Almost every Sunday morning for the past ten years, Carlos Andres Velez has taken his dog Annaid (Dianna spelled backwards) for a run in the middle of a busy highway in Medellin, Colombia’s second city.
He and Annaid join the throngs of joggers, cyclists, roller-skaters, strollers and lycra-clad posers, young and old, taking part in Ciclovia, a Spanish term meaning “cycleway”, which sees the city’s streets closed to cars for a few hours to let foot and pedal power take over the road.
“It helps me break my routine and I like the family atmosphere” says Velez, a consultant in his thirties, drinking from a plastic cup of freshly pressed orange juice at a roadside stall. “I spend my whole week at a desk and so it helps me relax too. During the week after I’ve done Ciclovia, I always feel better”.
First introduced to Medellin in 1984, Ciclovia (officially named Vías Activas y Saludables – “Healthy and Active Streets”) was initially managed by the city’s transport body before being taken over by a newly created sports authority in the Nineties. But the event’s roots go further back: originating in Colombia’s capital, Bogota, in the 1970’s. Today, Ciclovia has spread to cities across Latin America – and even further afield.
From what was, in its early days in Medellin, little more than a couple of kilometres set aside for cyclists and runners, Ciclovia now covers over 65km of streets across many city neighbourhoods. And as well as the popular Sunday runs, there are various night time closures allowing late night cycling up and down the Andean city’s steep valley walls, and special Ciclovia’s aimed at helping kids gain confidence in cycling on the road.
It’s not just city officials that make , but also community leaders and an army of green-clad volunteers that make Ciclovia possible, explains Claudia Ossa Velasquez, who runs a mayoral program promoting physical activity in the city. She lists various benefits of the scheme, such as improved health and fitness for participants, and providing a safe (and free) place for sport that encourages intermingling among citizens.
There’s also a veritable micro-economy that springs up along the roadsides during Sunday morning Ciclovias. Lining the streets are countless stands and vans selling fresh juices, fruit, coffees and snacks – around which a fair amount of nattering seems to take place. Bicycle mechanics also set up shop to provide fixes and sell chain oil, inner tubes, brake pads and other cycling paraphernalia.
Because it’s free of charge, there’s something very egalitarian about Ciclovia, and it doesn’t feel at all intimidating. There are of course plenty of lean runners and lycra-clad cyclists, but there are as many older caballeros out taking a stroll, kids whizzing around on BMX’s, and mums in Crocs and leggings pushing prams along the streets.
So, is this something we could see happening on British streets any time soon? Chris Scott is head of communications at London Sport, an organisation created to promote exercise in the capital which works closely with the Mayor’s office and other partners. “It [Ciclovia] is not a concept we’re directly familiar with,” he says, “but in principal it’s got some implications that organisations like ours would have an interest in seeing taking root in London”.
Scott notes the success of Prudential RideLondon, a spin-off from the 2012 Olympics, which, once a year, sees various roads across the capital closed to create a safe space for the public to cycle. However he admits “it would be ambitious” to expect something like Ciclovia to be organised at a city-wide level in London on a weekly basis.
While central London has seen significant improvement in cycling facilities in the last few years, Scott highlights that there’s a much bigger challenge in helping people to get active in the city’s outer boroughs, where car travel is more common. “In some ways, the bigger opportunity for initiatives like [Ciclovia] is in the outer boroughs, where it would encourage people to take to the streets who don’t yet have the confidence to do so”.
The scheme may not be about to take off in UK any time soon, but back in Medellin Carlos has finished his orange juice, and he and Annaid are heading off up the road and out of sight on their weekly run.