Update: It’s remarkable out there post-morning rush-hour. The streets are surprisingly mellow, many people still on bikes, and the number of buses and taxis is much lower. As a pedestrian one gets a sense of–almost, but not quite–tranquility that is unusual in such a large city.

Posted in Bogotá Research (2013-14), Fieldwork Blog. Tags: , , , . Comments Off on It’s No Car Day in Bogotá
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