In late September, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) was invited to Bogotá, Colombia—a dynamic mega-city on the crest of the active-transportation wave—to lend our assistance in the planning of the country’s first rail-trail project, just outside of Bogotá.
Beginning with an invitation by the city’s renowned Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, and culminating with a presentation to Colombia President Iván Duque Márquez, the five-day trip was an eye-opening and inspirational peek—at the unparalleled opportunity that future rails-trails hold for Colombia, as well as the urban infrastructure that has placed the City of Bogotá not just at the forefront of the global active-transportation movement, but on the leading edge of the women’s bicycling revolution.
Building on a Legacy of World-Class Urban Bike-Ped Infrastructure
Over his two nonconsecutive terms spanning 20 years, Mayor Peñalosa has demonstrated guts and bold leadership in his efforts to develop active transportation infrastructure in an era where the car is king. Of particular note is his role as primary champion of Bogotá’s 300-kilometer (186-mile) world-class urban network of separated bicycle and pedestrian pathways, known as “Ciclorrutas.”
This investment in people-centered transportation infrastructure has come to mean that in a city of 8 million people, a staggering 1 million people get around by bike, representing a mode share of nearly 13%. These are numbers that trail and bike-ped professionals in the United States dream of—where 4%–6% mode share leads the pack in top bike-friendly cities.
As his time as mayor comes to an end, Peñalosa has one more game-changing idea up his sleeve—to develop Colombia’s first rail-trail—and that’s how my colleague Eric Oberg and I found ourselves en route to Bogotá … eager to share the knowledge RTC has acquired in trails and trail networks over the last several decades. We would gain a lot in return.
Women in Bicycling as a Public Policy Issue
Almost immediately upon our arrival in Bogotá, we were thrilled to join in on the International 50-50 Women in Bicycling Congress, which included a nighttime ride—with more than 200 school-age, female students as guests of honor—through the city’s Ciclorrutas. This infrastructure is unparalleled with anything we’ve experienced in North America, with multiple ramp and bridge structures often spanning over six lanes of cars and bus rapid-transit lanes.
The impressive protected network ran in the middle of multilane highways while also going sub-grade in places with ample “off- and on-ramps” for access to and from surface streets and some amazing bus rapid-transit stations equipped with ample bicycle parking.
Serendipitously, we were joined by long-time trail advocates Frank Henson and Mary Messman from Cincinnati, who just happened to be traveling through Bogotá! Frank summed up our evening ride perfectly when he said, “Never in my wildest, craziest dreams could I have dreamt up bike-ped infrastructure as amazing as this!”
At the Congress the next day—we heard presentations from inspiring leaders who discussed the need for cities to adopt policies aimed at making women feel safe when moving by bicycle. Of note: The cycling movement is growing in Latin America, and empowering women to bicycle is viewed as both critical and necessary to improved overall development. When a slide went up on screen showing more than 10 bicycle advocacy groups in Bogotá, we were impressed—but when we learned those were the women’s bicycling advocacy groups alone, we were blown away.
We both found ourselves rethinking our own work about how we can better spotlight and support plans and policies that make active transportation more inclusive for women in the United States.
Future Rail-Trails: A Rural Economic Development Opportunity for Colombia
While the urban bike-ped infrastructure of Bogotá has put Colombia on the global urban planning stage; Mayor Peñalosa is now spotlighting the opportunity to develop Colombia’s mostly abandoned railroad network into long-distance, destination rail-trails that will bring tourism to the country’s rural economies, outside of Bogotá.
As peace continues to increase in Colombia, there is a growing emphasis on how to bring economic development to the country’s more rural areas through sustainable tourism as part of President Duque’s “Orange Economy” initiative. The pilot rail-trail project that RTC was asked to advise on is a 120-kilometer corridor that stretches from Facatativá to Puerto Salgar.
Beginning about an hour’s drive outside Bogotá, it crosses into the department (state) of Cundinamarca, spanning multiple small towns and featuring stunning mountain vistas, forests and small farms. During a visit to assess the corridor with more than two-dozen local, regional and national government leaders, we made note of the assets that could help make it a successful rail-trail for tourism and economic growth. Although the corridor—which reaches an elevation of 9,000 feet—contains some rough and steep terrain, it is intact, with multiple historical train stations along the route, as well as several bridges and a well-preserved tunnel.
The stations, in particular—including one already in the process of renovation!—are primed to take a central role in a viable “trail town” economic development strategy for local communities. My colleague Eric Oberg, RTC’s Midwest director of trail development, and I both agreed that the rail-trail project not only has the potential to bring opportunities for rural economic development, but offers an unparalleled opportunity for Colombia to develop a future national rail-trail network, connecting Bogotá to the hinterlands and linking together urban and rural regions throughout the country. “The unbelievable beauty of Colombia, along with the wonderfully hospitable people and well-placed communities along the way, made it so easy to envision a world-class rail-trail along this corridor,” said Oberg. “It would be a great choice on any adventurer’s bucket list once the trail is developed.”
A World-Class Trail Network in Colombia
After an amazing four days, our visit culminated with a presentation of the U.S. rail-trail movement along with specific recommendations to President Duque at the presidential palace, Casa de Nariño, in Bogotá. We were thrilled to be joined by Jesus Benitez of Vias Verdes, who shared his rail-trail experience from Spain (recently spotlighted in “Seven Bucket List Rail-Trail Destinations Around the World” in RTC’s TrailBlog!). Along with a recommendation that the president move forward with the pilot rail-trail from Facatativá to Puerto Salgar, we suggested specific strategies to ensure the trail’s rural economic development impact. There was lively and positive conversation with the president, the mayor and several other national and regional leaders in the room. The president asked several thoughtful questions of us and seemed poised to give the go-ahead for the project!
With the knowledge that President Duque’s administration still has three years in office—we also encouraged him to scale up and conduct an assessment for a nationwide rail-trail network encompassing the country’s 2,000+ miles of disused railroads. If implemented, Colombia would be the first country in Latin America to develop a national rail-trail network!
RTC’s leadership in the trail world has been built over decades of experience working with partners across the United States to develop the more than 24,000 miles of rail-trails enjoyed by millions of people today. To be able to showcase the power of trails, and represent the American trail community to the leadership of Colombia was an honor and privilege. RTC looks forward to seeing Colombia embark on their own rail-trail journey in the years to come.
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's TrailNationTM projects are regional network-building projects—implemented in partnership with local organizations. The heart of this work will come through strategic investments that close gaps and improve access to trail networks across communities.