The world’s traffic capital introduced a pro-cycling programme 10 years ago, but has anything really changed in the city? Meira Harris explores
Mexico City is notorious for its traffic and pollution problems – it’s often listed as the city with the worst traffic congestion in the world and the geophysical structure of the city does not allow for smog to easily escape. The average daily commute for those living and working in the city is about three hours, which adds up to a full 45 days each year spent commuting. Congestion on the roads is frustrating for drivers, but public transportation is overcrowded and often requires multiple transfers. So what about cycling?
Arie Geurts, a cyclist mobility expert who lives and bikes in the city, believes its monster traffic problem greatly incentivises biking there. As a commuter, it is easy to look at cyclists gliding through traffic and think, if only I had used my bicycle, I would have saved time and money. While you’re in a packed metro or MetroBus (the city’s bus rapid transit), the freedom that bicycles offer can be incredibly tempting.
Of course, biking in the city is not always simple – or safe. Bike lanes have increased throughout the city – the infrastructure has expanded by more than 45 km in the past four years – but often unofficial “shared” bike lanes can feel hugely dangerous. In Avenida Universidad, bikers share a lane with frequently passing buses, weaving in and out of heavy traffic. While experienced cyclists might be used to this, for those new to the roads it can be nothing short of terrifying.
As a way of helping people get accustomed to their city on two wheels, the city government-led programme Muévete en Bici (Move by Bike) provides a safe and family-friendly opportunity. On Sundays, the city closes 55 km of streets to cars to encourage cycling. The project’s main objectives are to increase bicycle use through the reclamation of public spaces focused on healthy forms of civic coexistence; to contribute to the creation of a cycling culture through education and recreation activities; and to promote the use of bicycles as an accessible and efficient mode of transportation that reduces pollution, presenting it as an alternative to cars in the medium and long term.
Muévete en Bici, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, has become popular with the city’s residents: the highest participation rate to date was one Sunday last July when 75,263 people took part. Geurts considers the project vital to the future of a cycling culture in Mexico City: as an initiation for new cyclists, complete with cycling instructors, the programme helps people grow their confidence so that they are more likely to use their bicycles during the week. But Muévete en Bici is completely recreational; although it promotes the culture of cycling, it is not instrumental in making roads safer for cyclists.
Another government-led biking programme is Ecobici, the city’s bikeshare network. There are 452 bike stations in 42 colonias (neighbourhoods) within the capital and 100,000 registered users of the service. There have been over 40 million trips and the programme has expanded by 400 percent since it began in 2010. It is especially helpful for workers who come from far parts of the metropolitan area by providing a mode of transportation for the last leg of their trip to offices in the centre. With 3km as the average Ecobici journey, the bikes are largely used for getting around the city centre rather than commuting long distances. Many users also end up buying their own bikes – meaning Ecobici can serve as an affordable test run for those interested in biking as a mode of transportation.
Despite the many advances made in the last decade, cycling advocates still have a long way to go. Some main roads are still missing bike lanes and the smog of the city can mean cycling can be unpleasant and unhealthy. But the more people who turn to bikes, the fewer cars will be polluting the city.
The city government is currently designing a new protected bike lane and a massive parking lot for bicycles, both of which are planned to be built in later this year. Commuters who travel by bike from their home to a metro or bus hub can park their bikes in the massive parking lots.
Policymakers fighting for cycling rights need to fight with pedestrian and public transportation advocates, as they are all campaigning for limited space and funds. Nevertheless, cyclists are confident that by considering the needs of all residents, bike culture will certainly flourish in the Mexican capital.
Meira Harris is an urbanist from New York City currently based in Mexico City