Cllr Alex Stafford is an Ealing councillor and former adviser to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Colombia has a problem with white powder…and not just cocaine. There’s another addictive and deadly drug that is far more prevalent and abundant. It’s sold on virtually all street corners, consumed at mealtimes by people from all walks of life, and guzzled by children and adults alike. The drug is sugar.
Whether it is being added in heapfuls to local foods and juices, found naturally in the abundant sugar cane, or displayed by the country’s love of Pepsi and other gaseosa drinks, Colombia, just like the UK, has a problem. However, unlike us, it is tackling this problem head on with an innovative solution. In contrast with Colombia’s solution to its other problematic powder, this measure is also far simpler, cheaper and easier to implement and, ultimately, a free market conservative solution.
This hands-off approach gives people the tools to help themselves. There are no billions upon billions of dollars spent on a war on this drug – administrated by the West, funded by the US and destroying the natural flora and fauna of a country. Nor is there a tax on sugar, as some call for, including Jamie Oliver, which would hit many of the poorest the hardest. Instead, Colombia has looked to itself and found a solution that is the perfect fit for its dynamic, entrepreneurial people.
The novel solution is to get people fit and healthy through ‘Ciclovia’ – whereby 121 kilometres of Bogota’s roads (and in many other cities) are closed to vehicles from 7am to 2pm each and every Sunday and holiday, and opened to hordes of cyclists, rollerbladers, joggers, pedestrians, dog walkers and every other human-powered endeavour you can imagine.
It is a sight to behold. You don’t need to know your Cavendish from your Wiggins to be overawed by the sight of thousands upon thousands of people of all ages – and greatly differing abilities – setting out on a Sunday morning to exercise, socialise and enjoy their natural environment. Above all, they are enjoying their city to the fullest, reclaiming it from the bumper-to-bumper polluting vehicles.
Then there are also the extensive 350 kilometre-long CicloRuta bike lanes that crisis-cross the capital city. Whilst closing roads or cycle lanes is in no way unique to Colombia, what is novel is the sheer extent of it, the backing from amongst all political parties and mayors, and the virtually wholehearted support from the population. Closing roads for exercise by virtue of staged events is often seen as a disruption or an annoyance by some in the UK, many of whom only buy into it in a half-hearted way.
Instead, it is welcomed and looked forward to by the majority of the Bogota population. Far from shutting the city down, it actually opens it up more. Lanes rather than whole roads are usually closed off, making the city more, not less, accessible to those who do not have access to their own car or the disposable income for plentiful cab rides. It is a chance – and often the only chance – for many to ride for miles in their cities in safety. It is an opportunity to catch up with friends and families in a safe and reassuring environment whilst also getting fit. In Bogota, there is no excuse not to own a bike since, after all, you will always get good use from it.
This approach can be replicated successfully in other countries, but it requires a will from all key stakeholders, from politicians both local and national, from the public as a whole and even from interests such as transport bodies and taxi drivers, all who must be willing to buy into this type of scheme. To implement it half-heartedly or only a few times a year would neither boost the health of the nation nor provide any tangible economic benefit.
Both these positive effects have been realised in Colombia. Not only are ‘Ciclovia’ and the CicloRuta lanes producing a fitter, healthier population – thus reducing hospital bills and extending life spans – but they have also injected impetus into many local business. Countless vendors and purveyors line the routes, selling all sorts of healthy and necessary goods. From those selling juices and fruits, to those renting carts (pedal-powered,naturally to bicycle repairman, small businesses get a huge boost each and every Sunday. Many of these are cottage industries – only coming alive for these events, and providing a welcome and necessary economic boost and the same time helping to create the next generation of entrepreneurs.
With more and more people seeing the need for outdoors physical exercise and the current Conservative Government backing many such initiatives, now is the time for us to truly review what can be done to tackle the obesity epidemic which is still only expanding in Britain. For decades, we have been telling Colombia what to do about one white powder problem. Is now the time to learn from them about another?