Famous for its traffic and pollution, Mexico City is joining the green revolution, urging residents to swap their cars for bicycles and walking shoes. On Sundays, pedestrians have preference downtown. The city also boasts a European-style bike system call
MEXICO CITY -- This past summer, Mexico City radio station Imagen was forced to place one of its commentators, Angel Verdugo, on indefinite suspension over disparaging remarks he made about the city's bicyclists. Calling them a "new plague," Verdugo also accused the bicyclists of putting on "European" airs. The commentator reminded them that Mexico City is not Paris, and that "here is the concrete jungle." As if that were not enough, Verdugo invited drivers to "throw their vehicles at them, immediately." Not surprisingly, the statements provoked widespread outrage.
They may also have been politically charged. Marcelo Ebrard, the current mayor of Mexico City, has been actively promoting cycling and alternative transportation, and he also openly aspires to the Mexican presidency. But if Verdugo's goal was to undermine the ambitious mayor, he failed miserably. The comments have instead energized cyclists, who have organized, gaining increasing space in the streets and the media, and rallying around Ebrard, whom they praise for having a genuine interest in developing public policy to support alternative transportation.
The city's bicycle promotion efforts began with a move to give cyclists, pedestrians and skaters privileged access to some of Mexico City's main streets. Between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Sundays, the streets – which together cover roughly 24 kilometers – are closed off to cars, opening the space to people of all walks of life.
The next step was the implementation of what's called the "Ecobici" program, a system similar to programs in Paris and Barcelona, where the user can get a membership that will allow him or her to use a bicycle for 30 minutes and then return it at the next station. At that point, the user has to wait five minutes before being able to take out another bike and repeat the process.
"The idea is that in high-traffic areas, people will start to see incentives for leaving their car at home," explains Roberto Remes of Mexico City's Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), an NGO specializing in sustainable transportation. "If traffic is already built up, they will park the car, find a public bicycle and get to their destination faster. One of the successes of the Ecobici program has been to disassociate bicycles and poverty, which really breaks down barriers."
For less than $30 per year, users can make as many trips as they want in an area that includes 90 stations and 1,200 bicycles, according to official numbers.
"We have to work hard, since Mexico City isn't used to bicyclists," says Martha Delgado, the city government's environmental secretary. Delgado has been one of the heads of the project. "We are working so that drivers will respect cyclists, so that they will give them space and recognize them as helping the whole population by reducing traffic and pollution and allowing the city to move better."
Originally the idea was to continue and expand the bike lanes started by a previous administration. The Ebrard government, however, discovered that the routes were badly planned and under-used. That's when the project took on a new direction. The goal became to first generate a critical mass of cyclists and then develop bike lanes afterwards, which is what happened at the Paseo de la Reforma.
Moving People, not Vehicles
There's a popular legend about the construction of line 4 of the Mexico City subway: that the president at the time, José López Portillo (1976-1982), came up with the idea for a Paris-like elevated train while traveling, by helicopter, to the House of Representatives. Portillo wanted to bring the city into modernity and decided, on the spot, to build the subway along the route he had seen from the air. Today Line 4 is the least used of all the subway lines in the city. It's an example of poor planning that today's authorities hope to avoid.
Roberto Remes, a transportation specialist, says that train projects tend to be very costly, noting that the construction of subway Line 12, which today only serves about 450,000 people, sucked up about two-thirds of the city's transport budget when it was being built. "You have to avoid spending all your resources on one project," Remes says.
In the 1950s, Mexico City was redesigned along the model of U.S. cities like Los Angeles, with a focus on large suburbs and grand avenues. That, in turn, made the Mexican capital dangerous for pedestrians. The current government is trying to reverse that trend by putting pedestrians and cyclists first. The biggest challenge, however, may be getting the city's drivers on board. Car owners are used to being kings of the road. Even so, at least in the areas where the new measures have been implemented, change is brewing.
City authorities say that reducing the commuting time will have a direct economic effect. For starters, cars are expensive. "It's estimated that an average person has to spend three hours worth of work every day to pay for a car," says Jesús Sánchez, a private consultant. Cycling and walking are far cheaper. They're also healthier, and therefore less burdensome on the health system.M
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