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Streets as trails for life

Cities open streets for people to walk, bike, and skate— and close them to vehicles.

arrow From the Summer 2008 American Trails Magazine
arrow An increasing number of cities are temporarily closing streets to cars and opening them to pedestrians and cyclists from The Christian Science Monitor
Video of Ciclovia ("Streets for Life") in Bogotá, Colombia
arrow In Mexico City, bicycles rule the Sunday streets from Los Angeles Times

By Gil Penalosa

photo: biking in the street
Guadalajara, Mexico, where over 170,000 people participate in the Via Recreactiva

How do you get hundreds of thousands of people physically active, every week, and without any major capital investment? What if you want to include people of both genders, all ages and levels of ability, as well as diverse economic, social and cultural backgrounds? What if you want to make it work just as well in cities of any size, in tropical climates or northern ones?

Well, the solution is “Streets for Life” or “Ciclovia” or “Car Free Sundays.” The name does not matter, and I’ll use Ciclovia, as that is the name used in Bogotá, Colombia. When I became Commissioner of Parks, Sport and Recreation, we had 13 kilometers (8 miles) of Ciclovia and attendance of around 100,000; within two years we increased it to 91 km (57 mi.) and over 1.5 million participants every Sunday and holiday of the year; currently it is at 113 km (70 mi.).

The Ciclovia concept is simple: for a few hours every week, a city opens a network of streets for people to walk, bike, and skate, and closes them to motor-vehicles. Once this occurs, a marvelous and magical sensation takes over where hundreds of thousands of people of all ages, levels of ability, and ethnic, economic or social backgrounds come out to exercise, but mostly, to enjoy the presence of each other. As William H. White said, “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.”

photo: girls with bikes
Enjoying the Ciclovia in Bogotá, Colombia

The people coming out to the Ciclovias could be walking or cycling near their homes and not necessarily on the specific Ciclovias, and this would allow them more space. But “people” is precisely what they are searching for, to be amongst other human beings and to feel a sense of belonging. A place where there is a subtle but clear sense of equality, as some people ride bicycles worth thousands of dollars, and others ride ones that are worth only a few, but all enjoy the moment.

It is a place where owners of large corporations, along with their families, end up doing the same activities as minimum wage workers and their families. Although they do not live in the same buildings and their kids do not go to the same schools, when they are in the Ciclovia, they meet as equals.

Ciclovia-type projects now exist in various cities including Bogotá, Colombia; Guadalajara & Mexico City, Mexico; Ottawa, Canada; El Paso (Texas), USA; and Paris, France. Some American cities working on program development are Portland (which held an initial day on June 22), Chicago (four Sundays this summer), New York City, and Baltimore (will do four Sundays in October).

I have provided advice to some of these cities along with the World Health Organization in promoting similar programs in other cities, including some in Caribbean countries. The goal is a major initiative to get large numbers of the population to become more physically active and to improve both individual and public health. In my role as executive director of the nonprofit Walk & Bike for Life, I have looked for ways to follow up with this interest. In partnership with Guadalajara 20/20, the promoters of the very successful Via Recreactiva in Guadalajara, we have organized a two-day workshop in both English and Spanish to help municipal leaders, organizations, and other stakeholders start Streets for Life programs.

Common elements of Ciclovia programs
photo: biking and walking in the street
There are no major capital investments as existing roads are used

Weekly Event: All take place on Sundays (some include holidays) as a weekly program. In cities with strong seasonal changes such as Ottawa (Canada), the program runs from May to September, while others like Paris, Bogotá and Mexico are year-round. All new programs begin with four or more Sundays, to foster word-of-mouth communication and to smooth out initial operation concerns.

Uses Existing Infrastructure: There are no major capital investments as existing roads are used. There are, however, operational costs to close the roads, for signage, and for adequate management which is key to the success.

Traffic Flows: The cities do not stop functioning, as the traffic flows. The users of the Ciclovia respect traffic lights and stop on red to allow motor vehicles to cross.

Physical Activities on the Road: Approximately 60% of the participants ride their bicycles; the rest walk, run, and skate. It is truly an activity for all.

Complementary Activities: Along the route of the Ciclovia there are other physical and cultural activities to complement the program. They range from aerobics to yoga, concerts and even massage therapy.

Services: Pre-authorized vendors sell fruit, juice and soft drinks, as well as repair bicycles. They locate themselves on the side of the roads and not on the roads. Some effective areas for these complementary activities are parks and public spaces along the route.

Signage: There are permanent signs as well as closure signage. The permanent ones are to inform residents and visitors that a specific road will be closed to cars on Sundays.

photo: bikes in the street
Eager participants of all ages take to the streets

Shared benefits of Ciclovia programs

Increase of Physical Activity at a Low Cost: It would seem impossible to have so many people physically active all at once. For example, in a city like Guadalajara, where over 170,000 people participate in their Via Recreactiva, decision makers know that at 30 players per soccer field, they would need 5,666 soccer fields to have the same amount of people active. In Bogotá, where more than 1.5 million participate, the city would need over 50,000 soccer fields to see the same levels of physical activity at once.

Social Integration/Recreation for All: Ciclovias are enjoyed equally by people of all ages and backgrounds. There are no user fees.

Economic Development: It is a marvelous tourist attraction. Last year the American Airlines magazine dedicated 12 full-color pages to Bogotá’s Ciclovia! Other cities such as Paris, Ottawa, and Mexico include it as one of their main attractions for locals and tourists. By using existing roads there are no capital costs, only operational ones.

photo: group dancing
Bogotá: the Ciclovia is a great way to attract more participants to “move”

Decrease in Obesity: Since 1980, rates of obesity in U.S. adults has risen from 15% to 34.2%. The Ciclovia concept is a cost-effective way to help large segments of the population be active and burn more calories.

Promotes Bicycling and Walking: Based on what psychologists call “selective perception,” (where people see or notice what they are interested in), pedestrians and cyclists may seem invisible. The Ciclovia raises their profile and visibility, and when people see others of all ages, levels of ability, and physical condition walking, skating, or bicycling, they get motivated to participate.

Furthermore, in order to use the Ciclovia, people purchase walking shoes, in-line skates, or bicycles, and once they have the equipment, it seems easy and useful to walk, skate or ride more frequently. It is a great way to attract more participants to “move.”

What does it take to start a Ciclovia?

photo: police on bikes
Safety officials at Guadalajara's Via Recreactiva

It is evident that to set up a Ciclovia in any city is not a financial issue (the cost/benefit is extremely positive) or a technical one (there are good examples to learn from); it is political. To be successful, you need five elements:

Leadership: It may come from elected officials, the media, the private sector, or nonprofits; there are examples from all and each city is different. But it takes a champion, a leader who will not take “it can’t be done” for an answer.

Political Will (Guts): Inevitably some people will complain, especially before it begins. It will take political clarity that the general interest prevails over the particular, and “guts” to move forward.

“Doers” in the Public Sector: You need people looking for solutions to the problems and not for problems with the solutions. Find people who get things done and not those who collect reasons why “it can’t be done.”

Community Engagement: The people who live, work, and play in the city need to get involved. They need to call up and write to the media and elected officials and support the initiative: before, during and after.

Sense of Urgency: You will never have all the answers for every potential problem or situation. Do your homework, plan as much as you can, but do it.

Make the Streets for Life project part of the solution to the problems we face: obesity, depression, heart attacks, and other health issues; traffic congestion; global warming; and economic downturn. As a bonus, you'll end up with a healthier community where residents live happier.

Gil (Guillermo) Penalosa is Executive Director of Walk & Bike for Life, a Canada-based nonprofit with an international outlook, and American Trails Board member. For more information, visit

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