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Bicycling Activism in Quito, Ecuador: An Interview with Heleana Zambonino

heleana_w_bullhorn_in_GDL_2134.jpgHeleana Zambonino conducting a basic bicycling skills class at Sunday Streets in Guadalajara, Mexico, Sept. 2009.

In Guadalajara last September I met dozens of cycling activists from around Mexico, and one remarkable woman from Quito, Ecuador, Heleana Zambonino. While riding in a big Critical Mass in Guadalajara, she told me about the cycling scene in Quito, and her organization CiclóPolis. Her story left me inspired and a bit embarrassed. They’ve accomplished a great deal more in a half dozen years in Quito than we have in 20 years in San Francisco!

cropped_pintada_colectiva_de_bicis_42.jpgArt from one of a half dozen thriving bike activist groups in Quito, Ecuador, Andando en Bici Carajo.

Chris Carlsson: You work for CiclóPolis, yes? Can you describe the organization, its history, its mission, and your role in it?

logoTodasalPedal.jpgTodas en Bici logo.

Heleana Zambonino: By the time I attended the 2nd Annual Mexican Cycling Congress in Guadalajara I was working as Project Coordinator at the gender inclusion program “Todas en Bici” (TeB) supported by ICE (Interface for Cycling Expertise – The Netherlands) and as bike instructor for children and ladies. The aim of TeB project was to include women traditionally marginalized from access to bikes as a means of transportation. Also TeB builds a network of biking women who have tea and chat about their doubts when biking, also building self-confidence and awareness about the gender exclusion and harassment we women have to endure day by day while walking, biking, or using public transportation. (Unfortunately I was too busy as a grad student, so I sadly quit working for CiclóPolis.) CiclóPolis is about 7 years old; they work as a bridge between local government and residents taking back public spaces for family amusement from unhealthy traffic jams which grow geometrically each month in the city. They manage several bicycle advocacy projects as well the organization of the CicloPaseo de Quito, which is a conquest of citizens over automobile visual, environmental and spatial contamination.

CC: What is the bicycling movement like in Quito, Ecuador right now? What are the regular events? What are the other advocacy organizations besides CiclóPolis, if any? Publications? Radio or TV shows?

The bikers movement in Quito city grew a lot during the last decade. Nowadays we have several advocacy organizations such as CiclóPolis, Biciacción, Andando en Bici Carajo (ABC), CicloPUCE, Ciclismo Politecnica, Cicletadas el Rey and SENDA among others. It is beautiful to see more urban cyclists on the roads. These organizations offer a wide range of activities. For example, CicloPUCE, which is the cycling club from Universidad Católica, goes on biking tours every weekend. They organize huge bike rides near Quito as well as other beautiful places in Ecuador. They go biking to the beach, on the high mountains and to the forest.

Inside the city there are weekly events such as bike polo offered by Bike Polo EC, Biciacción sponsors “Bicipaseos patrimoniales,” which are rides to the colonial treasures here in Quito (Quito is officially part of the Cultural Heritage of Mankind since 1972). They also lead a ride called “VDP” or Viernes De Pedales (Friday of Pedals) which is a Critical Mass that rides around the city making bikers visible in the face of traffic jams. ABC organizes the alleycat competitions and the “piques,” where the fastest biker wins the competition. They also support the ghost bike campaign to honor bikers killed while riding in the city. SENDA runs workshops to introduce women to mountain biking—they practice in Metropolitano Park which is one of the larger greenbelts we have in the city. At the end of 2009 Radio Pedal was launched, where cyclists have the opportunity to express their opinions, concerns and doubts about the predominant automobile addiction that Quito dwellers suffer from.

dsc05267.jpgBike culture graffiti in Quito.

CC: Describe the CicloPaseo and tell how it got started and how many people participate? Who took the initiative to start it? Did it happen within the city government of Quito or outside of it?

HZ: The CicloPaseo is one of the major victories that the bike movement has gained so far. It started when a group of young ecologists that used to ride in Critical Mass every week decided to move it forward and make it bigger. They invited all Quito dwellers to bike in a short ride to Quito’s old town—that was the beginning. About 5000 people joined the ride which had no infrastructure (e.g. they had to adapt ramps so the bikes could overcome stairs). It started as a fortnight activity but the number of bikers grew every time so that on the weekends that there was no CicloPaseo, the bikers still took over the streets. Fortunately, this pressure made the local government agree to the CicloPaseo every Sunday. Nowadays about 50,000 people take over public space in what has become a Sunday family activity. Quiteños love to walk, ride, skate or just wander in the streets with no cars every Sunday. The road is open to people from 9am to 3pm, then it goes back to cars.

CC: Can you describe the other regular rides that happen in Quito? Do they happen at night? During or after work? Who rides?

HZ: CiclóPolis has other initiatives such as “Al Trabajo en Bici” (ATB, Bike To Work) which aims to encourage white-collar workers to commute by bicycle. This happens the first Friday every month. At night also we have other activities, not as institutional such as ATB, but more extreme such as the “Miercoles de Street” (“Street Wednesday”) where bikers do stunts around the city. We bike to the old town to use the longer and steeper stairs. The most courageous bikers ride down and get a nice shot of adrenaline for themselves, but even for us, the shy spectators. That is an independent activity lead by the most urban downhill advocates.

Logo_350_cuadrado.jpgThe international movement to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 ppm or less was embraced by CiclóPolis too.

CC: What about the CicloVias (dedicated bike paths) in Quito? How were they decided on? Who pushed for them? Can you tell the story about how the first implementation was rejected by the cycling movement and the city had to rebuild new CicloVias? How were the new ones different from the first ones?

HZ: The CicloVias are another major achievement. Since the CicloPaseo started, more and more people decided to start biking through the everyday traffic jams. That became very, very dangerous, but it made more visible the need for a dedicated lane for bikes. This bike lane was born as a “Vida para Quito” project (this is a private governmental corporation that takes care of environmental quality). There were several disagreements while building the lane. The neighbors that love going by car to the corner store opposed it, so part of the bike lane was built on the sidewalk. Unfortunately this layout of the lane didn’t have another solution (Japon St., north of the city). The municipality decided that they would take advantage of the sidewalk to avoid disturbing motorists with bikes alongside. They also built a bike lane on the Amazon Ave. sidewalk, one of the main city arteries. Fortunately, there was so much pressure to make bikers visible, and the municipality did want to contribute to the bike movement, so they realized their mistake. They rebuilt the bike lane on the side of the road with its own traffic signals. This was a big win for us bikers. Then the CicloVias were extended further (both longer and covering more of the city), so we have more bike lanes that connect the north with the south and an east-west lane that connect the two major universities zones. It’s called “La inter U’s”

CC: Do you have Do-It-Yourself bike repair cooperatives or collectives? (In Italy they are called “ciclofficine”) Can you describe the cycling economy in Quito in terms of for-profit businesses, non-profit or anti-profit groups, and advocacy groups? Are there lots of old bikes in the trash, or is everything getting used and re-used?

HZ: Unfortunately here in Ecuador we don’t have any initiative like the ciclofficine or LA Bicycle Kitchen, but we have pretty good bike workshops such as Construbicis, managed by Carlos Tacuri. In this workshop you can recycle your bike. If you ask to do an internship you can help and learn about building bikes from start to finish. The cycling economy regrettably is a bump on the road if you want to bike. There is no non-profit or anti-profit organization that could help people to get a free bike. It is the next step I hope. People trash their bikes only when it is pure scrap. So it is difficult to find parts to recycle bikes. Everything with bikes is used until it really doesn’t work anymore.

CC: How do cyclists get along with pedestrians in Quito?

HZ: It is a pretty good relationship. Pedestrians and cyclists interact the most on Sundays during the CicloPaseo. There is a respectful attitude both ways. During regular days most people walk, bike and share the bus, the 65% that don’t own a private car.

CC: What are road conditions like in Quito? Are there dedicated bike boulevards during normal work days?

HZ: Well, road conditions throughout Ecuador are a shame. Quito is not an exception. Unhappily there are no bike boulevards, just the CicloVias. I wish there were just one.

CC: There is an oil industry in Ecuador. Do they campaign for cars and oil and against bicyclists? Do bicyclists make common cause with the indigenous protesting the exploitation of Amazonian lands for oil exploration? Can you describe any demonstrations like that?

me_and_heleana_w_nowtopia_2121.jpgMe wearing the CiclóPolis windbreaker, while Heleana helpfully displays my book, Nowtopia!

HZ: The oil industry is a big issue here. I have to write an entire report about this for the site I’ll be launching. Now it’s getting harder with the Yasuni initiative, we’re striking against Correa and his temperamental mood.

CC: Ecuador has a relatively left-wing president in Correa. How are bicyclists treated nationally? Are there efforts to accommodate bicyclists on trains, buses, and on major highways? Future plans?

HZ: Correa had changed his mind dramatically. As the topic before, I’ll be writing about him… grrrrr….

CC: What’s the best time of year to come for a visit? (Visit SF in May or September-October!)

Well, Ecuador is a beautiful country. It has everything: rainforest, cloudforest, pristine beaches, mangroves, high mountains, active volcanoes and the uniqueness of the Galapagos Islands. In Quito you can find anything you want about South American art, colonial art, the most beautiful sights and mysterious paths to the pre-Columbian cultures and the magic of the land of the sun. I’m in love with the middle of the earth and its biological, cultural and ethnic diversity. I’m really short in words to describe it! And the best season—well, since we have just 2 seasons, summer and rainy summer… any time of the year is pretty to come.

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