Building ‘Human Infrastructure’ and Equity Through Ciclovías

By Lorena Guadiana

Ciclovías are becoming a prominent activity that are making significant strides to encourage more active transportation in cities throughout the United States. Although they are increasingly more popular, very little is known about whether they have an equitable impact on socio-spatial development aspects in the communities where they are being implemented. To garner a discussion on the topic, this article touches on the role of human infrastructure in Ciclovías and its relationship with the built environment. The goal of Ciclovías is to temporarily close streets to motor vehicles and free them to cyclists, walkers, runners, etc. The program, which originated in South American cities such as Bogota, Colombia in the 1970s, has expanded worldwide. More than 400 cities around the world have embraced and implemented the model. Many United States cities have followed suit with their own Ciclovías or their own version of the program (e.g., Open Streets and Sunday Streets) and are witnessing a jump in participation as they continue to accept it as a promising activity. Most recently, New Jersey cities such as New Brunswick and Princeton have adopted Ciclovías through a collaborative effort that included the New Jersey Bicycle and the Pedestrian Resource Center. The Ciclovia’s align with the cities’ Complete Streets policies, which encourage a comprehensive and connected multi-modal transportation network that includes bicycling and walking and are supported strongly by the New Jersey Department of Transportation. Although there is more support towards the implementation of this program, there is little research to understand the related benefits of Ciclovías.

New Brunswick Ciclovia June 2015
New Brunswick Ciclovia June 2015

Adonia Lugo, a street anthropologist and now the Equity Initiative Manager at the League of American Bicyclists, has focused her research on bicycle movements. Lugo (2014) explains that, “While many experts have identified the twentieth century development of built environments designed for driving as a deterrent to active transportation behavior, we also face an underdeveloped ‘human infrastructure’ to support travel by other modes.” This becomes particularly important when estimates point to a significant growth in the world’s urban population: by 2050, sixty-six percent of the world’s population is expected to be urban. By 2056, the population 65 and older is projected to surpass the 18 and under population in the United States. Also, by 2060, the population in the United States is projected to be older and a lot more racially and ethnically diverse. The built environment must evolve and innovative and alternate methods of transportation will be needed to address these demographic changes.

Lugo argues that people are infrastructure because social networks generate spaces of value; and human infrastructure examines the impact social interaction has in the way people move. She says that Ciclovías need to make concerted efforts to account for how the events advance the development of human infrastructure to reinforce equitable active transportation. “We assume that normalizing cycling will eliminate the gap between poverty and elite cycling, but without conceptualizing where these groups meet.” To that effect, a study performed by Michael Smart (2010) identified immigrants in the United States as more likely to use bicycles than their native counterparts. In his publication, Smart calls for the development of further research to investigate whether immigrants who do not bicycle could be opting not to do so due to the presence of discriminatory practices or the existence of transportation avenues that are incognizant of their needs. Lugo expresses the lack of inclusionary initiatives for “invisible riders”[1] by those who are prominent bicycling advocates and organized bicyclists. She describes how often bicycling routes are influenced by people’s belonging to certain social networks and also endorses additional research that could shed light on their bicycling patterns in contrast to those riders who are self-identified bicyclists.

Lugo encourages event organizers to use Ciclovías as a gateway towards multicultural mobility. Because public space interventions necessitate equitable methods, Lugo encourages planners to be intentional in their approach and conscious of how marginalized populations walk and bike in adverse environments, “both from a design standpoint and because ingenuity has a shelf life,” she says. The author argues that the gap between those who participate in active transportation by choice and those who opt for it as a result of economic necessity is often sustained by the lack of racial and ethnic diversity among planning professionals.

Child bicycling at New Brunswick Ciclovia
Child bicycling at New Brunswick Ciclovia

As changing demographics illustrate, creating a strong human infrastructure might be a means to pragmatically address issues in the ever increasing urban population. Prominent bicycling advocates and transportation policy makers should work together with members of the community to shift the paradigm around research design to not only shed more light on traditional bicycling trends, but also to closely examine the reasons why a community or a subset of a population might not be as predisposed to engage in bicycling as a viable means of transportation. One recommendation Lugo makes to generate an equitable Ciclovía is to conduct a street ethnography such as to study the transportation arrangement of the local area through the lens of the media and historical archives, as well as by examining street behavior. She also urges investigations into how local advocates form connections with bicyclists in the area. However, developing a foundation towards equitable Ciclovías necessitates a shared experience beyond bicycling enthusiasts and advocates – transportation initiatives and policy-making have a greater impact and scope when they are approached as more than just a transportation issue.


[1]The term was first used by Dan Koeppel in a publication of a 2005 issue of Bicycling Magazine to describe immigrants who use bicycles but do not connect with organized cycling groups. More on “invisible riders” can be found here.

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