Mexico City: making way for the bike

As a car-centric city, Mexico City has made gigantic strides promoting the bicycle as a means of transportation. The greatest challenge today is bringing bike infrastructure to the periphery, where people need it the most.

Every Sunday, Laura and Pablo hang their mountain bikes onto the back of their car and drive from their homes in the south of Mexico City into the heart of the megalopolis.  After parking the car in the trendy Condesa neighbourhood, they get rolling, cycling into Paseo de la Reforma, the country’s most famous street. 

Sunday mornings belong to the bikes
On weekdays, the 12-laned, tree-lined boulevard—envisioned by Mexico’s ruling classes in the nineteenth century as an homage to the Champs Élysées – is clogged by automobile traffic with the bikers confined to a small lane on the outermost edge of the street. But on Sunday mornings the machines give way to 83 000 people using non-motorized means to move around. 

During this time, Reforma becomes a display of the city’s diversity, with middle-class families cruising in tandem bicycles; old-school tattooed rockers on Harley Davidsonesque rides; punk roller-skaters performing stunts; joggers and runners training for marathons; and even bikers with little carts retro-fitted for dogs. 

Latin America’s biggest bicycling event
The ’Muévete en Bici’ (Move on bicycle!) program is one of Latin America’s biggest and most successful government-sponsored bicycling events. According to Sergio Martinez, who currently oversees the operation, 14.6 million people have participated since it was first implemented 12 years ago; back then, the city officials—under the initiative of mayor Marcelo Ebrard— closed 10 kilometres of Paseo de la Reforma to cars. But today, more than five main avenues extending over 50 kilometres are taken over by cyclists on Sundays, making it the third largest route of its kind. 

“At first people with cars where notoriously angry, shouting obscenities at us for blocking their routes,” Martinez said during an interview, “but I always try to communicate to them that we are not shutting the city to cars, we are opening it to citizens so that they can get to know their city in a new way.”  

32 percent of Mexicans suffer from overweight
The original idea of ’Muévete en Bici’ came out of Bogotá, where, in 1974, 5000 citizens decided to take to the streets on bikes, an initiative that was eventually systematised by the government in the ciclovia program. In Mexico City, the program was implemented not only as an environmental reaction to the growing number of cars in the city – the number of motorised vehicles has doubled since 2000, from 2.5 to 5. 6 million cars – but also due to national health concerns: 32 percent of Mexicans suffer from overweight, making it the second most obese country in the world.

So, it’s not only about promoting biking as a form of transportation but about being active and burning calories, which is why every couple of kilometres there are dance and yoga tents crowded with dozens of people moving around. The scope of the operation, with its multiple activities, involves coordination between 15 government agencies – from the security to youth and health sectors – and relies on a 700-strong staff of doctors, teachers, bike mechanics, ushers and cops. 

‘Ecobici’ boasts a fleet of 6000 bikes
For those concerned with sustainable mobility solutions, Muévete en Bici was the starting point for a series of bike-friendly policies that have revolutionised how people in the heart of the city move. As the first event kicked off, the city was developing bike-only lanes in the centre of the city –  one of the first ones in Paseo de la Reforma, extending to nearby neighbourhoods and connecting main throughways. They also built massive bike parking warehouses, some with capacity for  up to 400 bikes, outside bus and subway stations, to help people in poor neighbourhoods make their daily commute.   

But perhaps the most impactful bike-promotion program has been ’Ecobici’, a social bike sharing system inaugurated in 2010, which today has a fleet of 6000 bikes distributed in 450 stations around the city. Since its inauguration, Ecobici has performed 59 million rides. 

The impact of these policies has been astounding. According to Bernardo Baranda, head of Latin America for the Institute of Transportation and Development Policy—a think tank specialised in mobility solutions for the developing world – when the Paseo de la Reforma’s bike lane was installed, the daily number of bike-commutes ranged around 120. Today that number has gone up to 3000. Overall, the number of daily bike-riders has tripled—from 98 000 in 2007, to 240 000, in 2018. 

Bike usage is extending beyond the hipster crowds
Today, most of the city’s bike-friendly culture is found in central neighbourhoods around Reforma, like Condesa and Roma, where the city’s strongest bike infrastructure lies. But historically, bike usage in Mexico City has extended beyond the hipster crowds. In the poorest neighbourhoods of the city, there’s a tradition of using custom-made bikes, the cheapest form of transportation, to distribute fresh bread, sharpen knives, and move around basic supplies.  

According to Fernanda Rivera, in charge of implementing sustainable urban mobility systems in the city, the incoming government’s focus will be on building bicycle infrastructure in these areas, with 85 kilometres of new bike lanes and four new bike-parking warehouses promised for this year. 

For Rivera, who was also head of Ecobici from 2012 to 2015, the city is now entering its ‘adult phase’ on bike policies, the most significant shift being a change of perception on how bikes integrate into the daily commutes. “Despite the tremendous success of the past, bike usage was seen as an environmental issue – and it is,” she recently said in an interview, “but what is different in this administration is that bike usage is now considered an integral part of the mobility plan.”   

Despite the bright future, for many ’Muévete en Bici’ users like Laura and Pablo, using the bike in the city is still a luxury that they can only enjoy on Sundays. “During the weekdays, we barely use it to get around.” Pablo said to me, before resuming his stroll around Paseo de la Reforma, “There’s just no infrastructure for me to feel safe.”

Video production: Scott McNamara / Andreas Thomann
 

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