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.

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.

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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