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. 

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.