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Colombia's Bike Paths Spawn Sunday Ritual

Every Sunday, more than a million people in Bogota join what has become a weekly ritual: congregating on the city's main roads temporarily turned into a network of bike paths known as the "Ciclovia". In a city of seven million people, Sunday mornings are not for cars, they are for exercise. More than 120 kilometers of highways are closed. In many locations, there are free aerobics, yoga and exercise classes. This 36-year success is now being copied in several large cities around the world.

Just imagine. Every Sunday morning, in a large metropolis, 120 kilometers of roads are closed.

Welcome to the beloved "ciclovia" as it's known in Bogota.

It's a network of paths created 36 years ago out of main roads and handed over to Bogota's residents, no motor vehicles, once a week.

On holidays too, these roads belong to bikers, walkers, skaters and baby carriers… anything that moves with human energy. That includes kids learning to skate, bike and even jog.

"The bike path is the largest space in the country for physical activity. It is more than 120 kilometers where people can express themselves as they wish," said Ana Edurme Camacho, director of the Recreation and Sports Institute in Bogota and the person in charge of the ciclovia.

Enrique Penalosa is an international consultant on urban strategies. He's a former mayor of Bogota and is still considered one of the city's most innovative mayors. He expanded the bike path during his tenure 10 years ago.

"The ciclovia is a ceremony; it's a ritual where humans recover the city for themselves. And for a while it makes us remember that humans are more important than cars," he said.

Today, about 400 fruit stands work the roads, and 35 outdoor exercise centers have popped up along the paths.

While displays of extreme sports attract large audiences, some people take advantage of the friendly environment to promote causes.

According to former mayor Penalosa, the ciclovia has benefits beyond fresh air and exercise. It helps bridge the social and economic divide among Bogota's residents.

"In these cities of the developing world where the large majority of the population does not have a car, taking a bit of spaces from the cars is a policy of fairness, is to build equality and social justice," Penalosa said.

The ciclovia is also fun for pets. And in case your bike runs aground, there is a licensed mechanic every few kilometers.

The ciclovia led to other projects in the city such as the night-time ciclovia at Christmas time and hundreds of kilometers of permanent bike routes, known as "ciclorutas".

Penalosa who plans to run for mayor again next year, takes credit for them. "We moved from zero to 300,000 people who go to work by bike in Bogota, that's five percent of the population," he said.

The ciclovia has been replicated in other Colombian cities and has been studied and copied by cities around the world.

Ana Camacho says a recent study links the ciclovia to a reduction in hospital visits. "If the city dosen't close the roads on Sundays the people would take over the streets," she said.

No chance of that. Going on 40, the ciclovia remains a major achievement for Bogota and Colombia.