Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Vamonos en bici! (ojalá pudieramos): Some comments on the state of cycling in Mexico City

UPDATE: I'm late in noting this because I've been away from the blog today, but: a big belated welcome to visitors from Urban Velo. I hope you'll enjoy your visit here.

The poster for the 1er Congreso Nacional de Ciclismo Urbano, held this past June in Mexico City (image found here); and the logo for Bicitekas, a Mexican bicycle advocacy group (image found here).

The Spanish portion of this post's title reads, "Let's go by bike! (if only we could)." That pretty much sums up the matter for cyclists in Mexico's capital.

I'm not a big fan of the term "working vacation," but there's no other way to describe the 5-day trip to Mexico City that the Mrs. and I just returned from. The official reason for our going was so that I could get a look at some examples of colonial architecture and paintings for my sabbatical research. However, this was also the Mrs.' first trip to Mexico City, and so we made sure we got some sightseeing in as well. At any rate, while we were out and about in the city I also made some mental notes on the present state of cycling in what may be the world's largest city. Sorry: no pictures--we were having issues with cameras that affected the pictures I'd gone there to get in the first place.

The short version of this: Wichita cyclists have little to complain of, relatively speaking. As impoverished as we are here regarding cycling-infrastructure resources--to the point that, yes, Randy, we just kind of shrug at the absence of bike racks on buses here--cyclists in Mexico City have disadvantages that few of us can imagine. Envision a population 3 times that of New York living in an area about the size of the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex. Imagine not the highways but the major thoroughfares of a city having the width, traffic load and almost the speed of the traffic on I-135 or I-235, but with roundabouts and traffic lights at those roundabouts. Fantasize, if you will, a city whose traffic laws, according to my friend and Mexico City native (and fellow blogger) René, "are more like gentle suggestions." And conceive of a city that has some very nice parks but no greenbelts linking them because a) the city is so densely-built up and b) it has no rivers or even creeks flowing through it. Oh--and do I even need to add that, at least downtown, there are no bike lanes to be found, and no guarantees that motorists would observe them or the police would enforce them even if they were there? Those are the challenges facing the serious cyclist in Mexico City--and, for that matter, cycling advocates and city planners who want to change the state of things there. You know things are pretty bad there when you run across things like this Reuters story about a nude-cyclist protest to gain attention for cyclist safety. Or another way to put it: one night we were walking along Insurgentes (one of the aforementioned thoroughfares) when a cyclist passed us on the street--wearing all-dark clothes and no helmet on a long-in-the-tooth one-speed with no rear light or even a reflector--and I shook my head in wonderment at his audacity. The Mrs. asked me if I'd be riding on this street if I had my bike; I said, "Are you crazy? I'm afraid to ride on Pawnee!"

The Mrs. and I spent most of our visit in the center of the city, so what follows is not necessarily true of some outlying areas. Where we were, though, we saw few cyclists: in our five days there, I saw as many cyclists as I see on one ordinary day in Wichita. Except for two skinny-tire types (cycling shorts and jerseys, helmets) we saw one night in the upscale Polanco district north of Chapultepec Park and some kids in the same park one day, most of the cyclists appeared to be using their bikes as transportation and, in one case, as an aid in his business (he had a milk crate filled with prepackaged snack foods that was strapped to his bike's rear rack). They reminded me a great deal, in fact, of the cyclists I've seen in the Hispanic neighborhood just north of downtown Wichita: folks who use for the exceedingly practical reason that they're cheaper than driving. These bikes we saw weren't exactly the latest in commuter bikes, either: most of them were old one-speeds like the one I described above. A couple of the bikes were in the Wal-Mart dirt-bike style, but with names in Spanish. Perhaps they were built in Mexico?

For all its massive problems, Mexico City has some features to it that, with some skillful planning and some laws firmer than "gentle suggestions," could make it a good place for cyclists. The city government is promoting cycling as transportation via posters that we saw in various places. It already has a marvelous and heavily-used mass-transit network consisting of a subway system and buses of various sorts, some with dedicated lanes that run counter to the flow of traffic that motorists seem to stay out of. Also, people there (and throughout Mexico) are naturally accustomed to walking to get from place to place, much more than we in the States are, and sidewalks, though crowded, are usually wide enough to accommodate pedestrians. But we shall see what happens there; and in any case, I suspect that changes benefiting cyclists will be long in coming there. As valid a concern as those of cyclists are, Mexico City has, I must admit, more essential problems to contend with. After all, this is also a city whose government feels the need to post reminders that women are people too and so should be treated with respect.

First things first. As I say, we in Wichita do have some things better than they do in other places.


acline said...

Fascinating. I really enjoy Mexico, but it's not a place I'd like to cycle or drive in :-) Although I do admire that Mexican drivers don't get freaked-out by much. They just keep on truckin'.

John B. said...

Thanks for stopping by. When I lived in Durango, Mexico (a much, much smaller city than Mexico City), back in the mid-eighties, I had a car there. No accidents. One does put one's defensive-driving skills to very good use while driving there, though.

I haven't thought about this long enough to merit a full post, but it strikes me that, whereas the default setting for thinking about cycling here is "recreational activity," in Mexico there's not even that. The consciousness-raising about cycling that will have to occur there is of a different order and magnitude than is the task ahead of us here. But one thing that is already firmly in place there, even in the largest cities, is the idea of neighborhood as a semi-autonomous community. One might have to commute elsewhere for work, but that's not necessarily what most people do; and in any case, the immediate surrounding blocks are filled with small shops of every sort that meet all immediate needs and most not-so-immediate ones.

It may, in fact, be that very fact that might mitigate against making streets more bike-friendly: "Why can't you just walk there or, in a pinch, take the bus or subway, if you don't want to drive?" In Mexico City, at least, that's actually not an unreasonable response. And, to be frank, widening most streets to create lanes is simply impossible: you have the street and the sidewalk and buildings, with no--and I mean no--intervening space at all between them. Perhaps a network of routes marked by sharrows might work, though . . .