Ciclovia: the weekly sporting event shutting roads across Colombia

Photo: Wikipedia via Creative Commons

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. 

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.