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With a Boost From Bike-Share, Cycling Surges on Mexico City’s Mean Streets

3:14 PM EDT on March 22, 2012

This is the third in a series of reports about sustainable transportation policies in Mexico City. Last week, Streetsblog participated in a tour of the city led by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Previous installments covered pedestrian improvements and the city's new bus rapid transit system.

Mexico City never had much of a reputation as a bicycle city. Traffic is terribly congested and extremely dangerous -- drivers don't even have to take an eye exam to get a license -- and until recently, the air was thick with smog no one hoped to inhale too deeply.

Under the leadership of Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, however, Mexico City is taking a multi-pronged approach toward becoming bike-friendly, making changes to its streets, its laws and its culture. Most important has been the introduction of a new bike-share system, Ecobici, that's expanding rapidly.

In 2007, when Ebrard began a concerted effort to improve cycling, half of all trips were less than eight kilometers long, yet only one percent of trips were made by bike. The city resolved to boost cycling to five percent of all trips in just five years. Mexico City has made big strides under Ebrard but will probably need more time to hit the initial five-year target. Today bicycle mode-share is between two and three percent of trips, according to ITDP.

At the center of the city's effort is Ecobici, which launched two years ago. A public bike-sharing system funded mainly by the government, Ecobici offers 1,200 bikes at 90 stations, making it comparable in scope to Washington, DC's Capital Bikeshare but far smaller, for the time being, than systems in London and Paris.

As of today the system can only be found in the trendy Condesa neighborhood, which is often compared to New York City's Soho. Even limited to one neighborhood, however, demand is sky-high. To ensure quality service for the 30,000 current members, Ecobici has had to set up a waiting list for new subscribers. Otherwise there just wouldn't be enough bikes to go around, explained Ivan De La Lanza, coordinator of Mexico City's bicycle mobility strategy. Each bike is already being taken out an average of 10 times per day.

Though Ecobici is only available in a single neighborhood, a full 40 percent of new cyclists in the city use the system, said De La Lanza. It also may be encouraging others to get on their bikes more. According to Good magazine, the use of personal bikes rose 50 percent in the year that Ecobici opened.

This year, the system is set for not one but two major expansions. In June, the service area will spread east, into the Roma neighborhood and Mexico City's historical downtown. Then in November, Ecobici will move west, surrounding the Bosque Chapultepec -- Mexico City's equivalent of Central Park -- and expanding into the business-oriented Polanco area. Membership is expected to skyrocket to between 73,000 and 100,000 users, according to Ecobici official Oscar Montiel.

Those numbers are all the more impressive given that essentially every Ecobici user is a Mexico City resident. Unlike most bike-share systems, Ecobici doesn't offer daily or weekly memberships that might be attractive for visitors. In American systems, those casual users can comprise up to half of all bike-share trips.

Officials had worried about putting tourists on Mexico City's dangerous roads, said De La Lanza, who noted that the first three fatalities on Paris's pioneering Velib system were all tourists. Ecobici is looking to begin offering short-term memberships as a way of increasing revenue.

In the surest sign of success, other neighborhoods are asking for the city to bring bike-share to their streets. Coyoacán, a quiet southern neighborhood that was once home to Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky, has made the most enthusiastic requests for bike-share, said Montiel, but its relatively distant location make it a poor fit for the system at this point.

Despite Mexico City's high crime rate, Ecobici has only lost a third as many bikes to theft and vandalism as officials expected. And the city has been able to address equity concerns that have arisen with other bike-share systems. Residents who lack a credit or debit card, normally necessary to become a bike-share member, can instead link their account to their telephone bill, said Montiel.

The system took a little getting used to for Mexico City residents. When it opened, Ecobici users only made around 2,000 trips a day. After a small expansion, that number has grown to 8,500 daily rides as residents have grown comfortable with the system. Women especially took some time to get on bike-share. When it opened, 80 percent of all Ecobici users were men, mostly between the ages of 25 and 35. Now women make up more than a third of riders. "We know that the perception of danger is getting down," said Montiel, who expected to see more gender parity as the city's bike infrastructure continued to improve.

Bike lanes, however, have been a weak point in Mexico City's efforts to expand cycling. According to CNN, the city pledged to build 300 kilometers of new bike lanes between 2006 and 2012. By December, only 6.8 km had been completed. The city government told CNN that Ecobici had replaced that part of the city's bicycle strategy.

Sustainable transportation advocates, demanding a guaranteed five percent of transportation spending for bike and pedestrian projects, protested by painting their own "Wikilane" in front of the legislature.

Quality counts as well as quantity, though, and on that metric one bike lane rates especially high: The physically separated lane runs up Reforma -- Mexico City's most important avenue, its Champs Elysees. Reforma is symbolic and central, and Ecobici operators ascribed a significant amount of the increase in cycling to the safety and visibility of this single bike lane. "It was really important for the city to take this avenue for a bike lane and make a statement," said De La Lanza. Though Reforma still has five lanes of traffic in each direction, on the bike lane riding felt quite safe.

Along with Ecobici and new bike lanes, a major focus of Mexico City's bicycle planning is to integrate bikes with the city's extensive transit system, soon to include 12 subway lines and four bus rapid transit lines, said De La Lanza. Both outdoor and secure indoor bike parking are being built at transit stations in order to allow intermodal trips.

Legal changes, too, have boosted bicycling in Mexico City. In 2010, the city passed a package of bike-friendly laws. Most prominently, Mexico City repealed its mandatory helmet law on the grounds that it was discouraging cycling and leaving everyone in greater danger. "It's safer for them to cycle, whether they have a helmet or not," argued Montiel.

At the same time, Mexico City reduced speed limits in areas with traffic calming or heavy pedestrian traffic and hiked up the penalty for driving or parking in a bike lane.

Though cycling has made significant strides over the last five years, its position in Mexico City is hardly assured. Last year, a prominent radio host, Angel Verdugo, called on his afternoon listeners to "crush" the "red plague" of cyclists -- to literally run them over. Verdugo was fired, but the moment revealed the ferocity of anti-cycling sentiment that seems to persist in some quarters of the city.

The political winds could shift after Mayor Ebrard leaves office this year. "It's an election year," he said, "so we have to complete every project in the city, for Ecobici, for the bike lanes." Some of the candidates for mayor this year, he implied, might not be so bike-friendly.

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