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

Colombian urban advocate, Gil Peñalosa, is working with Toronto local councilor, Kristyn Wong-Tam, to bring bring “ciclovías” (see-clo-VI-as) to Canada’s major city.

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.

“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.”

Photo by TheFutureIsUnwritten.

If Peñalosa’s plan is successful, 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.

“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 in Bogota. 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.

Toronto street photo by Bryson Gilbert from the Torontoist Flickr Pool