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.”
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.”