December 2017

Cochabamba - the future cycling capital of Bolivia

By: Mads Hørkilde
Projects Abroad Volunteer

Masa Crítica: new cycle law promises well for the future, but Cochabamba still has a long way to go.

▲ A bike lane, this symbol tells us it's reserved for cyclists
Photo by: Mads Hørkilde

When I arrived in Cochabamba as a Danish visitor, one of the first things that struck me is the traffic. The amount of cars and buses racing through the city's streets is huge, leaving little room for cyclists. This stands out as one of many glaring contrasts to most European cities. Most Danes are used to navigating the streets of Copenhagen and Aarhus on a bike, and most would tell you that they do so feeling safe. Though it is a different scenario in the streets of Cochabamba, a new law is now promising well for the future. I met up with Christian Nogales,who is a big part of the local procyclist group Masa Crítica. He tells me that the new law, whose purpose is to improve the conditions for cyclists in Cochabamba "is a step in the right direction" but at the same time he admits "that it is part of a process, and that there is still a long way to go."

Masa Crítica has been working for better conditions for cyclists all over Bolivia for more than five years, but is now pointing to Cochabamba as being a city with the potential to follow in the footsteps of the European cycling cities, and transforming into the cycling capital of Bolivia – much though depends of the coming generations in Cochabamba. "Years ago,the cycling culture in Cochabamba was very different than today," explains Christian Nogales, "There was a time, a couple of generations ago, where everybody had a bicycle, and you would see many more people riding a bike." Nogales continues. Things have changed a lot since then; the reason to this is comforting, says Nogales, who thinks that the Cochabambinos have become too comfortable in their daily lives. "In the late 1980´s and the early 1990´s, we saw a change in the transport habits of Cochabambinos," says Nogales, adding, "There was a significant increase of the number of cars in the streets, which made it unsafe for cyclists." Cochabamba changed very fast from being a city where cyclists were safe "…to a city favoring cars," as Nogales puts it.

"We are not going to change into Holland or Denmark, just thanks to a change in the legislation – it is a longer process"

The new cycling law surely is a step in the right direction, but as long as the transportation habits of the people in Cochabamba remain unchanged, the new law will not live up to its its full potential. "What we are trying to do is to educate people," explains Nogales, "not only the people driving the cars but also the people walking the streets."

▲ A cyclist rides through the traffic carrying a heavy bundle
Photo by: Mads Hørkilde

The primary goal of Masa Crítica is not to necessarily change legislation in favor of cyclists – although the new law surely is welcomed, the organization is more interested in changing people's' minds. That is why, as Nogales explains to me, "Education about cycling and its benefits, is so important for us." Nogales goes on to state, "We are not going to change into Holland or Denmark, just thanks to a change in the legislation – it is a longer process."

What might be taken for granted by comparing between cycling friendly nations such as Holland and Denmark on one hand, and Cochabamba on the other hand, is that here – in the heart of Bolivia, learning to ride a bike and riding it through traffic is not automatically a part of growing up. And it is not hard to understand why – few parents would be willing to send their kids into the streets on a bike, knowing how the city's traffic is. "The best part about the new law is the focus that is put on making the streets safer for the weakest among us – children and old people," Nogales reflects. The next generations are the ones who will decide whether or not Cochabamba is to fulfill its potential as a cycle friendly city, and that is why for Nogales and Masa Crítica the most important thing about their projects is "reaching as many people as possible, whether it is by sitting here talking, or spreading flyers, we have to get the message out to the people." Nogales adds, "If we take a look at Chile, which was able to change its traffic culture within more or less five years – that is where we want to go, but we know that it takes a lot of work(…) most of all we want to achieve a sense of respect between the motorists and the cyclists." All this, Christian Nogales believes, help with achieving "…a street where bicycles and cars can drive side by side in harmony."

▲ Intersection for cyclists in downtown Cochabamba
Photo by: Mads Hørkilde

"The best part about the new law is the focus that is put on making the streets safer for the weakest – children and old people."

So even though Christian Nogales and Masa Crítica do not think that the goal of a cycle friendly city is completely attained with the new legislation, the new law might be the first small step in the right direction of achieving Masa Crítica's goals. Focusing on the security of the cyclists is nevertheless a good start, in order to get more people to use their bicycle, and maybe, in the near future, people will think of Cochabamba as the cycling capital of Bolivia

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