Hey San Francisco and Portland, hey Boston and New York. Brag if you will of your new bicycle lanes and bike lending programs. Boast of your Critical Masses choking the streets with two-wheelers and showing the car what’s what. Look down your noses if you wish at lowly Cochabamba with its population of squeaky used mountain bikes and pavement that looks like it’s been hit by meteorites.
But let’s see you shut down all car traffic in a city of 600,000 for a day.
Today the streets of Bolivia’s third largest city were swept clean of cars, trucks, buses, trufis, taxis and all motorized traffic but for the occasional motorcycle and a few authorized cabs at the airport. That’s an entire large city free of both the menace and the sound of cars. In their place, thousands of bicycles and people walking the streets on foot. No road blockades were required. No political protest was the cause. Today was Dia de Peaton in Cochabamba (Day of the Pedestrian), the annual first-Sunday-in September demonstration of what life would be like if we replaced four wheels and motors for two wheels and pedal power. And a happier bunch of folks would be hard to find.
On the Gringo Bike
I left my house mid-morning on my own highly specialized bike. Nah, it isn’t one of those fancy ones with shock absorbers, wheels made from a metal developed for the Space Shuttle, and a DVD player mounted to the handlebars. My two-wheeler is a cheap Taiwanese-made mountain bike that I bought a few years ago at the cancha. And here’s a little-known fact – just as there isn’t a pair of shoes my size (13) to be found in this country, neither is there a decent bike my size either. When I still lived in the city I suffered through riding about in a kneeling position over the handlebars that made it look as if I rode the streets in Cochabamba while also praying. But when you added that to the rough cobblestone and dirt roads out here in Tiquipaya – well, it was just a damn pain in the neck (literally).
So I went to that bicycle genius, Don Renee, our local bike mechanic here in Tiquipaya and we tried to brainstorm a solution. Wa-la, we invented the Gringo Bike! First we switched to a ridiculously long post to raise the seat and then mounted tall BMX handlebars on the front. Soon enough I was darn near riding Dutch style, upright and cheery.
I will also let you in on another bicycle secret for riding here in the countryside. In the city you want your tires inflated rock hard, so you can fly across the pavement, pockmarked as it might be. But steer onto a dirt or rock road and you and your tires will start to bounce up and down like a well-dribbled basketball. So instead you switch to tire inflation that resembles less the hard body you had as a teenager and more the slightly flabby body of a, well, 52 year-old guy. I think there might be an aging metaphor here – accept a little tire flab and the bumps in the road just seem a lot easier to handle.
On the Road to Cochabamba
As I set out from my small town the roads didn’t seem all that different than most days, given the normal scarcity of cars here. A pair of women were cutting down the alfalfa from their field to feed their cows. Other fields were marked by long lines of earth freshly tractored for the planting of this spring’s corn crop. A handful of people who had pedaled their way in from the city were the only real evidence that anything was different.
I headed out onto the far end of Calle Americas, where the Brazilian Buffet was doing a brisk business and the streets began to fill with bikes. Many were driven by young children who couldn’t quite seem to grasp the idea of looking where they were going. Others were driven by middle-aged women in odd lycra outfits, who betrayed with their wobbled steering that they probably hadn’t been on a bike since last year’s Dia de Peaton. But everyone was out giving it a shot.
I headed onward to behind the Stadium and past the gas station named after the Son of God (“What octane would Jesus pump?”). Then to the airport, past a family of fuzzy brown donkeys and onto the wide street along the river that perpetually stinks like a rotting animal carcass (I have often wondered whether the city might put up signs just outside the airport exit reading, “Welcome to Cochabamba, City of Unpleasant Smells!”).
At the crowded airport arriving passengers jostled for a ride out in the small fleet of taxis allowed to work today. I gave careful consideration to turning my Gringo Bike into a Gringo Bike Taxi, maybe make a few extra bucks by ferrying passengers out on the metal rack I use for carrying produce. But I wasn’t sure I could manage towing suitcases behind me as well, so I moved along.
Pedaling back through the “putrid zone” I headed for Dia de Peaton ‘ground zero’, the city center. Plaza Colon was one part slow bicycle parade, one part circus. For a while I struggled to stay ahead of the city tuba band racing in between bikers in the flatbed of a pick-up truck as they played music to inspire faster pedaling. Locals offered everything from fresh saltenas to the chance to park your bike and give blood. Above is a short video to give you a sense of the scene. Be sure to watch all the way through to the compelling ending.
I skipped the snacks and the blood donating and headed up Salamanca to Plaza Ricoleta, a sea of cyclists swarming in all directions. And if you happen to be the guy who I accidentally cutoff right in front of the church – sorry!
At Americas and Libertador, a major city intersection, a sound stage had been set up at the closed crossroads and a band was belting out 200-decibel electronic covers of hits from Las Kjarkas. I was going to stop and watch for a while, but then I noticed a bright orange helicopter circling mysteriously low overhead while filming us, and the local fire department was equally mysteriously unrolling a huge water hose aimed at the crowd. As the thought occurred to me that I might be at the scene of what would turn into a very surprise and very wet rock video of some type, I clicked the Gringo Bike into low gear and fled.
Back through the neighborhoods, back past the fields, and back to the silence, I arrived home, ready to boast about my two-hours of pedaling around a city without cars.
How to Make a Real Revolution
Lots of people like to talk about ‘revolution’ when they talk about Bolivia. Evo likes to proclaim that he is leading one. Wide-eyed foreigners come looking for one. Critics here and abroad warn that Bolivia is in the midst of one, but the wrong kind. But to be honest, most of all that is just political chatter.
Show that a city of more than half a million can operate just fine for a day without any cars on the road – now that is a revolution! You don’t think so? Okay, what would happen if the people of San Francisco, Austin, Portland, Seattle, Boston, and Oakland all agreed to park their cars and buses for a day? What would happen if people there could see for themselves what their city sounds like without motors, what it is like for seven-year-olds to rule the biggest streets on their two-wheelers? People might just find out that they feel more happy.
Granted, days in which a city parks and silences all its cars are special days, not normal ones. Cochabamba could certainly do this more than once a year and should. So should other cities around the world. Does it matter that those days might only be only a rare few in the scheme of things? Maybe not.
One of the books I have read during my winter hibernation here was In Pursuit of Silence by George Prochnik. He makes a very good point that our challenge in this loud and over-busy world is not only to seek to quiet things down and slow them down in general (Manhattan will always be loud and insane) but to methodically create spaces where silence is protected. In a city environment churches do this, so do small parks – and so do days like this one in Cochabamba where bikes and feet are given, even for a short moment, their day in the sun.
One way to start a revolution is not to talk about what a different world might look like but to create actual spaces in our lives where such a world exists. The more we do create such spaces in our collective lives — bike days, community gardens, protected nature — the more people will begin to see their value, and maybe see a different vision of how we might live. So, you want to start a revolution? Let’s see some cities this size up there in that great smart nation to the north do for a day what the people here in Cochabamba do once a year.
You actually have bikes your correct size, what is your excuse?