Lessons on two wheels

Bikers in Bogotá by Carlos Felipe Pardo
Bikers in Bogotá by Carlos Felipe Pardo

A lot has been written about seeing Bogotá on a bike. The city’s bicycle lanes, “ciclorutas” and “ciclovías” (Sunday public biking and walking lanes) have gathered praise both with locals and foreigners, and even the media seems to be in the saddle, inviting the public to trade in cars for bikes and offering tips like “use a helmet” and “take the designated bike lanes.” This advice may take you for a nice ride on a sunny Sunday morning, but what’s it like to ride a bike on a commute everyday?

The financial aspect is rarely mentioned as a benefit for choosing some human power over fossil fuel. It is, however, perhaps the most important consideration for everyday bike riders. A bike can save an average of $120,000 a month, this is approximately 20 percent of the minimum salary and almost twice the transport subsidy.

Old man on bike in Bogotá by Nico Crisafulli

Many of Bogotá’s residents choose biking for its economic advantages. It can also be a more relaxing way to see the city.

It’s noteworthy that a significant share of the population makes daily trips of 20 km (one way) and more by bike, and they have been making them since long before biking became fashionable. It’s hard to know how many of them there are, or how long their commute is as there are no official records. But at every construction site in fancy parts of town, there are several workers who ride to work every day from the outskirts of the city.

So bicycles are a serious consideration for many people wanting to choose an environmentally friendly option for mobility. For me, the bicycle has changed the way I see life in the city. The comfort of an individual means of transportation is undeniable. I exercise. I spend time outdoors every day. I can judge my time-distance with precision. It often takes less time than it would to use public transportation.

The bicycle completely merits its praise. But as with any activity, there is a learning curve to it, so I mean to share some of its lessons.

I learned the most important lesson within the first few weeks. Getting around by bike means taking a different route to your destination. By car, main highways are often the fastest way to go. On foot, you often rely on bus routes (which tend to follow main highways). By bike, small streets and parks are preferred. It’s safer, less noisy and less polluted. Sometimes even faster. I don’t understand why city planners keep designing bike lanes along highways. By bike, it’s possible to step off and take a shortcut across a pedestrian bridge. This opens routes that are closed to cars.

“Know thy city”

So Lesson One is: “Know thy city.” Studying a map before going to a new place may reveal better options you hadn’t thought of.

My first accident happened when I had been riding for three months. It was early evening, and it was raining lightly. The street ahead was flooded from sidewalk to sidewalk. I gripped my handlebar harder and prepared to keep my balance, in case there was some rough terrain beneath the 20 cm of water. There wasn’t.

There was a huge hole, my front wheel plunged into it and I flew over the handlebar, landing in the puddle. I was lucky the car behind saw the maneuver. It didn’t run me over. It drove around with the rest of the cars. A motorcycle rider did stop, help me up and told me valuable Lesson Two: “Take the middle of the street! Let them honk!”

“Take the middle of the street”

Although “the middle of the street” is a bit extreme and not always possible, it’s on the rightmost side of the right lane where you find most potholes and open gutters. While a car may be damaged by falling into one, it can be deadly for a bicycle or motorcycle rider. Going too close to the sidewalk leaves you with less space to avoid the many obstacles in the right lane. The highway code says a bicycle shouldn’t be ridden further than one meter from the sidewalk. I have found it’s easier and safer to keep at least half a meter’s distance, and definitely avoid the kind of streets where you are pushed against the sidewalk.

“Motorcycles are good. Cars are dangerous”

Lesson Three: “Motorcycles are good; cars are dangerous.” Local car drivers complain a lot about motorcycle riders. But let me say this: other riders are a lot more attuned to your vulnerability. They are supportive. On the other hand, most car drivers firmly believe you are infringing on their exclusive right (this perhaps an unintended side effect of the ciclorrutas) to the road.

I get shouted at to “use the bike lane!” Surprisingly, I’ve had this yelled at me when I’ve been crossing a road along a bike lane. According to official data, Bogotá has 15,657 km of roads. It’s also got 344 km of exclusive bike lanes. That is, the city has 1 km of bike lane for every 45.5 km of car lane.

Ciclovia in Bogotá, Colombia by Saúl Ortega

Sundays  mean ‘ciclovia’ in Bogotá. Huge swaths of the city’s highways are converted to bike and pedestrian lanes until 2:00 p.m.

It’s therefore not realistic to go from one place to another on bike lanes exclusively. Eventually, you have to use the streets. Sometimes you’ll run into a driver that’s upset by the space you occupy on their street.

My second accident is a good illustration of this phenomenon. It was also evening, and I was on a main street with a central divider. A taxi coming in from a side street turned right, touching my back wheel with the center of its front bumper. It inevitably knocked me over. I was left sitting in the middle of the street, sore all over and spitting mad.

“If it’s got an engine, it’s got the right of way”

The driver opened his car door to say: “I had the right of way!” Long story short, the driver paid the bicycle repair. However, I learned that he was right. Lesson Four is: “If It’s Got an Engine, Then It’s Got the Right of Way.”

The game is to stay alive. Therefore, if the motor vehicle is turning right, I stop. If it’s coming in from a side street, I stop. If the stop sign is on its side of the intersection, I stop. If it’s coming the wrong way, I stop. If it’s making a forbidden left turn, I still stop. Whatever it is, either it was going to stop or it wasn’t. If it was, I thank the driver. If it wasn’t, it isn’t going to stop on my behalf. I take it as a good sign that I can still criticize their irresponsibility.


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