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. 

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.