Worldwide Cycling Atlas contributor, Cass Gilbert, reports from Bogotá, Colombia, on Earth Day.
If the idea of car-free capital sounds far-fetched, just take a look at Bogotá. On April 22nd this year, it celebrated Earth Day by permitting only buses, taxis and emergency vehicles to circulate through the city – private cars and motorbikes had to be left at home between the hours of 5am and 7.30pm.
Having previously visited Medellín and seen the work that is being done there, I timed my return to the city to experience this Earth Day celebration. And what I saw was inspiring. A sea of cyclists commuting to work. Roads that were largely bereft of private traffic. Main arteries normally bumper to bumper with rush hour traffic resembled a sedate Sunday afternoon, with residents from all walks of life making the most of the clean air and quiet, safe streets. After all, Bogotá residents loose around 22 days to traffic, and in 2013, 570 people were killed in automobile accidents. Looking around, it was clear that taxis were enjoying a roaring trade. Undoubtedly, buses were far busier than normal – and overworked in places. But on the whole, it worked, and everyone I met seemed to embrace the idea.
What’s more, this car-free celebration wasn’t even setting a precedent. The capital of Colombia has long been a pioneer of green initiatives. Who would have known that this city of 8 million inhabitants has been running an annual Día Sin Carro – car-free day – for the last 15 years? Back in 2000, Mayor Enrique Peñalosa organized the city’s first, an event that was to repeated each year when it was institutionalized through a public referendum. And it doesn’t stop there. Thanks to the work of local bike advocacy group, Mejor en Bici – ‘Better by Bike’ – 2014 saw the introduction of a completely car-free week in the capital. Large swathes of the city were completely closed to cars for a working week, with commuting routes set up dedicated to cyclists. Similarly, this year’s Earth Day built on the success of another car-free day of identical scale held on February 5th, It’s reported that 600,000 private vehicles and motorbikes were left at home. Only bikes, buses, taxis and emergency vehicles roamed the streets. People rode, roller bladed, strolled… and, just breathed.
Earth Day marked my last day bicycle touring through Colombia, ensuring I left with unparalleled enthusiasm for this vibrant, progressive, bike-friendly country. And a belief that if a car-free day can happen in a city as frenetic and populated as Bogotá, it can happen almost anywhere in the world. And if it can happen for a day or a week… then who knows what the future may hold.