Worldwide Cycling Atlas contributor, Cass Gilbert, reports on his cycling experiences in Medellín, Colombia.
I arrive in Medellín in the early hours, reassembling my bike at the modern terminal and relieved that transporting within the hold of the bus proved to be painless and straightforward. But when I reach the exit, my first impressions of riding into the city endowed with the 2012 Sustainability Award aren’t great – the highway seems crammed with traffic, including kamikaze motorbike riders who swerve and weave between static cars.
So I stop at a fruit stand to collect my thoughts – soon finding myself deep in conversation with its owner, who insists on gifting me a bag of lush mangos, bananas and papayas. Proudly, he boasts about all the positive changes in this tropical, mountainous city located in the most northerly reaches of the Andes; just a couple of decades ago, the city’s reputation revolved solely around being home to the notorious drug lord, Pablo Escobar.
This story of radical urban and social transformation, credited for helping to redefine the city, revolves around investments in the mobility of its residents and the public spaces that have been created. Its integrated public transport system includes a new metro that forms the backbone of the system, teamed with cables cars, trams and escalators. These in turn are complemented by a system of buses and the city’s new bikeshare system – EnCicla. It’s an example for all of Latin America, says the city’s transportation leaders.
Before too long, I’ve found my way onto one of the city’s ever-growing number of bike paths – plans are afoot by the city’s policy makers to create a cycle-friendly network of 400 km over the next 15 years, surpassing even Colombia’s fabled capital. I pass a number of commuters making the most of the city’s bike-share system, integrated into its mass transport system. It’s currently used by over 20,000 people, a number set to grow with the implementation of 32 new bike stations this year. Navigation is easy – every cyclist I ask is helpful, quick to welcome me to their city, and offer me advice on the best way to reach my destination.
This warm reception is repeated the next day, when I attend the Medellín’s weekly Ciclovía, held between 7 and 11 each Sunday morning. There, I join a throng of riders, walkers, runners and skaters making the most of roads cut off to motorized traffic, following a route that undulates gently along the river. With the open spaces created, juice stores, mobile mechanics and even salsa lessons, providing a line of independent commerce and and entertainment along the way. Hardened cyclists, families, teenagers, the elderly; everyone is out together. Traditional Colombian food abound too, in the form of arepas, a delicious bike fuel of fried corn filled with cheese. I’m still occasionally warned to take care with my camera as we ride through downtown – this is a bustling metropolis in South America, after all – but the mood is never less than upbeat.
In fact, one rider insists on escorting me around, offering me a running commentary on the city’s sights and projects as we go, including plans for a massive park that’s currently in the midst of construction, that involves burying a part of the highway and transforming into a vast urban open space.
I learn too that the city has also been the first to introduce regular nocturnal Ciclovías, in the form of Sicleadas, on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, between the cooler hours of 7 and 9pm. Already, these are attended regularly by over 3,000 riders. And I also glean that this enthusiasm for cycling and the recognition of its importance was further underlined by the city hosting the World Bike Forum, a grassroots urban cycling forum held earlier in the year. And that April saw the hosting of the World Urban Forum too, attended by over 22,000 people, in which the city showcased its award winning urban landscape.
My three days in the city pass only too quickly. But it’s enough time to create a strong impression of this city in the midst of positive social change; a change in which cycling is undoubtedly playing its part. And I’m left with the thought that while Colombia’s capital may be credited for ushering in this Latin American urban cycling revolution, there’s no doubt that Medellín is vying to take it to the next level still.
All images copyright Cass Gilbert.