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Colombia’s car free roads set example and save lives

Every Sunday Bogotá closes roads to cars
Every Sunday Bogotá closes roads to cars

Colombian cycling aficionados will not easily forget 2014. With his win in the Giro d’Italia, Nairo Quintana gave to his country its most prestigious victory in road cycling so far. The country’s only other Grand Tour success dates back 27 years when Lucho Herrera’s claimed victory in the Vuelta a España 1987.  Alongside Quintana, other Colombians such as Carlos Betancur (winner of Paris-Nice), David Arredondo and Rigoberto Uran (triumphing in two of the toughest stages of the Giro) sit at the tip of an iceberg of passion.

The country is in love with cycling. A share of the credit for this has to go to the geography: with its altitude plateaus and never-ending climbs, Colombians have what it takes to shape great cyclists. The nation’s relationship with the bike, however, runs deeper. Cycling for leisure or transport is a regular activity in Colombia, and is encouraged by the public sector’s initiatives, the most famous of which is the ciclovía.

Ciclovías are regular car-free days that put long segments of a city’s streets off-limits to motorised transport. Launched in Colombia in the seventies, they are now popular – often known as “Open Streets” – all over the world. Public recreational programmes such as Ciclovías have proven to be cost-effective from a public health point of view, as they help participants meet recommended levels of physical activity.

Millions take advantage of Bogotá’s car-free streets

Ciclovía is Spanish for “bike path”. It’s nothing revolutionary on the surface.  But Colombia’s capital city Bogotá has attached a new meaning to these two words. Ciclovías are regular car-free days during which sizeable portions of the city are liberated from motorised transport and 100% dedicated to citizens who can run, cycle, skate – or just wander around and socialize.

Bogotá’s ciclovía offers more than 90 km entirely protected from cars, with marshals, safety assistants, bike mechanics, sports instructors and guides (all paid) on hand to make the experience enjoyable for everyone. The first experiments date back to the seventies, and the programme is now one of Bogotá’s flagship initiatives. The city has the world’s most impressive ciclovía programme, with 72 events held each year (every Sunday plus holidays).  Each time, between 1 and 1.5 million people take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy the capital’s roads unencumbered by cars.  The amazing success of the ciclovías has inspired dozens of other cities worldwide, especially in the Americas, to set up similar projects as in Mexico City (below).

"Open Street" in Mexico City

If you’re going to do it, do it well

So what does it take to put on an effective ciclovía?

A study has shown that buy-in from community partners, merchants, residents and city agencies is vital for the quality and the sustainability of an Open Street programme.

Large professional cycling events are therefore a perfect occasion to launch a public recreational programme, leveraging on the drive and on the togetherness that major sport events create in local business communities.

Richmond, Virginia, which will host the UCI World Road Championships 2015, has an annual ciclovía, “RVA Streets Alive”, where roads are closed to vehicles to enable cyclists and pedestrians to move freely in a festival atmosphere.

The Toronto-based non-profit organization “8-80 Cities” has developed a manual for ciclovía implementation as well as other resources to disseminate knowledge about the project. 8-80 is led by Gil Peñalosa, one of the world’s gurus of city planning for people’s well being and former Commissioner of Parks, Sports and Recreation in Bogotá. He is aware that certain local administrators may be reticent to organise such events because of concerns about disruption to businesses, road closures and angry voters: "Change is hard, everywhere; but you must do what is right, not what is easy," advises Mr Peñalosa. "General interest must prevail over the wishes of a few individuals. The benefits go further than recreation for all: they include improvements to mental and physical health, the environment and economic development."

To get a feeling of what a ciclovía is like, check out this 2007 short movie by Street Films.

Savings potential

Still not convinced?  Detractors of the ciclovía movement just might be won over when looking at the public health and social benefits of physical activity for the masses.

Academic studies have shown that ciclovías give positive returns on investment, with the health benefits of increasing activity far outweighing the costs of implementation.

Another paper has found that those taking part in ciclovías do not only meet physical activity recommendations, but also have “higher levels of social capital”, defined as a set of “networks, norms and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.”  And, as other research has shown, “higher social capital perception is associated with well-being and perceived health” as reflected in the faces of these young women in Jakarta during one of the Indonesian capital's car-free days.

Car-free day in Indonesian capital, Jakarta

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “rapid unplanned urbanization” is one of the major influencing trends of global health. A US study has shown that lower-income and ethnic minority areas are less likely to have access to recreational facilities where they can engage in free-of-cost physical activity. Programmes like Ciclovías have the potential to bridge this access gap: according to a study conducted in San Francisco, ciclovías participants represent the city’s ethnic minorities; Other researchers suggest that Bogotá participants come from low and middle income groups, in ratios that represent the city’s society.

Health systems under pressure

The progressive ageing of the population, caused by longer life expectancy coupled with sinking fertility rates, contains a number of financial challenges for governments, particularly for their health systems.

This demographic change means a shift in the leading causes of disease and death. Chronic and degenerative diseases (mainly coronary heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, colon cancer, breast cancer and depression) are on the rise throughout the world, regardless of the income level.

According to WHO, by 2030 chronic diseases will account for more than one-half of the disease burden in low-income countries and more than 75% in middle-income ones.

Chronic diseases result in costs for the community, both direct (health care expenditure) and indirect (lost economic productivity).

In addition, the WHO estimates that physical inactivity ranked fourth of 19 mortality risk factors globally.

Cycling’s role in disease prevention

It is widely acknowledged that physical activity is key in preventing chronic disease. The WHO and the US government suggest that 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week (or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise) are enough to improve in the adults cardio-respiratory fitness, muscular strength, metabolic health and bone health.

150 minutes a week can easily be reached by integrating cycling to work or education in a person’s daily routine.

A 2012 study published on The Lancet has found that if people in urban England and Wales cycled and walked as much as Copenhageners do, the National Health Service could save around £17 billion (CHF 26b, EUR 21b) within twenty years.

But what would you do if you were the Mayor of a 7.6m-people megalopolis, with the highest income inequality in South America and soaring rates of traffic-related mortality?

Setting up a ciclovía is probably a good answer. And more food for thought…. The Colombian capital of Bogatá is also known for its cicloruta – one of the world’s most extensive bike path networks (300 km). Learn here how this infrastructure is helping 200,000 people get around each day in Bogotá.

Photo credits: Mexico City (Justin Swan), Jakarta (killerturnip)

 

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