“I don’t understand those cyclists. They buy expensive bicycles and expensive clothes and they go and ride in the city. They have to stop at every light, so why go fast? And they are a pain in the neck“.
Our guide in the Toyota minivan who is showing us Mexico City is clearly not impressed with human powered vehicles. Yet, @Bicitekas, a cycling advocacy group in Mexico City has just short of 30,000 followers on Twitter. Their mission: “Lograr una cultura de respeto para el uso libre y seguro de la bicicleta como medio de transporte y contribuir así a la construcción de ciudades más humanas“.
I am spending a few days in the Mexican capital for work. The boss has put us up in the Sheraton Hotel, located in the Santa Fe area, a soulless area with offices, housing HP and Microsoft and the like as well as condos. It took us 1 hr and 15 minutes to cover the 17 km from the airport to the hotel and that was apparently not bad. By taxi that was. It took some colleagues 90 minutes.
I had not prepared myself very well. Usually, I study the map of the city to be visited, check out public transport from the airport to the hotel, figure out a way to bike on an afternoon, read up on local bike advocacy, study the history and figure out what not to miss.
But I had been so busy, that for once I let myself guide by others, very ‘un-me’. Which meant I mostly saw the city from behind the window of the minivan. We were set loose at the basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe and the cathedral, the Antropological museum and the pre Aztec ruins of Teothuacan. And of course the National Palace with its murals by Diego Rivera who painted his wife Frida Kahlo as a prostitute in one of the murals. And she was “Vale” with it, according to the guide.
To me, Mexico evokes images of drug lords, corruption, feodal systems and class struggles, but also baroque churches, art, rich history and Frida Kahlo. A very mixed bag. Of course, it is a huge country and I don’t know much about Mexico. Some facts: Mexico City (or more properly: the Federal District of Mexico) is situated in a valley, at over 2000 meters altitude. You sure notice that when you walk up a hill, even for 100 meters. The District proper has over 8.8 mln inhabitants (roughly the population of the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta combined) on an area of 1500 km2 (nearly half the size of the greater city of Ottawa). Metro Mexico has over 20 million inhabitants. If one city could say “We have no place for bike lanes” it is definitely Mexico City.
30 million rides
Yet, Mexico City has 65 km of dedicated bike lanes. I did not associate Mexico with cycling, let alone with bike share. But the city has a bike share system since 2010, Ecobici, and counted 30 million rides since its inception. Having started with 84 bike stations and 1200 bikes in 2010, it has now grown to 444 bike stations and 6000 bikes in a 35 km2 area. On an average weekday in November 2015, it registered 100 registrations and 35,000 rides. Check for yourself here: Ecobici stats
Clearly, with these numbers, people must feel fairly safe on their bikes. I have to admit though, that I am not sure if want to cycle in Mexico City. When we drove out to the ruins, we were driving on a “Queensway like” 3 lane (each way) highway and to our shock, we actually saw about two dozen cyclists cycling in the right lane, with lanes merging on the right of them. It appears that the group is lead by a pick up truck with a bunch of people in the back. But if you can’t keep up, you are on your own! A bus veered into their lane in front of them and I think I heard the cyclists yelling as they were pretty much nearly run over. I did snap a picture, but it doesn’t give to the whole experience so I borrowed one from Twitter from Mariana Orozco (@morozca)
24,000 traffic deaths
Now remember, Mexico abolished the driver’s license as there was so much corruption that it was easier to get rid of the driver’s license system altogether, I was told. No wonder 24,000 people die in traffic every year. And this could go up to 35,000 within a decade, that’s 100 people a day! (Canada has about 2000 traffic deaths a year). 50% of the collisions (4 mln a year) are caused by speeding and drunk driving.
Cassandra to the rescue
Fortunately, Mexico City has its Cyclovia’s too and low and behold, the weekend I am in Mexico City fellow Ottawan Cassandra Fulgham happens to be cycling in the same city. We connected through Twitter and since I was shipped off to the ruins in the tourist bus, I asked Cassandra to write up an impression of Ciclovia.
When visiting Mexico City, we were lucky to coincide with the weekly Ciclovia, which sounded like great fun in a city known for its traffic jams. On that day, we were able to find a booth to sign up for EcoBici – which has to be done in person, since they require you to take a token cycling rules test as part of the sign up; luckily they have lots of booths set up on Sundays during Ciclovia to get more people signed up to the 5-year-old bike share scheme with its approximately 400,000 monthly users – and then hopped on our bikes to join in the cycling revelry.
Ciclovia was a great way to see Paseo de la Reforma, a street that is normally clogged with cars and buses. Having participated in Ottawa’s Sunday Bike Days many times, Ciclovia seemed both similar and different to us. Similar was the number of Mexico City citizens that came out to enjoy the day, on foot, on bike and on roller blades.
What was different from Ottawa was the side show going on. Mexico City had dance demonstrations, a Tragedia en rueda (Tragedy on Wheels) play-on-bike, and lots of booths on the sides of the cycling section; there was lots to see. Another thing that was different in Mexico City was that many people wore bandanas and pollution masks to avoid breathing the city’s notoriously smoggy air, a potent reminder of the importance of Ciclovia in putting the spotlight on the damage done by automobiles to our oxygen supply on a daily basis.
All in all, Ciclovia was a great way to see the city and to get an up close view of many areas of Mexico City that are usually not visible to any one not racing by in a car, as well as a fantastic way to see its citizens enjoying their city without the constant soundtrack of motor vehicle engines and honking horns.
I obviously should have done my homework and should have cycled instead. One day I will go back. I want to participate in the Ciclovia and I want to spend a lot more time in the Anthropological Museum. And I want to see Casa Biciteka, if only for its name.
Note about the featured image of the bicycle god at the top: “An adaptation of “Huitzilopochtli” to the modern world. A warrior Mexican god, associated to the sun as well. Bicilopochtli represents people that care and fight for the environment and a better world”. The image and the this text come from this website.