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.

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.


Skip to toolbar