Urban Highways and freeways have long been viewed as a symbol of progress, higher mobility and better “modern” cities. Every city sees a flurry of road building when traffic levels get too high, predictably named something along the lines of “Inner/Outer Ring Road”, “Bypass Road” “Something High Road”, etc. In the past fifty years, tens of thousands of miles of urban highways were built around the world.  The idea here is to better urban mobility, but the solution is excessively car-centric, creating more space for cars, and consequently allowing the increase in the number of cars in a city by default. But what if we paused here, and created less space for cars? What if we redistributed road space equally between cars, bicycles, public transport and pedestrians?
This is exactly what Enrique Peñalosa, the then Major of Bogota, Colombia, thought when planners in his city were considering building an elevated highway called the Inner Ring Expressway in 1990, encircling the city’s downtown district. Instead of investing urban infrastructure that would promote car ownership, he opted for a transportation strategy that would demote it. The plans for the highway were replaced with a 45km greenway for cyclists and pedestrians along the Juan Amarillo Creek that extends from the richest to the poorest neighborhoods of the capital. Known as the Bicycle Highway of Bogota, this has expanded to over 300 km of bicycle lanes all over the city.
The Greenway is safe, fast and enjoyable to ride, and has revitalized several Caracas along its route, encouraging families to be outside and reclaim the streets as their own. Having an exclusive bicycle and pedestrian network right outside their homes led to a huge increase in the quality of life in the poor neighborhoods. It is interspersed with nodes that invite people to sit and interact with cyclists and other pedestrians, functioning as a social corridor as well.
Before the construction of this Greenway, cars tended to be a means of social differentiation, but now, the bicycles integrate people. It became a symbol of democracy and equity in the city, and signaled a new wave of social urbanism that transformed the cities of Bogota and Medellin in Columbia. It proclaimed that the person riding a creaky old bicycle was as important as a person driving a swanky car. It overturned the twentieth century paradigm where cities were more car-friendly, than people-friendly.
Coupled with an extensive BRTS network called TransMilenio, the Juan Amarillo Greenway reduced traffic fatalities by 86%, and travel time by 32% and increased bike use by five times in the city- more than 35000 people ride to work every day.  Bicycles are no longer just used for recreation or the occasional Sunday morning workouts. It’s increasingly used for commuting to work, and creating transit corridors conducive to this movement has benefits for everyone. It takes cars off the roads and people out of the overcrowded public transit systems.
The Ciclovia phenomenon
With the construction of the Porvenir Promenade, a 24 km pedestrian and bicycle- only street, Bogota has transformed into one of the world’s great cycling cities. It was built through neighborhoods that didn’t even have basic sidewalks or infrastructure for the people. Moreover, what has accelerated the cycling culture are cycle-sharing systems and local rallies like the Ciclopaseo Night ride every Wednesday, where more than 200 riders take to the streets in a “Critical-Mass ride” that sends a strong political message about cycling rights in the city, apart from just enjoying the pleasures of exploring the city at night. Take this for another example- Every Sunday, for seven hours in the morning, more than 100 km of arterial roads inside the city are closed to cars. Termed “Ciclovia”, they become cycling havens for more than a million cyclists and pedestrians who flood the core of the city – vast human powered movement corridors, without the fear of getting hit by speeding cars.
A Ciclovia for Chennai
Back home, Chennai too has its own versions of a Ciclovia. Suresh Kumar, co-founder of Tamil Nadu Cycling Club (TCC) grew up in a world of cycles- his father owned Balaji Stores, a cycle store which is the biggest cycle business in Tamil Nadu today. 22 years ago when Suresh took over the business, he decided he needed to do more. In 2006, he started by gathering a few friends and taking off on cycle rides to the outskirts of the city. Back then, it wasn’t easy… his family thought he had lost it every time he woke up at 4am to go cycling but eventually through persistence he managed to make them come around to the idea of why it was such a pleasure to do that. By 2008, Suresh was able to gather 20-25 people to come for these rides. In 2010, he decided to set up TCC along with Vasanth Ramaswamy and they now host 35 cycling events every year with each event drawings crowds of almost 150 people. TCC currently also provides technical support to other cycling initiatives across the city.
Another such initiative is Saddle Addicts, a cycling group in Chennai, that echoes these sentiments about the pleasures of cycling off into the unknown, or at least the outskirts of Chennai. “The thing with cycling, it’s just fast enough to keep you moving, and just slow enough to let you savor and enjoy each moment, each scene you cross – the birds on that tree, the lone pink flower in a sea of green. That’s something you do not, and CAN NOT, get from any motorized vehicle. Cycling somehow makes for deeper, intimate experiences – preferably somewhere you don’t run the risk of getting bullied by all the motorized traffic”, says Abinaya Kalyanasundaram, an Architecture Student who co-founded this group with Amar Mahadeeswaran. All that being said, Chennai has a long way to go, if it has to meet the standards of Juan Amarillo Greenway and the Alameda El Porvenir.
Suresh too says that the non-existent cycling infrastructure in the city of Chennai means that they have to finish all their rides before 8am, after which it is a challenge to battle it out with the flow of vehicular traffic. But he’s optimistic too, because in the same breath he says that a number of city officials and ministers have not only joined them on their rides but also evinced interest in making provisions for cycling infrastructure in the city.
Yet, with cities of the global south becoming increasingly cycle friendly, is it possible to envision cities where a bicycle is as respected as a car, cycle infrastructure is found everywhere? What would it take for cities around to world to invest more in building equitable cycleways, greenways and public transit systems rather than Urban Highways? Cities for the people may look like an obvious idea, but in reality it faces tremendous hurdles. For now, here’s an animated video by C.MENT Studios that beautifully captures an unforgettable cycling experience into the woods. Aptly titled ‘Cycling Rhapsodies – Enchanting Woods’, it brings back memories of a childhood spent chasing butterflies, skipping puddles and speeding down the street on a cycle.
- Life and Death of Urban Highways, ITDP
- Death Row of Urban Highways