Jordan spends his days straddling a small bicycle with a little engine attached to it. Every day, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., he delivers groceries for Rappi, Colombia’s main delivery app, zipping across upscale neighborhoods in the notoriously hilly capital of Bogotá for 2,000 Colombian pesos ($0.40) a ride. “I started with a bicycle, but I went to bed so tired,” Jordan, who asked to use only his first name to protect his job, told Rest of World. Soon enough, he got a makeshift moped, or ciclomotor: a bicycle with a small fuel engine attached to the frame. “I’m very happy with it,” he said.
Urban-planning experts are less thrilled. They believe these ciclomotores are disproportionately noisy and polluting when compared to motorbikes or cars. They are also unsafe, according to mobility experts, given the original mechanical bikes’ deficient brakes and lack of adequate safety equipment. Still, the ciclomotor has seen a boom in Colombia in recent years. Migrant delivery workers in Bogotá told Rest of World it allows them to meet the demands of delivery apps by completing as many orders in as little time as possible, without them having to invest in expensive motorcycles. Meanwhile, authorities are scrambling to regulate ciclomotores as they proliferate on the streets of cities like Bogotá or Santiago in Chile. The delivery apps that they ultimately benefit have been turning a blind eye to their use, experts and delivery drivers told Rest of World.
“The rise of these vehicles is closely related to Rappi’s business model,” Lina Quiñones, an urban planner working at Despacio, an independent research center in Bogotá, told Rest of World. “People don’t work at Rappi for an hour, making deliveries near their homes. They do it for 10, even 14-hour shifts, and riding a bike is not a good option for that.”
Ciclomotores can reach a speed of up to 50 kilometers per hour, and use less than a gallon of gas — worth 7,000 pesos ($1.45) — for a full day’s work. They can be purchased for approximately 1.5 million pesos ($311), and, importantly, authorities in Bogotá say they can be used legally without a driver’s license.
Like Jordan, many delivery workers start out with a mechanical bike but soon opt for faster vehicles after finding that delivery apps incentivize speed and efficiency. Expectations are so high, three drivers told Rest of World, that making deliveries as a full-time job for Rappi is virtually impossible with a regular bicycle. “This is what matters to Rappi: to make things quick to get money fast,” Óscar Bravo, another delivery driver who rides a ciclomotor, told Rest of World.
But faster rides can be expensive. For a driver who earns an average of 80,000 pesos ($16.6) a day, purchasing and maintaining a 2-million-peso ($415) motorcycle — the cheapest in the market — amounts to almost a full month’s earnings. This makes the cheaper ciclomotor a more attractive option.
Cost, though, isn’t the only reason delivery drivers avoid motorbikes. For the estimated 2 million Venezuelan migrants currently in Colombia, delivery apps provide a rare opportunity to make a living. According to a 2019 report co-commissioned by the Del Rosario University in Bogotá, 57% of the more than 300 Rappi delivery workers surveyed in the capital and Medellín were Venezuelan migrants. In more recent reports, delivery union representatives have claimed that 70% of workers are migrants. For many of them, ciclomotores are a lifeline, since getting a driver’s license can be difficult, expensive, and full of paperwork that migrants often don’t have.
But the road ahead for the ciclomotor isn’t all smooth. Despite their small size, these bikes are disproportionately damaging to the environment in comparison to other vehicles, according to a study conducted in 2022 in Chile, the Latin American country that has carried out the most amount of research on the ciclomotor. “The amount of hydrocarbons per cubic meter [that ciclomotores] emit is 100 times higher than a car’s,” Ricardo Hurtubia, an associate professor from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, who was part of the 2022 research team, told Rest of World.
Preliminary results from the same study also show that ciclomotores sit well above the legal limit for noise imposed on cars — approximately 80 decibels in Chile and up to 92 in Bogotá. Hurtubia warns that there is still some data-processing left to do before having fully comparable numbers. “The sound is hellish though,” he said.
Some drivers make matters worse by altering their engines to use less fuel, which also makes ciclomotores louder, said Bravo.
Urban planners have also warned that ciclomotores are not built to operate safely at high speeds. “They use bicycle brakes that were not designed for a vehicle with an engine,” Carlos Pardo, an advisor and consultant in mobility, told Rest of World.
Adding to the risk are some drivers who fill plastic containers with gasoline to avoid having to go to a station in the middle of a busy day. “God forbid this catches fire,” said Jordan, who regularly uses this method of refueling.
There are no official statistics so far on the number of accidents involving ciclomotores in Bogotá or Santiago because of the legal gray area they occupy — police often don’t know how to classify them. “Police only have ‘bicycle’ and ‘motorcycle’ in their forms,” said Pardo. In Santiago, said Hurtubia, officials write down “whatever they want” on accident reports because there are no specific guidelines on this sort of mobility.
While coming up with an accurate number for ciclomotores in Bogotá is complicated, they have become such a common sight that social media users are pressuring the authorities to regulate them. Some Bogotanos have complained online. Local councilperson Diego Laserna told Rest of World that neighborhoods near Rappi delivery hot spots and ghost kitchens “complain that they can’t sleep because of the noise.” In February, a petition was launched on Change.org, asking to ban ciclomotores; so far it has received over 3,400 signatures.
In response, authorities in Bogotá are currently drafting new regulation that would force ciclomotor drivers to wear motorcycle-grade helmets, register with the local transport authority, get license plates, pass emissions tests, and install front, rear, and turn-signal lights.
For ciclomotor drivers, the specifics of the measures being debated by the government are less of an issue than the lack of clarity on the rules and their inconsistent enforcement by the police. While a spokesperson from Bogotá’s mobility secretariat told Rest of World ciclomotores can be used without a license, current laws say licenses for motor-powered vehicles are mandatory. Jhonniell Colina, vice president of UnidApp, a union of delivery workers in Colombia, told Rest of World some delivery drivers were stopped by the police, despite following what they believed were the rules. “Authorities don’t know what they want,” he said. Meanwhile, in Chile, where ciclomotores are illegal, the police have let them run free without so much as a ticket, said Hurtubia.
Rappi has not commented on the issue yet, and did not answer questions sent by Rest of World by the time of publication. But experts and drivers agree that apps have a shared responsibility to solve the problems that come with ciclomotor use. “[Apps] should take responsibility and take some sort of action because [their] business model is what is packing the city with ciclomotores,” said Quiñones.