Oboi Reed: Colombia Offers Lessons for the American Bike Equity Movement

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A Ciclovía worker in Bogotá. Photo: Oboi Reed

Slow Roll Chicago cofounder Oboi Reed has traveled to a number of biking hotspots around the U.S. this year, to learn about how other American cities are working to promote bike equity, and talk about his group’s efforts to encourage cycling in communities of color on Chicago’s South and West Sides. But his latest fact-finding journey took him further afield, to Colombia, South America, where he recently spent 11 days checking out car-free Ciclovía events and meeting with local city planners, bike advocates, and activists.

“I’ve been watching the work Colombia has done for biking from afar, and I’ve been incredibly inspired by the Ciclovía movement and had a desire to see Bogotá’s Ciclovía for myself,” he said. While organizations like the advocacy group People for Bikes have funded trips for American politicians, planners, and advocates to bike-friendly countries like the Netherlands and Denmark, Reed’s trip was paid for by Slow Roll Chicago, a nonprofit organization.

“I felt like there was too much focus in the U.S. on European cities as models for how to make American cities more livable,” Reed said. “But European cities don’t really resonate with low-to-moderate-income, black and brown people. We don’t really connect with Copenhagen or Stockholm culturally or historically, and there’s not a big presence of people of color in those cities, although there certainly is a presence.”

Reed adds that while American conversations about European-style cycling tend to focus on biking as a form of transportation, that’s not Slow Roll’s focus. “We would love that in our neighborhoods as well, but we are most interested in bicycles as a vehicle for social change, as a way to improve health, reduce violence, and create jobs. If you have no job, or you’re overweight, or you’re concerned about safety, we have to address those issues before we can convince you that bicycling is a form of transportation.”

Reed said Latin America, and particularly Colombia, has a lot the U.S. bike equity movement can learn from. “There’s a connection for our members of Latino descent, and in many countries there’s also a strong presence of African-descended people, which is the case in Colombia,” he said. “That allows us to make this social and cultural connection to biking that doesn’t really exist with these European models. And in Colombia, they’re using bicycles to address the same issues we’re working on: safety, health, and economic opportunity.”

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Reed in the La Candaleria district of Bogotá with a local professor and a staff member from the city agency that runs the Ciclovía. Photo: Oboi Reed

Before the trip, Reed did research on people and organizations to connect with in Colombia. Active Transportation Alliance campaign director Jim Merrell, who travels to the country regularly with his wife to visit family, helped put Reed in touch with bike community leaders in Bogotá, the capital and largest city, and Medellín, the second-largest city. Reed also got tips from the SRAM Cycling Fund‘s Randy Neufeld and Gil Peñalosa, the former parks commissioner of Bogotá who helped expand the Ciclovía and now runs the Ottawa-based livable streets organization 8 80 Cities.

While in Bogotá, Reed got to ride in the local Ciclovía twice, once with Oscar Ruiz, who’s the head of the city agency who runs the event. “He told me about the nuts and bolts of how it works,” Reed said. “The events draws more than 1.5 million people every Sunday and holiday in cities around the country.”

He also rode with Jaime Ortiz Mariño, a bike advocate who organized the very first Ciclovía in 1974, when the country was in the midst of a civil war. “He was concerned that a bomb would go off during the event,” Reed said. “But one of the leftist rebels was quoted in a newspaper saying, if there’s one thing we will never touch, it’s the Ciclovía, because that represents the people.”

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Ciclovía in Bogotá. Photo: C. Guzman Pardo

“The event was amazing,” Reed said. “It was incredibly diverse in terms of age, race, and economic background. It was very social, just people being outdoors and enjoying the streets without cars.” Workers and volunteers were directing traffic at intersections and doing bike repairs, and there was a police presence as well.

“On big streets, typically they only close down one side of the street for two-way bike and pedestrian traffic,” Reed said. “On the other side, often the traffic becomes two-way for cars with. Drivers were allowed to cross the route, and in some cases where there was a gas station or some major business, police would allow drivers to access that business.”

People were recreating in many different ways along the car-free route. “There were fitness classes with hundreds of people following along,” Reed said. “There was an arts and crafts fair and people selling all types of food. And there were bands and other live music.”

“Bogotá is no bicycle paradise – there’s still a need for better infrastructure,” Reed said. “But what I saw with the Ciclovía was this incredible transformation. It’s like the sun coming out. All of these people go out and enjoy the street without worrying that they’re going to get hit by cars. You add to that the feeling that this is a community experience. It allows people to relax their concerns about violence.”

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A SiCLas Medellín ride. Photo: Oboi Reed

“I can certainly see how the event can have a positive impact on economic activity in neighborhoods,” Reed added. “It breaks down the perception that certain neighborhoods are unsafe, and it creates jobs. It confirmed for me the importance of our work with Slow Roll. It showed me that the bicycle is one tool – we never said it’s the only one – for addressing social change. They do the Ciclovía not just to have fun, but because it makes the city more livable and safer. That’s what we should be doing in Chicago, with a focus on the communities that need these benefits the most.”

Reed was also very impressed with Medellín. “It’s a beautiful city, surrounded by mountains, with beautiful weather.” He did SiCLas Medellín, a group ride that takes place every Wednesday night from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., organized by Mauro Mesa. “There were about 2,000 people with music and lights on their bikes, yelling, screaming and whistling – it was a very high-energy ride,” Reed recalled. “A one point we were in what looked to be a low-income neighborhood, like a favela in Brazil. People were coming out and yelling and clapping and giving us high fives. It was beautiful to see.”

Reed also met with Carlos Cadena Gaitán, a university professor in urban planning, transportation researcher, and bike advocate in Medellín. “He feels the city is at a crossroads,” Reed said. “More and more people are joining the middle class. He sees the potential of a city drowning in cars, or else they can create a bicycle-friendly city.” One positive development is the local bike-share system, which has no membership fee.

In addition, Reed also met with Juan Manuel and Philip Verma at the Despacio (“Slow”) community organization, which promotes the bicycle as a vehicle for social justice. “Their ethos is around slowing down life and enjoying bikes,” Reed said.

He said he came back from the journey with new ideas for pursuing Slow Roll Chicago’s mission, and he hopes to organize more such trips for SRC members in the future. “This was our first livable city study tour and an effort to explore what’s possible in our neighborhoods,” he said. “We are not going to be limited by what others say is possible in our communities. These kind of trips can give us firsthand experience that will help us figure out what our own neighborhoods can be.”

Note: Streetsblog Chicago will be on vacation next week, while editor John Greenfield does his own fact-finding trip to Mexico City. After John returns, he’ll have reports on the Metrobús bus rapid transit system (which includes a similar layout as Chicago’s Ashland BRT proposal), the local Ciclovía, and other transportation initiatives. We’ll resume publication on Monday, February 1.

  • Alicia

    What kind of results have the Ciclovias in Bogota or other parts of Latin America achieved in terms of improving street safety? Do they have any info on that?

  • Don’t know if you could have done it but an Open Thread would have been nice. But maybe it would have gotten hi-jacked I suppose.

  • Kelly Pierce

    Oboi Reed sounds confused. He says that the experience of northern European whites using bikes for transportation isn’t relevant to blacks. He then claims that blacks are interested in cycling for improved health. I have a secret. It is a special something that someone can do on their way to work that improves heart and lung function, lowers blood glucose levels, responds to insulin resistance, and helps people lose weight. I won’t say what it is, but I will give a hint: it comes with two wheels and handlebars.

    Studies show that people are much less likely to engage in physical activity if it needs to be scheduled, arranged or people need to go out of their way to make it happen. Bicycling for transportation passively includes exercise as part of the bigger goal of travel. Reed speaks of cycling for health benefits as if it is a pharmaceutical to be taken in structured and measured doses.

  • Anne A

    I think that something got lost in translation here. The relevant point here is that he is not addressing a Euro-centric culture.

    Part of Oboi’s mission with Slow Roll is to break down cultural biases against biking in the black community, where a bike isn’t necessarily a status symbol. Starting with casual, social rides that make it fun and cool is Slow Roll’s basic method towards that goal.

    I know Oboi and he is well aware of the points you make. He’s just focusing on a different audience.
    http://sharedusemobilitycenter.org/news/innovator-profile-oboi-reed-slow-roll-chicago/

  • Anne A
  • Anne A

    ??

  • Kelly Pierce

    This article and the ones you linked to makes Oboi sound like two different people. It reminds me of how martin Luther King’s words were edited for his memorial in Washington in a way that made him seem like a much different leader than what he was.

  • Anne A

    Considering that one of the pieces was written by the same author as the piece above, I’m guessing he assumed that readers were familiar with Oboi and Slow Roll. If one has that knowledge going in, the above piece reads rather differently from how you interpreted it.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I reviewed Oboi’s quotes with him before publication.

  • Anne A

    I have no doubt that you did. See my comment below.

  • While he cat was away we mice could have played. But my concern was that perhaps the cat feared a rat would join the party.

  • Simone Alexander

    I don’t think that the three articles that have been shared are contradictory at all. I think that some of the critiques that have been made are ignorant of the reality of black communities. The incredibly condescending way of suggesting that biking to work is the best way to use bikes to get healthy overlooks a number of things – that there are high unemployment rates in black communities; that people travel far distances to get to work because black communities have been systematically excluded from the economy and there are too few employment opportunities available in these communities; and that bike infrastructure in these communities is usually not adequate for these kinds of trips. It also overlooks the reasons behind how bikes are perceived in these communities as well as how important social vs. individual connections are in making lasting change. Oboi makes it clear that the social nature of biking has been key in increasing his ability to manage his mental illness – he didn’t start out trying to brave the not-so-bike friendly streets of Pullman to get to the job that he didn’t need to travel to because he was on a medical leave of absence.

    What Oboi frequently says that he has experienced and seen as a black man growing up in a black community in Chicago is that people who are not already passionate about biking in this community generally don’t jump on a bike one day and decide that they are going to use it to get their errands done or go to work. They also don’t necessarily jump on a bike for the explicit purpose of “getting healthy.” This sentence is really unfounded – “Reed speaks of cycling for health benefits as if it is a pharmaceutical to be taken in structured and measured doses.” In the article about Ciclovía, Oboi says that you have to address issues like health before expecting people to use biking as a form of transportation – this does not mean that biking should be taken in measured doses, but it recognizes that many people may not be or may not feel healthy enough to use a bike this way.

    The kinds of activities that Slow Roll Chicago organizes are focused on developing a social and emotional connection between people and with their communities. There’s a reason it’s called Slow Roll – they coordinate rides that are less focused on “getting” somewhere and more focused on slowly taking the safest routes through black and brown communities in Chicago, supported by a trained team of volunteers, passing by and stopping at strategic points that celebrate the historical and current strengths of these communities. There’s music playing from a speaker attached to a bike cart; people talk to each other as they ride and when they stop; and neighbors hanging out in front of their houses, who may have no idea what Slow Roll Chicago is, yell back “Slow Roll!” as the bike caravan moves through residential streets.

    Slow Roll Chicago makes it clear that the growth of biking as a form of transportation in low- to moderate-income communities of color in Chicago is one of their goals. The idea is that people who are currently pretty disconnected from biking feel they can get involved and get excited about biking when it is a social activity. Slow Roll organizes bike use workshops, youth programs, leadership trainings, etc. to support people in developing their interest in biking and their role in the bike equity movement. As this develops, residents begin to demand adequate bike infrastructure in their communities and the perception of biking begins to change. As communities become more “bikeable,” this further increases the number of people that bike, and can have all the other positive impacts that are associated with “bikeableness” – increased social cohesion, economic development, reduced violence, improved community health outcomes, etc.

    That a black-led, community-driven initiative would look to communities of color outside of the U.S. for culturally and historically relevant models does not insinuate that models in predominantly white, wealthy European countries are not valuable. It represents the basic reality that colonialism, white privilege, segregation, discrimination, etc. have created systems in which models created by dominant, white cultures are not grounded in the strengths and needs of people and communities of color.