Ciclovías Open Up Streets, and the City
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Ciclovías Open Up Streets, and the City

Urban advocate Gil Peñalosa and councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam are working to bring "open street" periods to Toronto.

Ciclovía in Bogotá, Columbia. Photo by Cidades para Pessoas.

Ciclovía in Bogotá, Colombia. Photo by Cidades para Pessoas.

In the future, people will be able to travel around Toronto without the aid of cars and public transportation. They can have brunch in Leslieville, fly over to hike in High Park, and enjoy dinner in Etobicoke without turning on the ignition or even doling out subway fare.

Perhaps you’re envisioning a far-off space age, each of us with a jet pack. But if you are Gil Peñalosa, the executive director of 8-80 Cities, and Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale), the future is almost here. And that self-propelled vehicle? It’s you. On a bike. Or maybe roller blades. On foot. Or who knows, maybe on a dog sled or snowshoes in the wintry months.

Peñalosa and Wong-Tam are trying to bring ciclovías (see-clo-VI-as) to Toronto. Spanish for “bike path,” the original Ciclovía was created in 1976, and ran through part of Bogotá, Colombia. In the mid-’90s, Peñalosa, then Bogotá’s commissioner of recreation, decided to revive and radically expand the Ciclovía, to dramatic effect.

The new ciclovía is a simple concept: the city opens up certain streets to non-motorized traffic, and people are free to do as they please in the public space. Essentially, it turns long stretches of the city into a paved park. Cars are permitted to move through the city, but they are restricted to certain routes. (When you talk to him about it, Peñalosa is quick to say that the city is opening up to the people instead of being shut down or off to cars.) In Bogotá and other Colombian cities, they do this from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays and holidays; hundreds of thousands of people come out and take part. Other cities around the world have started introducing them as well.

“Streets are like a forbidden place,” Peñalosa says. “Almost nothing scares you as much as when your parents say ‘Watch out! A car is coming!'” But with the ciclovía, the streets “become open so people can enjoy the forbidden place.”

In Bogotá, the ciclovía is used to promote public health: exercise classes are taught in city plazas, dance parties are held in the street, and thousands of people stroll down the boulevards. But Peñalosa says that whatever happens, happens—people are more than welcome to set up small shops, pop-up schools, art fairs, and picnics. Loosen up the streets, loosen up the city.

“People are so hungry for public space,” said Peñalosa, “that when they have it, they’ll take over, and things will develop!”

Councillor Wong-Tam was visiting Guadalajara, Mexico in 2010, when Peñalosa encouraged her to visit a ciclovía there. Just a few minutes cycling around the downtown plazas got her hooked. Since then, she and Peñalosa have been working on bringing the open streets concept to Toronto.

The benefits of the ciclovía are great. For starters, the streets are already paved and well kept, so most of the infrastructure is ready and in good condition. “In a time of economic crisis, you don’t have to go to the City to ask for millions,” Peñalosa points out. There are no socioeconomic barriers to ciclovías—anyone with even a few spare minutes can participate. And unlike some special events like marathons (which also block traffic from specific parts of the city), everyone can participate. Ciclovías are open to everyone and can be in every neighbourhood, kind of like a city-wide Pedestrian Sunday.

In Bogotá, 120 kilometres go car-free, but Peñalosa says he’d like to see just a few kilometres dedicated to a ciclovía in Toronto for the first few events. Eventually the goal is to ramp up to 50 kilometres, in every part of Toronto, and encourage residents to explore. “Next Sunday you say ‘I want to go here…’ and this will connect all of these magnificent parts of the city.”

Studies have shown that pedestrian and cycling traffic are beneficial for a local economy; those who arrive by foot or bike are more likely to spend more money in a neighbourhood’s shops than those who drive [PDF]. It’s something cycling advocates pushing for bike lanes often point out; it’s likely to also apply with large numbers of people exploring new neighbourhoods and visiting businesses out of their normal terrain.

In Canada, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Calgary, Hamilton, and Ottawa have all hosted ciclovías or similar events. Ottawa, notably, has been holding its Alcatel-Lucent Sunday Bikedays since 1970. All of which makes it surprising Toronto hasn’t already hosted a ciclovía yet. There is no reason why it wouldn’t be successful; New York, a city Toronto fancies as its American equivalent, shuts down Park Avenue for its version of the event, and Los Angeles, the car capital of North America, regularly hosts its CicLAvia, to the delight of citizens and proprietors alike.

Peñalosa notes that Winnipeg was the first Canadian city to adopt the idea (in 2009), and that Paris stages a weekly ciclovía year round—the concept isn’t limited to warm-weather cities. And Toronto, with its gridded streets and fairly flat landscape, makes an ideal home.

Hopefully, now it’s only a matter of time. Pending a review by the City’s top civil servant, due in April of this year, there’s a chance we’ll see our first ciclovía in 2014.