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When Bogotá belongs to the bicycles: How Ciclovía has shaped Colombia’s capital city

We speak with Jaime Ortiz Mariño, who started Ciclovía 47 years ago.

Due to the cancelation of last week’s Colombia Tour 2.1, we have a host of features, interviews, photo galleries, and other stories to celebrate Colombian cycling as part of “Colombia Week.”

On Sundays, Bogotá belongs to the bicycles.

And more importantly, says Jaime Ortiz Mariño, those bicycles belong to everyone: “Leftist, rightest, rich, poor, men, women, children, and adults.”

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Ortiz Mariño is the principal architect of one of the Bogotá’s most lasting institutions: Ciclovía, an event where 120 kilometers of the Colombian capital’s streets are closed to vehicle traffic and overtaken by cyclists and pedestrians every single Sunday, from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Although it’s easy to gloss over the significance of this event now — many cities around the world hastily adopted some form of “open streets” as a way to give restaurants a breath of fresh air during the summer months of the pandemic — when Ortiz Mariño first pitched Ciclovía in the early 70s, it was revolutionary.

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Ciclovía’s Jaime Ortiz Mariño, from principal architect to longest-running participant. Photo: Courtesy Jaime Ortiz Mariño

Speaking of revolution, in 1966 Ortiz Mariño, then a young architecture student in Bogotá, won a scholarship to study at Case Western Reserve University in the United States. He ended up spending some of his most formative years in the U.S. during the country’s own. From 1967 – 1970, Ortiz Mariño watched the nation erupt in protest of war and demands for social change. Although he came home with a degree, his informal education was the most poignant one.

Ortiz Mariño returned to Colombia ready to challenge the notion that urbanization there should follow the path of its neighbor to the north. His tool of resistance was the bicycle.

Although he attributes many factors to Ciclovía’s lasting success, Ortiz Mariño believes that in one, very important way, the people were already primed to take over the city by bike.

“As children in Colombia, we all had something to do with the bicycle,” he says. “Whether rented, owned, or borrowed, we all had a relationship with cycling.”

VeloNews: Which came first, your interest in cycling or your interest in urban planning and design? 

Jaime Ortiz Mariño: Urbanism, urban planning, urban design — that’s how I got into bicycles.

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Ortiz Mariño during the first ever Ciclovía, 1974. Photo: Fernando Caro Tanco

I lived in the U.S. from 1966-70. There, I was trained in the formal way in architecture and urban/environmental design but also was trained in the informal world of the counterculture. When I came back to Bogota, I started questioning myself on the trends this country was heading towards. 

In Colombia 50 years ago, 75 percent of people lived rurally. Today, that [same] number lives in an urban setting. Given the environment of circumstances, people in rural areas and urban appropriated cycling as a very important means of transportation. In the first half of the past century, Colombia had more bicycles than cars.

But Colombia became urbanized based on the idea of the American city. After the war, Colombia became an important part of America’s back patio. All these political trends brought the urban image of the American city, but it was introducing the car into a culture that didn’t have money to buy or have them. So we started designing and building the city with the American standard for cars but we were riding around in buses. So we rediscovered the bicycles and a symbol for new urbanism. It’s easy to talk about today but not then. People would say to me, ‘You went to study in the States and came back talking about bicycles?’”

We decided that the temporary use of already built spaces was the right step to take to introduce bicycles as a part of the new urbanism. 

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Ciclovía is also held every Sunday in the Colombian cities of Medellín and Cali. Photo: Eitan Abramovich/AFP via Getty Images

VN: The first Ciclovía was in 1974. Did Colombia already have a cycling culture before then? 

JOM: In the 50s, some very smart people understood that every Colombian, when we open our window every morning, we see the mountains. So we have bicycles, and we have the mountains. So in the 50s, they created the Vuelta a Colombia. It became one of the most important events in the country until now. Who were the racers? Men from rural areas who used bicycles daily. In racing, they found a means of going up the ladder in economics, in image. Racing in Colombia is a very important item in the process of becoming what we are today as a very important cycling country in the world.

VN: Did Colombia’s cycling culture influence Ciclovía or vice versa?  

JOM: I accept and I recognize that we didn’t invent cycling in Colombia, that it was before us. But, our small contribution was to open the debate around cycling as an activity of the urban and transportation-based reality. Ciclovía was the first step in the strategy of using already built spaces temporarily. 

Right now with this pandemic, this temporary use of already built spaces has run like gasoline throughout the world. You people call it ‘pop up,’ or ‘open streets,’ but the first step in our strategy was the temporary use of already-built spaces. We really helped, first by making it permanent. Then by becoming a sample that could be repeated throughout the world. 

VN: Did you think that the first Ciclovía (called La Gran Manifestación del Pedal) would become more than a one-time event? 

JOM: We were completely convinced, more so we never thought it was going to take so long. The debate of the bicycle as a means of transportation — we thought it would be shorter. 

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The first Ciclovía, or “La Gran Manifestación del Pedal,” December 15 1974. Photo: Fernando Caro Tanco

In the early 70s, the world had another pandemic of a different sort. The pandemic of then was the oil crisis that created the first American cycling boom. I am part of that. We saw the decline of fossil fuels because of the fight between Arabs and Americans. This pandemic raised the importance of cycling. 

The importance of Ciclovía has been permanent. Like bajo continuo (continuous bass), a permanent downbeat sound. Cicolvía has been that. Has been permanent all these years. Has helped to raise, to educate two or three generations that see bicycles as something logical in the middle of a world designed and built for cars. That’s why today we have so many people involved in it. Whether using it, studying it, or policymaking.

VN: Has Ciclovía created new businesses and economy in Bogota?

JOM:  Yes. In our culture, we have the formal world and the informal world. You have some informality in your cities, but in our country nearly 50 percent of jobs are informal. The formal sector is decaying and the idea of every individual creating his own job is growing. The public space is an available space, that’s reality here. For Ciclvoía — thousands of small outlets run only on Sundays. The city organized them, and they have to get a permit. They have tents now. There are thousands of people that have their own little outlets. The formal sector, yes, they’re open on Sunday and do business, as well.

Vendedor de algodón. Photo: Eitan Abramovich/AFP via Getty Images

VN: Has Ciclovía had a unique impact on women? If so, how?

JOM: Yes. Definitely yes. When I said that I left my bicycle in the garage as a teenager …. it was because girls wouldn’t go riding bicycles with me so I had to steal my father’s car to go look at girls. 

In rural areas, both sexes rode bicycles. When we became urbanized, the city was a more complicated and dangerous environment. Perhaps that and perhaps because of how women exist in this macho culture, they had a lot of duties and hard work to do. Perhaps because of that, girls were not into cycling. I used to say, I’m the man that has taken out more girls on bikes because I took them to Ciclovía. It was a neutral space for women. Many women had never thought of being on the street on a bicycle. Because of Ciclovía, many women ride to work on bicycles. They have created these permanent ciclorutas (cycling paths) that have allowed a lot of people to commute.

For three generations, Ciclovía has been a neutral space available and taken by women.

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One of many ‘ciclo talleres,’ or informal bike shops along a Ciclovía route. Photo: Chepa Beltran/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

VN: Aside from bicycle races and Ciclovía, how else is the bicycle part of Colombian culture? 

JOM: This is a culture that has the bicycle completely enmeshed in our culture, in many ways.

Beginning with the campesino. You cannot see a picture of rural Colombia that does’t have a bicycle behind it. There’s another very important thing — the technology of assembling bicycles and maintaining them is a very important element of cycling in Colombia. There is no neighborhood, no little town, no city in this country that does not have many bicicleterias. Everywhere you’ll find parts, everywhere you’ll find someone who knows how to weld. That’s throughout this country. You can go to the farthest little town in the jungle and there’s a bicicleteria. Most are very basic, informal, but many families in Colombia live from this. No one taught them. This was a knowledge spread throughout the country without formal education but through experience.

Do you know want to know what I ride? A Raleigh from 1947, 28-inch rim, lady-like and upright, with old brakes, not caliper. Three speeds, and a Brooks saddle. That’s what I ride. I am a permanent user of the bicycle. I do it at the neighborhood level.

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Ortiz Mariño’s vintage blue Raleigh. Photo: Jaime Ortiz Mariño