Magnífico Méjico ¡
Last Sunday thousands of cyclists celebrated Bicycle Day in Mexico City.
They gathered to raise awareness of the benefits of the alternative means of transportation. “We are (forming the image of a bike with people), to call on citizens to encourage them to use bicycles as a means of transport and to celebrate bikes as a recreational tool that helps our health and economy”, said organizer, Paola Gomez.
This comes just 9 days before International Bicycle Day on April 19, where thousands of people across the world celebrate the two-wheeled mode of transport.
You can tell from the blog post heading, and the tone of cheery optimism, that this was going to be one of those lovely feel-good little stories which I thought I'd post with a cute picture; a bit like the earlier post on Fremantle; but as I researched more on Mexico City, I can't actually in good conscience finish there on a light-hearted note. Yeah, this post is about to take a grim turn ...
On Wednesday, authorities in Mexico City barred millions of vehicles from the streets due to a pollution alert after the capital experienced its worst air-quality crisis in 14 years. Uber prices rose as much as 10 times in response, cargo and government vehicles caused a back-up along highways as thy were banned from entering the city.
Authorities say it is due to rising temperatures and a high-pressure system, while environmentalists point to the recent roll-back of a ban on older model cars. Mexico City lies in a high altitude basin surrounded by hills, and this causes low oxygen levels to begin with, up to 25% less when compared to sea-level cities. The following is a bit science-y, but it's readable for the average bear.
"This lowered partial pressure (pO2) does have significant effects. For example, people breathing at these altitudes require more red blood cells and their blood viscosity changes significantly.
Because less oxygen is available, combustion processes cannot take place adequately. Such rich mixtures, on the one side, reduce the emission of nitrogen oxides, but on the other side, it enhances the emission of carbon monoxide (CO), hydrocarbons, and volatile organic compounds (VOC).
Changes in engine design, the addition of catalytic converters or after burners and careful tuning considerably would reduce the major pollutants in exhaust gases. …
And levels of almost any pollutant like nitrogen dioxide (NO2) now regularly break international standards by two to three times. Levels of ozone (O3), a pollutant that protects us from solar radiation in the upper atmosphere but is dangerous to breathe, are twice as high here as the maximum allowed limit for one hour a year and this occurs several hours per day every day."
- Project-Study paper, University of Salzburg, Austria (Dr. W. Hofmann), Department of Biophysics and in Cooperation with the, Afro-Asian Institute (Salzburg, Austria) and
International Laboratory for Air Quality and Health at QUT (Australia)
Yes, more pollutant breaches per day than the annual allowable limit. I don't have enough editing tools to highlight how wrong this is.
To this localised greenhouse effect add 5.5 million vehicles on the road, many of them shittier older cars with higher emission levels, and an additional 250,000 cars every year. Of the 30 million trips per day, unofficial estimates say about 2% are by bike. Residents spend an average of three hours a day commuting, and car speeds during rush hour have fallen to around 12kmph (~7.5 mph). The only good thing about that is that a cyclist hit by a car at those speeds is going to be pretty much ok. Pissed off, but alive.
The city has been struggling to bring down ozone levels since they began surging again this year, implementing car-free days once a week, and one car-free Sunday each month regardless of emission levels. Any official city vehicles may be flagged down by commuters for a lift, as long as they're going in the same direction. Insert your own joke about Bronwyn Bishop and her tax-payer funded helicopter trips here.
Mexico City's air has gone from among the world's cleanest to among the dirtiest in the span of a single generation. Novelist Carlos Fuentes' first novel "Where the air is clear" is set in Mexico City in 1959 - a title he has publically said is ironic considering the city's current environment. The average visibility of approximately 100 km in the 1940s is now down to about 1.5 km.
Is anyone else feeling outraged right now?
This pollution, congestion and Mexico’s rising obesity rates cannot be fixed by car-free days alone – the world’s fourth biggest city is also building a network of protected bike lanes.
The City’s grand Paseo de la Reforma boulevard is also home to wide, protected cycle lanes along both sides, from the historic centre to the green oasis of Chapultepec park in the west. During peak hour these lanes see a constant stream of cyclists in work clothes, many of them using the Ecobici bike hire system – the fourth largest in the world after Huangzhou, Paris and London. It is used mainly by residents getting around the city, with 37% of users being women.
The city now has around 150 km (~90 miles) of dedicated bike lanes, For the most part, concrete and heavy-duty plastic dividers keep the traffic at bay, although when they are replaced by paint or reflectors in the road in the run-up to a junction some drivers simply swing into the bike lane.
Mexico's environment minister Tanya Müller has approved two new protected cycle paths for the 4,000 cyclists per day who already brave the high-speed, five-lane highways.
Müller has expanded the Ecobici network implemented by her predecessor to more than 6,000 bikes at over 400 stations, and users now access their Ecobici using an integrated card that also covers the metro, bus, and trams network.
To attract the majority of residents who live on the outskirts of the city, Müller has opened a 24-hour 400-space secure cycle parking facility at Pantitlán in the east of the city, and another is being built to the north. The idea is that people can cycle from home to the facility, take public transport into the centre and then walk or use an Ecobici for the last stage to their place of work.
Inspired by the efforts of Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa, in 1998 the Bicitekas collective started a weekly Paseo Nocturno, a Critical Mass-style ride where a group of cyclists meet up on a weeknight and take a four-hour trip around some of Mexico City’s busiest roads, staying safe through sheer force of numbers. It was revolutionary at the time but now the city hosts an official Paseo every Sunday and a government-organised night ride once a month on closed roads; the most recent ride for Day of the Dead attracted a record 95,000 cyclists. There are plenty of unofficial night rides, too, run by groups such as Mujeres en Bici and Paseo de Todos, as well as the original Bicitekas ride.
Around 1,200 people are killed on Mexico City’s roads every year. Of these 60% are pedestrians, but it is not clear how many are cyclists. A third of accidents involve speeding cars.
Speed limits are being cut to 50kmph on main roads and 30kmph on side streets, cyclists will be allowed to proceed through red lights if the way is clear, and the city government will put the needs of pedestrians first, followed by cyclists, then public transport, cargo and finally private cars and motorbikes.
But the tougher traffic laws will only work if the police enforce them.
This is echoed by Agustín Martinez, the president of the Bicitekas collective. “Not everyone is studying traffic law like we are – drivers need to be educated and we need enforcement. A car can jump a red light right in front of a traffic police officer and he won’t do anything – the law is very 'flexible' in Mexico City.”
There is a white ghost bike near the Bicitekas HQ. One of the Bicitekas explains how a young female cyclist was hit by a car and knocked unconscious. When she got up and her boyfriend started remonstrating with the driver, he drove off with the woman clinging to the bonnet, accelerating and swerving until she fell off. She died of her injuries in hospital. The driver was tracked down by police but, says the activist, was freed after a few well-placed bribes: “When he was caught he said, ‘I have money, I have power, nothing will happen’ – he was right.”
I think if I were the surviving family member in this scenario, that driver would be found, mysteriously battered to death and with a bicycle U-Lock shoved right up his clacker. Fuck that.
There is a feeling among local cyclists that, while Müller and current mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera are working in the right direction, they are nowhere near as radical as their predecessors, Mayor Marcelo Ebrard whose original 2007 target of 186 miles of cycle paths has still not been achieved, but he and environment minister Martha Delgado started the official Sunday rides, built the bike lane along Reforma and launched Ecobici.
Locals are pleased with the new traffic law but disappointed with a lack of real progress. “[The city government] is scared of the car lobby, they defend old ideas like cheap gasoline, they are scared of business and they don’t think about the people that live here.”
Clearly Mexico City is still a car-centric society but it is also clear that cycling is on the rise. “It used to be that people saw cycling here as something eccentric or crazy,” says Baranda who helped found the Bicitekas collective after a stint working overseas in the Netherlands. “People thought that if you cycled you must be a tree-hugger or not have enough money to get a car, but that’s changed now – now it’s trendy.”
It’s not just trendy, it’s necessary. Mexico City is killing its residents.