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:

Posted in Bogotá Research (2013-14), Fieldwork Blog. Tags: , , , . Comments Off on What has become of my Bogotá research?

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.

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.

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.

Skip to toolbar