Given the madness of the auto traffic in Mexico City, bicycling here might seem slightly suicidal. But more people do it than you would expect, and every time I come to el DF I see even more people getting around on two wheels. The city encourages it with an excellent bike-sharing program called Ecobici, and many streets now have bike lanes, including Paseo de la Reforma, where bicyclists are separated from vehicles by metal and cement barriers. On Sundays, many of the major roads in the city are closed for the ciclovía —an event that allows bicyclists (and roller skaters and pedestrians) to take over the streets. These events are convincing more and more people that the bicycle is a viable form of transportation in Mexico City.
Four years ago, when I spent five days here en route to Buenos Aires, I first noticed the Ecobici stations that are ubiquitous in la Condesa, la Roma, Zona Rosa, and Centro Historico. I was dying to hop on a bike, but when I googled Ecobici, I learned that it was pretty much just for Mexicans. A local address and a Mexican credit card are required in order to get an Ecobici account, or at least they were at the time. Several weeks ago, on a fantastic Mexico City Bike Tour, led by an UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) professor of landscape architecture, I learned that these bikes are now available to tourists and that all one has to do is go to one of the stands and swipe a credit card in order to get a temporary account. Well, in theory, anyway. When I tried to sign up, I kept getting an error message. I told my Spanish teacher at the International House about my experience, and she urged me to go directly to the Ecobici office and try to get one of the cards that will allow me to use Ecobici for a whole year. They’re supposedly only for residents of Mexico City, but she told me that previous students of hers had managed to get them anyway.
So I headed to the Ecobici office and spent two solid hours getting signed up. It was surprisingly complicated. First, I had to walk around the block to a branch of Bancomer and open an “express” Mexican bank account. Then, I had to call to activate my new express debit card (and be grilled in Spanish for about 20 minutes about what I was doing in Mexico). Once I had paid with my new card, I was given a small pamphlet about bike safety and Mexican biking laws, and after I read the pamphlet, I had to take a written test to prove that I had read it. Finally, I had to walk to a copy shop and make a photocopy of my passport. (When I told my Spanish teacher about my experience, she was incredulous. According to her, a written test isn’t even necessary to get a driver’s license in Mexico.)
But as they say in Spanish, valió la pena. It was totally worth it. Now that I have Ecobici card, I can just walk up to one of the bike stations, swipe my card, and pick up a bike. I have to return it within 45 minutes to another Ecobici station, but Ecobici stations are not hard to find (and I was also given a handy map that shows me exactly where they are). Then after waiting about five minutes, I can get a new bike. The bikes are all in good condition, with adjustable seats, both front and rear lights, and a small storage space (with a bungee cord) that you can use for a backpack or whatever else you might be carrying. I’ve more than gotten my money’s worth already. It’s only $30 US for the whole year. That’s about what I’d pay to rent a bike for one day in almost any American or European city! And I’ve used these bikes every day since signing up—including on Sundays for the ciclovía.
Ciclovías, or ciclovías recreativas, originated in Bogota, but now they’re gaining popularity all over the world. The basic concept is that, for a period of several hours, major city streets are shut down to auto traffic so that people can bike in a safe, car-free space. It’s a great way to introduce people to urban bicycling. San Francisco’s version, called Sunday Streets, happens once a month, and Oakland’s version, Oaklavía, occurs three times a year. But in Mexico City it’s a weekly event, every Sunday. From my apartment, I can walk just one block to Calle Mazatlan, pick up an Ecobici, and ride it through car-free streets all the way to the historic center. Riding along Paseo de la Reforma, normally choked with auto traffic, with hundreds of other bicyclists, is an exhilarating experience.
This past Sunday’s ciclovía took me past a temporary art exhibit on Paseo de la Reforma, between the Angel of Independence and Diana the Huntress. Sponsored by the Museum of Popular Art, it featured brightly colored papier-mâché fantasy creatures that attracted hundreds of families with children and quite a few bicyclists. I stopped and took a few photos and then headed on my way. At the next intersection, a woman approached me and asked if she could give me a hug. I was a little skeptical. I had recently read something about a pick-pocketing scheme in Bogota that involves hugging people and then stealing their wallets. But then I noticed that there were about a dozen people there offering hugs to everyone. I received about ten hugs before the light turned green, and my wallet, cell phone, and camera were still with me when I pedaled away.
In the waiting room of the Ecobici office, a video on constant loop boasts about the degree to which Ecobici has helped reduce air pollution in Mexico City. It’s undoubtedly true. Since I’ve been here, I’ve talked to several people who have told me that the air quality in el DF is dramatically better than it was 20 years ago. In fact, they tell me that almost every aspect of life here is better now than it was 20 years ago, and it’s all because of good public policy. In addition to encouraging bicycling, the city has improved public transportation, removed smoke-spewing factories, and regulated the content of gasoline. According to Corydon Ireland’s article “The Makeover of Mexico City,” in 1992 the UN declared that Mexico City had the worst air quality in the world, “so bad that flying birds, overwhelmed, would fall dead from the sky. . . . Air quality in Mexico City now resembles that in Los Angeles: not wonderful, but not catastrophic.” These days, Los Angeles is following the lead of Mexico City. In 2014, after a trip to Mexico City, L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti recommended that his city try to imitate the Ecobici program, and in August of this year, the Los Angeles City Council approved the idea.