From Bogota to Belfast, Philadelphia to Paris, the wheels of change are gathering momentum as cyclists reclaim the streets. Towns and cities across the world are reinventing themselves as cycling hubs. A revolution is clicking into gear, with campaigners striving for an urban environment free of congestion and pollution.
This Sunday, October 30 sees the second annual Ciclovia Belfast event take place in Northern Ireland’s capital. Part of the city will be closed off to traffic from 9.30am-12pm, allowing cyclists of all ages to travel along a planned route in comfort and safety. Over 1500 people participated in last year’s inaugural event, and on Sunday another bumper crowd will congregate at Botanic Gardens before travelling along Botanic Avenue, Shaftesbury Square, Dublin Road, Bedford Street to Belfast City Hall, before returning to Botanic Gardens along the same route.
Ciclovia Belfast is more than just a cycling event, it is a cultural celebration where people can enjoy the freedom of Belfast.
It is a mini-festival of family fun that sees the community take their city back - and improve their health. It is designed to promote family participation and foster healthier lifestyles, and organisers are hoping the event continues to prosper in 2016 and beyond.
“We ran the event last year and it was very positive. We got some good weather and around 1500 people took part,” said Johnny Davis, Managing Director of Pioneer Group who are helping organise Belfast’s Ciclovia event. “I think the fact that we are doing the event again this year proves that last year was a success. The various partners are on board once again and we are hoping to build more momentum.”
The blueprint for last year’s inaugural Ciclovia Belfast was first mooted to Johnny by Northern Ireland Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. Máirtín - a keen cyclist himself - has long championed the idea of car-free Sundays in Belfast.
The Ciclovia template is a powerful tool that brings communities together, promoting Belfast’s burgeoning cafe culture and offering tourists another way to sample the architectural and cultural delights of the city.
“We would love to see Ciclovia develop further in Belfast,” Johnny added. “Ideally, we would love to extend the campaign to all parts of the city - north, south, east and west. We are engaging communities and highlighting the importance of health and well-being, and we have managed to grow a lot of positive partnerships. More pressure is being placed on government agencies to get roads fit for purpose. We need proper cycle lanes, ones that make cyclists feel safe.
“It is great that we have more people involved in cycling in Northern Ireland. There are so many health benefits from getting on a bike and going for a ride. You are also seeing more government and health agencies promoting exercise, and cycling. A lot of councils are adopting a more forward-thinking approach when it comes to cycling in their towns and cities.”
Sunday’s Ciclovia event also has the support of Northern Ireland’s Department of Infrastructure. Minister Chris Hazzard believes cycling has an important role to play in improving the health and well-being of the public.
“I am pleased that my Department is joining other partners in supporting Ciclovia Belfast 2016 and I would encourage everyone to take part - whatever their cycling abilities. I hope that Ciclovia acts as a springboard for more people to use the bike for everyday journeys – both in our cities and our greenways,” the Minister said. “Cycling has an important role to play in living healthier and fitter lifestyles. I believe that cycling also creates a sense of community and better social interaction. I would encourage everyone to come and enjoy this traffic free cycling event – a unique experience in the heart of Belfast city centre.
“HGV drivers and their vehicles will be at City Hall on Sunday providing a unique opportunity for both lorry drivers and cyclists to experience blind spots from cyclist and HGV driver perspectives. This opportunity should help drivers and cyclists fully understand the risks around cycling in close proximity to large vehicles. We have seen an increase in cycling here over the last number of years and, as such, the concept of ‘Sharing the Road’ has never been more important.”
Organisers of Sunday’s Ciclovia Belfast hope the event can improve the attitudes of all road users. “That means everyone travelling through the city. Motorists, pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists - whoever,” Johnny stressed. “When we were cycling the Ciclovia route last week we had a bus driver shout at us. Drivers have to be more aware of what us around them, and cyclists also have to be road conscious and not take any unnecessary risks. A truck will be parked along the route on Sunday and people will be able to sit in the cab and get an idea of what a lorry driver can, and can’t, see. It will highlight how careful everyone has to be.”
History may be punctuated by events that do not seem important at the time, but the rising popularity of similar Ciclovia events across the globe proves there is a movement growing. The first significant swell of support started back in 1974 in Bogota, Colombia. It was the brainchild of activist Jaime Ortiz Mariño who learned the ways of a social revolution after watching a group if students march through Washington in protest against the Vietnam War.
“I was educated analyzing this urban crisis [the rise of the automobile and the suburb],” Ortiz Mariño told Bicycling Magazine. “When I came back home to Bogotá, I was shocked to see that we Colombians were following the American path of urban development. Cars and more cars. One person, one car. It was obvious that this was not going to lead to a livable city. So I became a radical. I knew how to do it.”
In December 1974, Ortiz Mariño organised Bogota’s cyclists and persuaded city officials to close two central streets to traffic. "Over 5,000 people came from all over to ride their bicycles down the middle of Bogotá,” Ortiz Mariño added. “Housewives, hippies, executives, the young, and the old. The Ciclovía became the start of our movement." That revolution gathered momentum during the 1990s and into the new millennium.
Under Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, the Ciclovia route increased from eight miles and 140,000 riders to 70 miles and as many as 2 million people. The movement had earned significant support, and it wasn’t long before word of Bogota’s success breached the geographical boundaries of South America.
In the US, the fascination with traffic-free zones wasn’t completely novel, as Seattle had hosted Bicycle Sundays as far back as 1965. But in 2008 more cities were galvanised into action as urbanites and cycling fans joined the ‘Open Streets’ revolution. ‘Open Streets’ have now reached over 120 cities in the United States, but 62 per cent have been one-off festivals rather than regular events.
“We’d like to see a lot more cities doing it, but even before that, I want to see more frequency in the cities that already do it,” Mike Lydon, principal of the Street Plans Collaborative and founder of the Open Streets Project, an advocacy group for the movement in North America, told Vox. “Infrequency is a barrier to longevity and success — you’re not going to get the long-term impacts or behavior shifts that are possible if they’re just one-off events.”
As Belfast prepares to host its second Ciclovia event, Johnny Davis hopes it can become a regular feature in Northern Ireland’s social calendar, bringing communities together and promoting the city’s attractions.
“We want to keep building and growing this event,” he added. “I think it is important that people get this opportunity to enjoy cycling through the city of Belfast without any traffic. It is a wonderful event and one I hope the public comes out and supports on October 30.”
See.Sense Co-founder and CMO Irene McAleese believes Ciclovia Belfast showcases the potential for cycling mobility in major cities.
“The See.Sense team are planning to go along and enjoy Sunday’s event. It promises to be another great occasion,” Irene said. “It is a day when cyclists get to experience riding on our streets without any traffic, and it brings families and communities together in a fun, relaxed atmosphere. Cycling participation can be a good thing for individuals and cities, and events like Ciclovia Belfast prove that.”
Anyone looking more information on Sunday’s Ciclovia Belfast event should check out Ciclovia Belfast for more details.