The recent inauguration of the Citi Bike bicycle sharing program in New York City captured headlines, momentarily spiking media interest in this most modern form of urban mass transit. Reading about Citi Bike, our own blood ran cold at the very idea of riding a bicycle in New York City traffic. Which is ironic, because we race through Mexico City traffic every day using the city’s Ecobici public bicycle program, which pre-dates New York’s by some three years. OK, so it can be a little scary at times, but fear is also excitement, right? It’s that kind of town. So as long as we’re on the topic, we would like to make a few observations about how the sneaky city government is using some guileless bicycles to bring about potentially profound changes in the underlying culture of our community beyond its carbon footprint.
Ecobici launched in February of 2010 with 85 bike stations and about 1,100 bicycles. The program was one of a number of environmentally themed initiatives implemented by the municipal administration of Marcelo Ebrard (2006 – 2012), landing the city a Sustainable Transport Award in 2012 from the New York-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). In the succeeding three years, Ecobici has grown to include 268 stations, 4,000 bicycles and 87,000 registered users, according to its own web site. Despite the rapid growth, the program remains geographically limited to the central part of the city.
We well recall the reactions heard as workers began installing the bicyle stations in 2009: “Bicycles in this city? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard;” “It’ll never work;” and of course “In this town? They’ll steal the bicycles before the paint is even dry on those things.” The reaction was natural; for one, this was so not a bicycle town. Aside from a few intrepid kooks (probably foreigners), in years past the only bicycles seen on the streets of Mexico City belonged to delivery guys hauling around stuff like chickens, bread or water jugs. That old Wonder Years imagery of the kid on a stingray with a banana seat and a baseball card in the spokes? Fuhgeddaboudit. It wasn’t just because it was dangerous, either. Much much worse: Being seen on a bicycle might lead friends, neighbors or co-workers to believe that one didn’t own a car.
So here’s how the city government for once acted like it actually knew something about the city: They launched the bike program in the boho Condesa neighborhood, where going against the grain is a badge of honor. At first, bystanders peered in puzzlement as early adopters sailed by on the red bikes, sporting lumberjack beards and white v-neck tees (vintage skirts and red Chuck Taylors for the ladies). Then, after waiting the requisite amount of time for others to go first, additional hipsters, foreigners and even others not overtly representing a defined urban subculture signed on. And finally, long after the bicycle sharing program had graduated from novelty to part of the urban landscape, we saw what we had not dared to dream: A guy in a business suit, complete with tie, riding an Ecobici, his briefcase held in place by the little bungy thingy on the front. The Rubicon had been crossed.
After over three years of operation, the Ecobici program is now wildly popular in the neighborhoods it covers, such as Condesa, Roma, Polanco, Cuauhtémoc, Juárez and Centro. A recent survey found that approximately 66% of the program’s registered riders use the bikes to get to work and back, and a whopping 70% began riding a bicycle only within the past two years. The streets are thick with bicycle riders, many wearing ties or dresses, and in Condesa, possibly both.
A couple years back, a young fellow told us an anecdote about bike riding in Mexico City. He was sent sprawling off his cycle by a woman in an SUV who made an abrupt left turn into a driveway, knocking him to the ground. As he picked himself up off the pavement, feeling for broken bones, he saw the tinted glass of the driver side window go down. But instead of “I’m sorry I ran you over,” the woman yelled at him: “Get a job, so you can buy a car.”
That mentality most certainly has not disappeared from the city’s culture. But five years ago, nobody thought guys in suits would be riding to work on bicycles, either.