Encouraging cycling in Ecuador

Worldwide Cycling Atlas team member, Cass Gilbert, documents his first-hand experience of Ecuador’s Bici del Barrio – where free bikes are loaned out each Sunday in the city of Cuenca.

We’ve already seen how Quito, Ecuador’s capital, closes off a portion of the city to motorized traffic, encouraging cyclists to reclaim its streets. In a similar vein, the World Heritage city of Cuenca, in the south of the country, has dedicated Sunday to a scheme that encourages those new to cycling to give it a go.

Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador, and famous throughout the country for its colonial buildings

Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador, and famous throughout the country for its colonial buildings

The Old Cathedral was constructed in the same year the city was founded, 1557

The Old Cathedral was constructed in the same year the city was founded, 1557

Bici del Barrio is held on Sundays, every week between 8am and 1pm, during which time 100 bikes are available for loan, in exchange for nothing more than a piece of identity. There are static bikes on which to warm up, staff on hand to help advise, and not only are helmets provided too, but there are even bikes fitted with high quality Thule child seats, and several child trailers too.

The fleet currently covers a hundred bikes

The fleet currently covers 100 bikes, made available to the public each week

Impressively, a number of the bikes are fitted with high quality child seats

Impressively, a number of the bikes are fitted with high quality child seats

And there's several trailers available for loan too

And there are several trailers available for loan too

The event is held each Sunday, from 8am to 1pm

The event is held each Sunday, from 8am to 1pm

In spite of the imperfect weather we joined dozens of other families to try the Bici del Barrio scheme out for ourselves.

Despite the drizzle, plenty of people were making use of the bike path

Despite the drizzle, plenty of people were making use of the bike path

Muralism is omnipresent around this artistic city

Muralism is omnipresent around this artistic city

The suggested route, the Ruta Recreativa, follows a bike path along one of Cuenca’s three rivers, providing suitably mellow grades to the ride. It also passes by a number of activity stations – from parks with playgrounds for kids, to museums and even a small zoo, all of which are free to access. Meandering through the city and its outskirts, the route itself is 20km in length, there and back, and segregated from traffic.

Cuenca is famous for its three rivers, which also help to ensure mellow grades

Cuenca is famous for its three rivers, which also help to ensure mellow cycling gradients

The Ruta Recreativa passes by various activity stations along the way

The Ruta Recreativa passes by various activity stations along the way

Given its success, a similar scheme is being rolled out throughout the Cuenca. Hence the name – Bici del Barrio, or Neighbourhood Bikes. The premise is simple – gather ten or more friends or neighbours to create a local club, and the city will provide 10 free bikes, as well as all the necessary maintenance to keep them running smoothly. So far, there are 30 clubs, with plans to double this shortly; close to 1,000 bikes have already been purchased.

Bici del Barrio operates across the city – any neighbourhood can sign up

Bici del Barrio operates across the city – any neighbourhood can sign up

The aim of Bici del Barrio is to promote healthy living, and encourage residents to spend time together as families, and within their communities. But it’s also hoped that the scheme will provide a catalyst for Cuencanos to recognise the effectiveness of bicycles as a means of transport. Certainly, the city is integrating them into its new multi-modal transportation plans, with a bike share program already funded – similar to BiciQ in the capital – and planned for the near future.

All images copyright Cass Gilbert.