Ciclovia: Is NYC Ready?

With a successful Bike Month now behind us and a spectacular Tour de Brooklyn completed, we perhaps have an opportunity to dream bigger for how we can celebrate our bicyclists, our streets and communities in this city.

I was recently in Bogotá for their weekly Ciclovia event and experienced first hand what may be one of the simplest and most powerful ideas for bringing a livable streets movement into reality.

Ciclovia spans over 70 miles of the city every Sunday and holiday, enabling people to explore communities previously perceived as unwelcoming to anyone but cars.

"It is like a gigantic
paved park that is open 7 hours a week, and people of all ages and backgrounds
take over the otherwise car dominated space and have fun." This is how Gil (Guillermo) Peñalosa describes the event that he led to world renowned success.

Ciclovia is no small accomplishment. With great leadership in the city from Gil and others the event has grown to
where now, every Sunday and holiday an average of 1.5 million (up to 2 million) people use more than 70 Miles of
city streets for everything but driving cars.

All modes (except cars) and all ages, sizes, classes share the road.
The event seems as simple and direct a way as possible at
addressing the great class and race divides in Colombia.

When Gil Peñalosa was first Parks
commissioner, in the administration before his brother’s (Enrique), there were eight miles and about 140,000 riders every Sunday; in two years he had increased the distance to 70 miles and 1.5 million people! Gil also led the creation of a managerial
structure, with managers, volunteers, uniforms, marketing, signage, and other activities such
as aerobics, bike day, food vendors, and bike repair stands.

Gil likes to say that "You will see people in
$5,000 bikes and others in $50 bikes, and all having the same fun! Rich and poor,
young and old, men and woman, tall or short… ALL!" The event is also credited with generating everyday
bicycle riders for the extensive network of protected bicycle lanes in the city
(implemented by Enrique’s administration) by quickly getting people
comfortable riding bikes in a city that previously had very few bicyclists.

A lawbreaker is reprimanded, politely, by the ride facilitators. Cyclovia
is the ultimate critical mass ride with 350 city employees helping to make
people feel safe and comfortable.

An average of 1.5 million attending in a city of seven million is a very popular
event. Surveys show that it is not the
same 1.5 m every week, but that at least four million are users at some time of
the year. The surveys showed that the average time that people spent on the
Ciclovia was 4 hours and 15 minutes, where their normal excise routine lasted only 48 minutes.

Gil is sure to point out though that "they go to walk or bike, skate or
do aerobics… AND to watch people, a preferred activity by human beings." Certainly, what struck me more than anything else was just how the opportunity to be outside and around other people seemed to make the thousands of people I saw so happy and friendly.

The "Bike Watch" ride marshals give care to an injured rider.

Gil’s expertise and infectious enthusiasm is being shared around the world as he
works with cities to promote walking, bicycling and placemaking as director of
Walk and Bike for Life in Oakville,
Canada. Among his many efforts, Gil is currently working with leaders in Chicago,
Cleveland, Baltimore, and Vancouver trying to develop programs similar to
Ciclovia at a smaller scale. He also helped set up a successful program
in Guadalajara,
that is now in its third year; it began with eight miles and when it reached
75,000 participants, it was increased to 14 miles and currently attracts
140,000 every week. Several other cities in South
America, like Quito, Ecuador and Santiago, Chile have also successfully implemented similar programs.

Clearly, it is an idea that can be relatively easily applied in many different
forms in a wide range of urban contexts. As
Gil says, "the infrastructure is there, there are no major needs of
capital investments, no sports complex to build. It is an operational cost and
it takes political will, public sector staff that are doers (looking for solutions to problems and not problems to solutions), and community engagement."

In a city that has been built for children, the children, and most every other public space user,
seem to reflect the respect given to them.


How would we start planning such an idea in NYC? How could it be
phased in, in a politically feasible manner that could test the concept while
drawing people from around the city and getting enough use to make it
work? Could we close Broadway on Sundays? How about Brooklyn’s 5th
Avenue, or Bedford Avenue (closing some streets to cars
in Hassidic neighborhoods on a Saturday might be appropriate)? Where else?

  • da


    How about:

    Van Cortland Park -> Broadway -> St. Nicholas Ave -> Central Park -> Columbus Circle -> Broadway -> Chambers St -> Brooklyn Bridge -> Atlantic Ave -> Prospect Park -> Ocean Parkway -> Coney Island…

  • Fascinated

    Hate to nitpick, but: May I ask what was “spectacular” about the Tour De Brooklyn? It crawled along; fat roadies stuffed into team kits hollering at 7-year-olds for clogging their path; furious Dyker Heights Escalade drivers sitting in mute fury as the parade of bikes went past….

  • harvey

    Fascinated – exactly. And actually, a number of drivers didn’t just sit in mute fury. I saw one cop being yelled at and 2 volunteer “traffic stoppers” being verbally and physically threatened by drivers. I felt that the ride was pretty poorly organized all around.

  • I had a blast on the tour and, as a first time marshal, got to meet many interesting people that also seemed to be having a lot of fun — especially the stragglers and first time riders at the end of the ride where I was working as a sweep.

    Clarence’s video does the event some justice as well:

    But what you guys point out is interesting, as there did seem to be an unfortunate amount of negative friction between the ride and car traffic. The cars still felt like the street should belong only to them and the inevitably undefined relationship of the ride to the traffic definitely caused some situations that were challenging to manage.

    For the Cyclovia events, the closings are complete and regularly scheduled, and the streets make a total shift away from being conduits for mobility to being destinations themselves… or “temporary parks” as Gil calls them.

    At some point, I will try to get up some of the video that I took of the Ciclovia events in both Bogotá and Quito.

  • da

    I’m ignorant… what does “fat roadies stuffed into team kits” mean?

  • Svelte roadie

    It means flabby people wearing tight lycra bike racing clothes.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    How is this different from the Car-free Sundays on the Grand Concourse, or the Bike and Skate Sundays on the Bronx River Parkway? Is it just the scale?

  • Steve


    During the first segment prior to the rest stop, I was in the back with my 9 y/o, with another parent and her own 9 y/o. Many of the ride participants were setting a brisk pace and the cops at back of the ride in the van would follow the faster riders, leaving us amidst the vehicular traffic behind the ride (which, because it was bottled up, was behaving aggressively). Many thanks to you, Ed and the other marshals who helped us through!

    The marshals’ interactions with NYPD that I observed seemed friendly and cooperative, but I suggest that next year there be a strong pitch to NYPD that they anchor a strong presence at the back of the ride and not pass stragglers.

    At one point (after the rest stop when were in the middle of the ride), the ride stopped because a driver deliberately circumvented a marshal in the “cork” position and entered the intersection as the ride was in it. The driver jumped from his car and started a shouting match with the marshal while the ride watched.

    Overall, a very different vibe than the Tour de Bronx last year. From my limited perspective, this seems attributable to (1) much greater proportion of the Brooklyn ride being on roadways as compared to use of greenways in the Bronx; (2) greater police presence in the Bronx;
    (3) (maybe) more aggressive drivers in Brooklyn?

    #2 and #3, I hear you. But we’ve got to start somewhere with taking back the streets, and rides like this are an important way to do it. The ride will improve over time as the organizers work the kinks out. Try the Tour de Bronx to see what I mean.

  • Zam


    I’d attribute much of this behavior to #3 — the remarkable a-hole-ishness of Brooklyn motorists. What is it about these intensely entitled morons?

  • harvey

    Oh yeah, sorry, I focused too much on the negative. I didn’t mean to imply that the ride wasn’t worth it and that I don’t admire and appreciate the work TA and other organizers/volunteers put into it. But I didn’t feel as positive a vibe as during the 5 Boro this year because of all the friction and weird pacing. They just need to work some kinks out and firmly establish the event’s priority over vehicle traffic so there is no question in drivers’ minds that they have to wait.

  • indeed

    I loved the TdB last year but found this year to be stressful–and sloooow! I’m no speed demon by any stretch but it got rather infuriating to keep having to get off walk my bike. And get bumped by others doing the same.

    Re: traffic, I think the fact that there were a lot of two-way streets on this year’s route made it worse. Cops had to constantly be on their little scooter thingies in the center, honking and honking, and the friction (both perceived and actual) between motorists and cyclists was more readily apparent than when a happy flock of cyclists are just cruising down the entire width of a one-way street without angry SUVs in their faces.

    That said, it was still fun and I will do it next year…

  • Steve

    Good point on the two-way streets, #11. The honking was a drag, and the policing of the two-way streets diverted scooter cops from other places where they could been deployed, like with stragglers at the back, or in advance to clear roadways so that riders would not be forced to wait at bottlenecks (such as at the transition from Caton to the Ocean Pkwy service road).

    But we all know that putting together and running a good route in cooperation with the NYPD and in the face of hostile motorists is not as easy as it might seem. Thanks T.A., see you again next year (hopefully with a larger contingent of first time group riders in tow than 2)!

  • Street Fair


    Before Ciclovia did Bogota have hundreds of street fairs and street closings for charity runs, walks, bikes and the like as NYC does? My guess is no. NYC closes big streets all the time, so a Ciclovia type event would come either in addition to the many closings we already have or at the cost of the existing events. (Not too likely.)This blog seems obtuse to events like the Marathon or Ninth Ave Food Fest, which are gigantic car-free happenings. They don’t have the words “car-free” in them, but they are.

  • Bogotá’s Cyclovia connects many different neighborhoods simultaneously, getting people to go to parts of the city they do not normally go and allowing them to choose from a range of potential loops.

    The looping 70 mile route map
    There are also small managed vending areas that serve as destinations and rest areas along the way. Instead of relying on the police to manage and secure the streets, there are 350 trained and uniformed facilitators. It is an extremely well managed event, with only the broadest of public purposes as its goal – public health and the celebration of the city, its people and its public spaces.

    In NYC, the sporadic and often under-managed street fairs, and other closings offer much room for improvement. Closing streets in any form without very good management is almost always problematic.

    It would be great to have further discussions on street fairs, street markets and other types of car-free streets on this blog. The marathon and some of the better street fairs have gotten coverage. Museum Mile and Little Italy are other potentially replicable examples for discussion. Let us know if you have some thoughts or specific questions that we can dive into further.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Ethan, your map link doesn’t work for me; it has an extra slash at the end. This one should work.

    I’d love to see this on Queens Boulevard. Any other candidates?



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