Flickr/Rutlo

The Mexican capital has some of the worst traffic in the world, yet cycling is catching on

MEXICO CITY -- When Edgar Olivares started work as a Red Cross volunteer during Mexico City’s Muévete en Bici (“Move by Bike”) program, he didn’t actually know how to ride. But he came out on Sundays anyway to repair skinned knees and minor scratches.

Normally, Mexico City suffers abysmal congestion - a recent IBM Corp. survey ranked it as the worst commuter city in the world. But once a week, Muévete en Bici closes down roads to the usual stampede of cars, taxis, buses, and vans. Instead cyclists, skaters and runners take to the streets.

Watching in Muévete en Bici inspired Olivares to learn to ride himself. Since then, he’s taught roughly 12 other people.

His story offers a glimpse of how organizers plan to slowly produce more cyclists in Mexico City. Like many residents here, Olivares had chosen not to bike out of fear. Historically, there has been little cycling culture.

At the urging of local civic groups, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard launched Muévete en Bici in May 2007. It’s part of a plan to add bike infrastructure and spread a message that bikers deserve respect. 

“Drivers that descend from their cars and get on a bike on Sunday begin to have a change in attitude toward cyclists,” says Lucía Yolanda Alonso, sub-director of parks and bike paths in the city’s Secretary of the Environment. Moreover, they begin to understand the perks of riding rather than sitting in traffic.

Aside from promoting biking, coordinators say the program helps reintroduce people to the city’s public places.

Muévete en Bici launched in May 2007 with a 10-kilometer route, which has since expanded to 24 kilometers. Once a month, there’s a broader circular route through the city, called the Ciclotón. Several boroughs have launched their own programs. Today, the city’s Secretary of the Environment, which coordinates the regular route, organizes occasional evening rides. Organizers estimate that some 920,800 people have participated in Muévete en Bici this year (through September).

Supporters of these “open streets” programs – which exist all over Latin America and in some American cities – are loath to say where they function best. Of course, they’re wonderful everywhere!  

But I imagine that these initiatives generate the biggest waves in sprawling, gridlocked metropolises like Mexico City. Muévete en Bici sparks the idea of an alternative commute. Most participants won’t immediately abandon their Chevys for their Schwinns, but the idea is planted.  

When Mexico City’s bike-sharing system Ecobici launched in 2010, residents embraced it, eventually filling the members-only system to capacity. And it appears Muévete en Bici paved the way for success, says Dhyana Quintanar Solares, director of strategic projects at the Institute of Transportation and Development Policy in Mexico. Anecdotally, she has heard that many Sunday regulars joined Ecobici because they had experienced low-pressure urban cycling. 

At the very least, Muévete en Bici forces people to take a first step toward cycling more regularly. They must extricate their dusty, rusted bikes from their garages and repair them. “The effort they go through by doing that motivates them to start using [them] again,” says Quintanar Solares.

Left-hand photo courtesy of Flickr user Rutlo. Right-hand photo courtesy of Ruth Samuelson.

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