Mexico City falls far short of the cycling infrastructure that bike activists dream of: as many residents say, it’s no Amsterdam. Although only 30 percent of daily trips in the city are made via private car (the other 70 percent are made by public transportation, by bike, or on foot), Mexico City is known for some of the worst traffic in the world and nearly toxic levels of pollution. Since 2006, there have been over 1,600 cyclist deaths.
Because of these deterrents, cycling activism has been two-fold, lobbying city authorities to integrate cycling infrastructure into the urban plan and promoting a cycling culture among city residents.
In the last decade, cycling has become especially relevant to the city’s agenda. In 2007 the city launched Muévete en Bici, a program that blocks cars from several main streets on Sundays so that cyclists can have the streets to themselves. In 2010, Mexico City implemented a bike share program, EcoBici, the first in Latin America. So far, the city’s only got 140 kilometers of the 600 kilometers of bike lanes that bike activists estimate it needs, but when EcoBici started, the city was virtually devoid of biking infrastructure. Ecobici now has around 6,500 bikes and over 240,000 registered users (which, they argue, is the largest in North America). In July 2014, a new mobility law placed cyclists and pedestrians at the top of a mobility hierarchy and introduced cycling language into urban plans for the first time. However, beyond moving into the next phases of EcoBici and implementing sorely needed safety measures, the plans were vague—plus, critics challenge the special hierarchy, noting that if cyclists were truly at the top, government infrastructure spending would reflect that.
Mexico City has a long way to go before it’s truly bike-friendly, but now, the city has a bike mayor—the first in all of Latin America. During the Sixth Annual World Bicycle Forum last month, the activist Areli Carreón was elected to the post by forum attendees in an online election. In addition to promoting cycling, she will act as an intermediary between cyclists, community groups, Mexico City’s government, and the bike mayors from Amsterdam and Sydney. The position doesn’t confer any formal power, but it doesn’t mean that Carreón won’t be able to make an impact.
"Mexico City is a city that has already incorporated cycling in many ways," she says. "It has completely transformed the face of the city, the urban logic of the city center." However, twenty years ago, when she started as a cycling activist, she saw a very different culture. "People used to make fun of us," says Carreón. “They’d say, ‘why do you want to ride on the street? Why don’t you ride around the park?’”
Since its founding in 1998, Carreón’s organization, Bicitekas A.C., has promoted cycling through community rides and by lobbying for public policies. Their campaigns seek to raise awareness of cycling and the environment. According to Carreón, Biciteka "is the oldest organization that has lobbied for cycling in Mexico City."
From blockades and protests to speeches and reports, Carreón has attempted to influence public opinion and city leadership in every way possible, including the production of the Urban Cyclist Manuel, the first comprehensive guide for cyclists in the city, and the first of its kind in Latin America. "We did workshops, led courses, put on parties, created art pieces and videos for museums. We have 20 years of innovation under our belts. We’ve tried by all possible means to convince, encourage, and promote this idea that we must move by different means,” she says. “But it took 20 years for city authorities to look at cycling as more than just a pastime.”
The concept of the bicycle mayor began in 2016 with a proposal from the Dutch nonprofit CycleSpace to create a global network of activists that could promote cycling at the international level. In an online election in June, 2016, Anna Luten was chosen as Amsterdam’s first bicycle mayor. But, some asked, did a city already well-known for being bike-friendly really need another promoter?
At the opposite end is Mexico City. Although it has achieved a "radical" change in culture, according to Carreón, and many infrastructural changes for its cyclists, extreme pollution and congestion are hurdles to it becoming a truly bike-friendly city.
As she settles into her position, Carreón hopes to facilitate broad participation in urban planning. Beyond seeing an increasing in bike lanes and safety precautions for cyclists, she also wants to invite community members to share their visions. “Because no one really has the answers, and it is necessary to have the voice of people to be sustainable in the long run. We need a society that can be part of the creation, we need the voice of the collective,” she says. “I feel we have a lot to learn. "
As her role continues to take shape, two other bike mayors—Amsterdam’s Anna Luten and Sydney's Sarah H. Imm—will meet with Carreón in in Amsterdam this June.
Although it remains to be seen what authority the bicycle mayor position will afford her, Carreón will likely continue to do the work she’s spent her entire life doing. “Biking has transformed the city into a laboratory of possibilities. It’s awakened our collective imagination and made us assert our needs as members of a society,” she says. “Exactly what this can lead to, I’m not sure. But it’s exciting.”
This post originally appeared on our sister site, CityLab Latino.