Mexico City bike sharing program brings cultural changes

Imma ride that shizzle
Imma ride that shizzle

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.

3 thoughts on “Mexico City bike sharing program brings cultural changes

  1. My name is Karen Pansky and my partner and I (Kirsten Hegg) volunteer for a non profit organization called “Bicycles for Humanity”! This is a global grassroots movement of local chapters. Bicycles are collected through community clean ups and donated by the local public. Once they are collected, the bicycles are loaded into a 40ft container and shipped to developing countries. The aim is to empower the people by helping them with the basic problem of mobility. Once the container arrives at its destination, it is turned into a BEC (Bicycle Empowerment Center). Local people receive training in bike mechanics and the container is turned into a bicycle repair center = sustainability!

    Bicycles provide so many things for low income families! They allow access to school, work, healthcare facilities, water, and food and bring goods to markets. A bike can change the life. For millions people with low incomes in Mexico and developing countries, a bicycle is financially out of reach. We intend to change that statistic! In addition, the Calgary chapter offers a bicycle recycling program. Millions of bikes end up in landfills but we provide the bikes with a second life!

    In five short years, we have become the largest organization in the world to send bicycles to those in need in many countries. B4H has sent over 45,000 bikes to developing countries! Many are attracted to our movement because we are 100% accountable, we are efficient and we can make a huge difference to the lives of so many. All the money goes towards shipping the containers to the intended destinations! There is no administration or staffing fees. We are all volunteers! In addition, we are sustainable, environmentally friendly, humanitarian orientated and we can empower people to acquire better, fuller lives. Bicycles have gone into Namibia/Angola , South Africa and Uganda.

    My partner, Kirsten Hegg and myself are shipping 400 used, donated, charitable, humanitarian bicycles to a small fishing village in Mexico called Zihuatanejo! (Like in Shawshank Redemption)! These children attend a school in a rural mountainous region called “Octavio Paz”. In the past, I have visited this school. During my journey, my sister and I have delivered approximately 200 lbs of school supplies to the children there. When I read about Bicycles for Humanity, I realized this is the kind of thing this community really needs. I signed up, collected the bikes, got volunteers on board and decided to send this community bicycles!

    We are asking for donations to assist Kirsten and myself to send the bicycles into Zihuatanejo, Mexico. The donations (100%) would be used to export the container. Once they arrive in Mexico, they will be distributed into the rural mountains where the children reside.

    We are very excited about the possibility of associating your company with Bicycles for Humanity!

    If you decide to donate to this most amazing cause, make the cheque out to “Bicycles for Humanity”. We can offer receipts but we do not have a charitable tax status. The reason being that we are now in eight countries and all have different tax laws. Corporations can also have the option of purchasing portions of the container/Shipping cost and then simply be invoiced from Bicycles for Humanity or from the Shipper!

    Shipping Company

    OCF – Overseas Container Forwarding Inc.

    Tere Blake

    1-800-663-4462

    Email: tere@ocf.ca

    Bicycles for Humanity empower people, it is sustainable, it is environmentally friendly, it recycles bicycles and it is humanitarian based.

    We look forward to hearing from you!

    Sincerely

    Karen Pansky

    Kirsten Hegg

    Representatives for Bicycles for Humanity

    http://www.bicycles-for-humanity.org

  2. Hello Ecobici!
    We are not asking for donations but I just wanted to let you know we are sending these bikes into Zihuatanejo for the children! This is our cover letter to foundations.
    I love your program and believe we share the same vision!
    Sincerely
    Karen Pansky
    B4H

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