A contrast I noticed between two of my days in Bogota best describes my experience there. I spent a Saturday riding by myself through many of the bike paths that my guide Andres had not shown me on the day before.
It was a pretty bad day. I have never seen traffic like what I saw that day, in any city. Nor have I breathed such polluted air. And this is coming from someone who is a frequent visitor to Mexico City! Bogota traffic was considerably worse than anything I have ever seen in Mexico, and the air was worse, too.
The bike paths were nice, but they ran alongside busy streets that were full of cars, buses, and trucks belching out fumes. Many of these vehicles are Chinese-made and appear to have no emissions controls whatsoever.
Also, many of the bike paths went along sidewalks that were so full of pedestrians doing some Saturday shopping that bicycling on them was not really feasible.
At the end of that day I retired to my hotel with stinging eyes and lungs and the strong feeling that it is not bike advocates so much as car advocates who need to visit Bogota. It truly is a pre-apocalyptic technological dystopia there, all because of the damned cars. If someone had asked me on that day if I could live in Bogota, I would have said no . . . f . . . ing . . . way. I would do anything necessary not to live in that city.
But then on Sunday, somewhat demoralized at first, I rode the ciclovia. Whole roadways, some of them many lanes wide, were silent except for the sounds of feet on pavement and chains on cassettes, and the laughter and chatter of people. The air was clear. Police were everywhere ensuring the safety of the riders. Food vendors lined the streets everywhere, and bike mechanics were, it seemed, positioned on nearly every block, ready to keep the bicycles running. Smiling young Ciclovia employees, many with hand-made signs welcoming the riders, were at every intersection helping people decide which direction to go. Dance, yoga, and aerobics classes were teeming with people of all sizes, ages, classes, ethnicities, and styles, and everyone was laughing and having a good time meeting their neighbors.
It was a completely, completely different experience from the day before.
Colombia is a very poor country, quite obviously poorer than Mexico, and Bogota is a city that has many problems relating to poverty, the environment, crime, and of course drug trafficking. But it is also a city with a stunningly visionary and ambitious commitment to bicycle transport and to the physical health of its people.
Should a city care enough about the health of its citizens to close some streets once a week? Is it the responsibility of a city to make its streets safe and available to its citizens for non-motorized transport?
Let me also ask this: What person, anywhere in the world, cannot benefit in body and mind from a Sunday morning stroll? If a person’s entire city is invited to partake of that stroll, who wins and who loses?
I think the only losers are the ones who choose to stay at home. All the rest of us win.