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July 03, 2007

Mexico City’s hopes riding on two wheels

MEXICO CITY – Mayor Marcelo Ebrard delivered his shocking order to top officials from beneath a leafy tree in one of the few remaining parks in Mexico City.  On the first Monday of every month, Ebrard announced, he and his handpicked team would travel to work on bicycles.


In Mexico City, where more than 3 million cars jam the streets? Where the pollution is so thick that people think the color of the sky is gray?

Dangerous, the ecology secretary protested. Impractical, the health secretary sniffed. A health threat, argued the secretary of urban development, who had recently undergone back surgery.

Ebrard’s goal was to inspire the city’s 9 million residents to cut gas consumption and use bicycles or public transportation. But was the plan realistic in a city where people are wedded to their vehicles?

Four months later, the officials have warmed up to the idea of riding bicycles to work, especially after 47-year-old Ebrard – who smokes and is not fond of exercise – warned them their jobs depended on their participation.

No one expects their efforts to bring a flood of bicycles into Mexico City’s crowded streets. But the ambitious program has sparked a national discussion about the auto congestion and pollution that are choking the capital city.

Since the program began, tens of thousands of Mexico City residents have taken to the streets on Sundays, when Ebrard’s government has closed the downtown thoroughfares to vehicular traffic.

Men and women, young and old, fill the wide avenues with everything from vintage bikes to skates and scooters.

“Magnífico!” enthused Juan Carlos Espinosa, a 30-year-old computer programmer, as he used in-line skates to glide down elegant Reforma boulevard. “This is what we need to motivate us to exercise.”

The government plans to build 186 miles of bike lanes and install bike racks at Metro stations and outside hundreds of city buildings. Mexico City even started a loan program so people who don’t own bikes won’t be left out.

The plan has gained the support of the World Bank, which is giving Mexico City a $100,000 grant to design a master plan to make the city bicycle-friendly.

“Many people have looked at Mexico City’s traffic problems and thrown their hands in the air. This mayor is not doing that,” said Michael Replogle, president of the New York-based Institute for Transportation Policy, who was in Mexico City last week to work with city officials on the bicycle project.

Mexico City is not the first city in the nation to promote the idea. Guadalajara, the country’s second-largest city with more than 5 million people, launched a similar program in September 2004 after citizens groups pushed for a place where families could gather for a leisurely Sunday morning of cycling.

The first time out, Guadalajara officials expected 5,000 people and got 10,000, said Gabriel Michel, director of Guadalajara’s program.

The next Sunday, Michel’s team planned for 10,000 and 20,000 showed up. Now, more than 100,000 people ride their bikes on Sundays.

The popularity of the event has translated into more bike use in Guadalajara, said Michel, a side effect that “is not only viable, but . . . extremely important for the sustainable development of the city.”

Gerardo Villanueva, a federal congressman from Ebrard’s leftist Democratic Revolution Party introduced legislation last month to fund bicycle programs in 56 cities.

But even as he dreams of a Mexico where bicycles replace some of the 20 million cars clogging the roads, Villanueva voices a concern shared by everyone who has climbed onto a bike here.

“In this country, there is not a culture of motorists respecting cyclists,” he said. “That has to change, so that riding a bicycle in Mexico City is not a heroic act.”

‘Traffic chaos’

Every time Sergio Martínez gets on his bicycle for the six-mile ride to work, he feels “the indifference, the power” that motorists wield over cyclists.

Martínez is Mexico City’s newly appointed director of traffic planning. His conversation is sprinkled with words like “traffic chaos” and “total collapse.” Sometimes he talks about a traffic “apocalypse” in just 15 years.

“We do not have an orderly city,” he said, shaking his head. “Our city was built on top of Aztec ruins in a colonial style with stone streets just wide enough for carts and horses. On top of that, we have had to build a modern Mexico City.”

Motorists spend about three hours a day commuting, Martínez said. If they take public transportation, their daily commute is almost two hours.

“We saw the American way of life – a house, a dog, a car – and we wanted it,” Martínez said. “But that lifestyle does not fit the idiosyncrasies of this city.”

Although 40 percent of the city’s residents own bikes, only 0.7 percent use them for transportation. The goal is to raise that number to 5 percent by the end of Ebrard’s administration in 2012, said Javier Hidalgo, the mayor’s point man on the bicycle program.

As Hidalgo, 47, rides his bike to work, he laments the waste caused by the cars, which use 11 million gallons of gas every day of the year.

That’s one reason the Ebrard government is pushing bicycles, reversible traffic lanes and commuter lanes.

There will be new traffic laws, too, such as no talking on cell phones while driving cars, mandatory use of seat belts and giving pedestrians the right of way when they’re crossing the street.

Although the Ebrard government is buying bikes from the Mercurio Bicycles factory in San Luis Potosi to loan to city residents, the company’s general manager believes getting people to give up their cars “will take years.”

“A lot of people are not convinced. They say this is just political posturing,” said César Ramos. “But you have to give them credit for promoting bicycle use. At least the Mexico City government is trying.”

Easy riders

On a recent Sunday morning, Ebelio Sánchez caught himself grinning and waving as the city’s residents pedaled by.

Sánchez, 46, who has been a Mexico City traffic cop for nearly half his life, is used to seeing people “mad and bothered.”

But on this sunny morning, there was no cacophony of blowing horns, no obscene gestures, no shouted insults from rolled-down car windows.

There were serene smiles, the fluttering of silk ribbons in a little girl’s hair, the soft sound of the wind whooshing through the spokes of spinning bicycle tires.

“You don’t have to be rich or poor to ride a bike,” said Juan Cervantes, a 35-year-old father of two. “This is a way for everybody in the city to go out and have fun.”

Not everybody likes the idea, of course.

“They’re in the way here,” Gerardo Gómez, a 57-year-old fabric store owner, groused as he waited in his neatly pressed suit for a shoeshine on Reforma boulevard. “People . . . want to ride in their cars. I don’t think that is going to change.”

But Martín Gómez, a 45-year-old accountant and member of a bicycle club called Bicitekas, disagreed.

“This will make the city more humane,” he said. “The city is collapsing from so many cars and contamination. A journey of 10,000 miles starts with one step. This is the first step.”


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