Celebrating street magic… Ciclovía turns 45 today!

Photo Fernando Caro

Today, 45 years ago, Ciclovia was born in Bogotá. Jaime Ortiz Mariño, Fernando Caro Restrepo and Rodrigo Castaño Valencia, successfully lobbied local government to shut down 5 kilometres of one of the major artery of Colombia’s capital. They had just changed the history of this place.

I had the fortune of meeting Jaime many years later while I was working in South Africa with a team of my own to do something similar in Cape Town. Recently, I learnt that it all started while they were visiting Amsterdam and saw masses of people on bicycles. The looked at each other and wondered if something like that wouldn’t be cool in Bogotá too. Upon their return they contacted the mayor and through some of their connections in radio managed to even get a jingle advertising the “the great pedal demonstration” which took placed on 15 December 1974.

I had not been born then but this day changed my life and that of millions of people who already inhabited the city or would come to experience what has become Bogotá’s trademark. Every Sunday and public holiday the city becomes a playground where people from various corners of the city can traverse more than 100km of streets without cars. Ciclovia continues to marvel both locals and visitors.

In my personal life, it inspired me to connect with an amazing group of people in Cape Town who loved the idea and with whom, I was able to start an organisation which successfully introduced the idea and continues to lobby for a more inclusive and sustainable use of the city’s streets. The idea has continued to spread to other African cities and I am proud to be part of a network of street enthusiasts who inspired by the same idea are working to change their streets in Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Kampala, Accra, Cairo, Abuja, Tshwane, Johannesburg, and beyond.

Today, I feel honoured to be in Bogotá where it all started. I thank those three musketeers who got this going because they changed the world, certainly my world! As Jaime likes to say, Ciclovia belongs to the residents of this city. Support from local government has of course been crucial, but this is the one thing people, regardless of political ideology, class or age feel ownership of.

Last Sunday in fact, hundreds of thousands took over part of the Ciclovia route to join a mass demonstration –a continuation of a national strike that began on 21 November. A group of musicians decided to mobilise a peaceful march by putting on a roving concert. It was technically not a car-free street that day as the stage was set up on a truck, but there was no other day to carry what became one of the most moving and exciting musical shows I have experienced. And the streets of Ciclovia were not just witness but an enabler to that magic.

In Cape Town, we came up with a manifesto outlining our vision for streets in an effort to describe what Ciclovia, which we called Open Streets there, meant for the city. We spoke of places of safety, inclusion, recreation, cultural expression, economic activity and better mobility. This text describes not only a ‘dream’ street, but the ideal city.

Cape Town is no utopia and neither is Bogotá. In fact, both cities have something of a dystopian nature. They are both full of contrasts and contradictions but I have in both cases experienced them in perfect, almost eerie, harmony during Ciclovia and Open Streets. As one of my fellow co-founders in Cape Town liked to say, it is as if reality is suspended and we are able to see the future.

Streets (when made accessible to people) are indeed the best platform where we co-dream a better future and last week more than ever, I felt that in hearing beautiful voices and musical instruments traveling down 7th street. I also see it every Sunday on the small children taking on the street on their small bicycles with courage and confidence. I see it on people setting up their stalls before the streets close to cars at 7am and see it in myself when I eagerly wait for 7am to come around…sometimes, naughtily joining other runners on the street a few minutes before the hour strikes because we simply can’t wait.

It is the exact same feeling I had the first day in 2012, when, on a tiny street in a tiny stretch (compared to Bogotá) we held our first Open Streets Day in Obs, Cape Town. The transformation of the space was not just visible but also audible; the sound of roller-skates on the street, of human steps on the road and then the voices. It is as if we were all orchestra performers in perfect tune, without a need for a conductor. It seems that once given the space, people naturally coalesce and bond and in a city, this requires taking motor vehicles out of the equation for the magic to work.

Open Streets Cape Town, 2013. Photo Lisa Burnell

Today I give thanks to Jaime and his friends for getting us going in this amazing journey and I thank all the phenomenal people I have met who feel as passionate and excited about this simple but powerful concept. I continue to meet them now, largely on twitter, but I feel close to them nonetheless.

Happy birthday Ciclovia. Let more streets be open all over the world!

I am passionate about cities, public space & community engagement. Born in Colombia, I have spent my adult life in the US & South Africa. Cape Town is home.