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Between Data and Experience:
What We Can Learn from Biking in Bogotá

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by Alexa Ringer

Alexa Ringer (she/her) is a New Yorker, a cyclist, an environmental planner, and a board game enthusiast. She’s worked on multiuse trail planning, energy transition planning, and at a bike shop. If she can’t bike it, hike it, or take public transit, she’s mad about it. 


Bogotá, Colombia is a world class city for buses. 

   TransMilenio is one of the first successful and scalable bus rapid transit systems in the world, and now the rapidly growing city is planning for two metro lines, mountainous cable car systems, and additional bus system improvements. 

Bogotá, Colombia is a world class city for bikes.

   Hailed as the bike capital of the world, Bogotá boasts some of the highest ridership numbers in the world, with 7% - and growing - of all commutes being done by bike [1]. Every Sunday, the city shuts down its major BRT thoroughfares and opens the space to cyclists and pedestrians, an urbanist fantasy. The culture of biking is woven into the urban fabric. 

   So, Michael and I hopped on the bikes despite Bogotá’s characteristically gloomy skies, unlocking the city by embracing a sense of adventure, abandoning (trip) planning, and living in the moment on chaotic unknown streets. 

   We downloaded the bike share app and set off to grab a bike share on a cloudy day. We could pick from a myriad of bikes, whether a regular bike, an e-bike, or even one with a child seat, a clear effort to incorporate primarily female caretakers into cycling infrastructure. Starting in the center of the downtown area, the route felt incredibly safe as a two-way bike lane protected from regular traffic by small cinder blocks.  The general traffic lane next to it was so narrow that cars inched by at a snail’s pace. This was easy for about two blocks. 

   Then the route merged. Divided by low concrete barriers, the cycle track continued onto a major road. Dark clouds loomed overhead, threatening rain, but in a city that rains every day, this did not stop us. The tree-lined verdance of downtown shifted quickly into a concrete-heavy road and the air was thick with motorcycle fumes that we inhaled. The track was alive with cyclists in both directions, despite frequent instances of pedestrians darting across the track. 

   We spontaneously turned left, and the bike infrastructure disappeared even though cyclists remained. Boldly riding next to regular traffic, we passed one of the main Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridors, devoid of any clear place to go. These high-capacity buses, known locally as TransMilenio, carry about 2 million passengers a day, 400,000 more than daily ridership on New York City’s buses, and in a city without a subway [2]. These buses are embedded into the city infrastructure with two dedicated right-of-way lanes in each direction, full stations & amenities, and a comprehensive hierarchal system of dedicated busways (“trunk) and local (“feeder”) buses along the network [3]. The BRT network is the economic lifeblood of the city. Yet, the configuration of high-capacity transit roads in Bogotá is different than American roads, often dominated by a single mode. The network is not exclusive to transit and is in fact shared by all modes as a major artery, resulting in poor air quality, noise, and an awing sense of anarchy. Realizing we were in over our heads, we turned back. 

Image: TransMilienio
Source: Michael Dunst

[1] Bogotá Household Travel Survey, 2018

[2] Kimmelman, Michael. “How One City Tried to Solve Gridlock for Us All.” The New York Times, December 7, 2023.


Image: Ciclovia occurs every Sunday, where major roads, including TransMilenio Corridors, are exclusively for pedestrians and cyclists [i]

Image: Bikeshare in Bogotá
Source: Alexa Ringer


   Turning onto a street parallel from the original main road, we saw something resembling a bicycle path. With relief, we sped up, bouncing along the path. With no curb ramps transitioning the elevated sidewalk to the street at crossings, we literally flew into the air at intersections. Barriers were placed right in our path, leading us to zoom around them while trying to avoid pedestrians not paying attention to us. We whizzed past informal bicycle shops smartly placed next to the trail with cyclists of all kinds weaving around us.

   Arriving out of breath back at the station, our ride had revealed a lens to the city previously hidden. Although the tip of the iceberg, we had been able to briefly glimpse the chaotic, uncomfortable, and fragmented experience of Bogotá’s daily cyclists. 

   Despite the various levels of chaos we experienced during our ride, we were riding in a vacuum as tourists, sucking up only what was easily accessible and in our safe purview. However, the broader story of this network - and that of the people who use it every day - needs to be told. With more data digging, it became clear that Bogotá is not world class at integrating bicycle and bus infrastructure, with the most vulnerable citizens bearing the burden of those consequences. 16% of all crashes involving cyclists are on TransMilenio routes, which are just 3% of Bogotá’s roads. Most crashes involving cyclists are near BRT terminals and more than 50% of cyclists are in the socioeconomically lower classes [4].

[i]  Garcia, Nati. Ciclovia de domingo. Photograph. Bogotá, Colombia, August 12, 2009. Bogotá, Colombia. 

[4] Analysis performed by A. Ringer using Bogotá Crash Data and Household Travel Survey, 2018


Bridges over the wide TransMilienio corridors are uncomfortable and meant for pedestrians, but shared by cyclists. By forcing pedestrians and cyclists to share the same path, cyclists are figuratively and literally pushed out of the way.


Cycling for all?

   Integrating bicycle and bus infrastructure in Bogotá can address many of the city’s transportation equity challenges. A majority of the population lives at the urban periphery in the lowest socioeconomic classes, many without cars. For those living beyond the city boundary, past the service of the transportation system, dependence on illegal buses to bring them to the TransMilenio terminal stations is essential. Bicycle access to TransMilenio terminals in the urban edges is critical to help low-income residents affordably reach the rapid transit system, which brings them the opportunity of higher paying work closer to the city center. 

   Ultimately, the infrastructure, while it exists, is inadequate. Bicycle paths at grade with sidewalks are quite common bicycle infrastructure along the BRT corridors, comprising the infrastructure on seven out of twelve corridors. Bridges over the wide TransMilenio corridors are uncomfortable and meant for pedestrians, but shared by cyclists. By forcing pedestrians and cyclists to share the same path, cyclists are figuratively and literally pushed out of the way. This is not specific to bike paths; on the remaining streets that share a BRT, there are no designated facilities and cyclists mix with regular vehicle traffic. Cyclists trying to cross the wide roads must share narrow pedestrian ramps intended to access median TransMilenio stations. There are few on-road cycle tracks and I found just a single greenway with help from Universidad de los Andes student David. Bicycling in Bogotá for a few blocks can be quite fun, but the overall experience was one that was smoggy, gray, and hectic. If Bogotá intends to elevate mobility inequities, space for cyclists on every street is critical.

   For Bogotá to reach its ambitious goals of having 50% of all modes be by bike (the date by which remains to be announced), integrating the two modes is essential [5]. The city is still growing, sprawling in an unplanned fashion up into the southern mountains; planned mega-developments are consuming farmland and wetlands in the west and north of the city with multilane highways and insular bicycle networks that lead nowhere. As Bogotá densifies and grows, creating neighborhoods at the scale and population of some mid-sized American cities, islands of infrastructure are no longer adequate. 
So, as planners who also bike, what perspective can we contribute? 


[5] Flannery, Lee. “Bogotá Commits to the Bicycle.” Planetizen News, August 13, 2020. 

Images: Snapshots of bicycle life along or across TransMilenio corridors

Source: Alexa Ringer

As planners who also bike, what perspective can we contribute?   

    While Bogotá has a revolutionary bus rapid transit system, most of its population is poor and lives on the urban periphery just beyond TransMilenio access [6]. As we discovered in our studio, TransMilenio keeps expanding to provide access, which results in informal housing even further on the city edges beyond the system. The cycle of catch-up is unsustainable for a flat-rate transit system and results in a sprawling metropolis where the utility of a bicycle diminishes with ever-increasing distances. The poorest and most vulnerable citizens move further away, away from access, away from opportunity, away from connections. The complex and interdependent relationship between housing and transportation in Bogotá results in a lack of equitable access to both affordable housing and quality transportation for the people that live on the periphery. 

   We rode in the center of the city, but this was likely not reflective of how most Bogotá residents bike around. These two insights showcase a glaring gap between our limited tourist experience and a slice of data. Our data analysis and bus rides revealed only a glimpse of the inequities on the outskirts where we were unable to venture. These stories remain invisible to us as planners, and as cyclists we must imagine those lived experiences as viscerally frustrating, often life-threatening, and full of exploration for individuals gaining freedom through bicycles and buses. There is no clear answer here, but questions must persist throughout planning practice as we learn about communities that aren’t ours and attempt to serve the public good. How can we fill in the gaps between data and personal experiences? How far is too far to venture from safe zones to understand the reality experienced by millions? How do we really know what it’s like to cross the labyrinth of mega infrastructure we create if we don’t try it ourselves? How can we have impact on a city at a variety of scales, from planning revolutionary infrastructure to enabling a person to hop on their bike and ride to the nearest bus stop? 

[6] Kimmelman

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