An icon of overcrowding, pollution, and perpetual traffic jams, Mexico City has assisted during the pandemic with the resurgence of bicycles. Thousands of cyclists have taken to avenues that were recently Comanche territory, and the authorities have understood that the future of mobility depends largely on the power of the pedal.
t a traffic light on Avenida de los Insurgentes, a baker, a young man with pasta glasses, a bank clerk, a food delivery man, and a sharpener is waiting on a bicycle. In the corner, the wait is entertained by a blind singer singing José José with a CD player hanging from his neck from which the melody comes out. The urban ecosystem stops in front of a new traffic light in the city, a red-lit bicycle. There was a time when launching a bicycle through Mexico City was the task of the brave. The infernal and aggressive traffic was joined by the 2,250 meters high in one of the most polluted cities in the world. A simple walk would be a lung challenge for Fausto Coppi himself.
But since the pandemic landed in the city more than a year ago, some things have changed. Although old Tenochtitlán continues to be closer to the volcanoes than to sea level, traffic was reduced to levels never seen before and, with it, pollution was also decreasing. In this interval, the authorities built a bike path in Insurgentes, the longest street in the city and the only one that crosses the megalopolis from north to south. Then, like the dry grass on which the first drops fall after the dry season, cyclists began to flourish en masse. While road traffic fell by 50%, the demand for the use of the public Ecobici system increased by 220% , according to the Ministry of Mobility.
Cyclists who stop at red traffic lights agree on three reasons: saving on fuel, fear of contagion in public transport and doing the exercise that the pandemic does not allow. On landing on the bike path, many discovered a luxury that does not require investment: the city is flat. It is located in the second largest altiplano in America after Bolivia.
In recent decades, urban projects have been developed in the American continent such as the Medellín Metrocable, in Colombia, which connects the popular neighborhoods with the city, or the rehabilitation of Old Havana, in Cuba, which helped to change the face of a country. But there are other apparently minor ones, such as the inauguration of the García Márquez library in the center of Bogotá or the arrangement of the center of San Salvador, which have the capacity to activate other fibers and serve as a motor of change. This is the case of the 54 kilometers of the Insurgentes bike path. The challenge, however, is not a question of budget, but of political calculation. In other times, such a gesture, suffocating the main artery that connects the city from end to end a few weeks before the midterm elections on June 6,
For a long time, locals liked to boast about Mexico City’s records: the largest, the most populated, the most polluted, the one with the most people moving on the subway, the one with the most cars. In the count of myths, Insurgentes was included as the longest street in the world, arguing that it is part of the Pan-American Highway that connects the continent from end to end. Traps aside, with almost 30 kilometers, Insurgentes usually appears in the classifications as the fourth-longest street in the world after Yonge Street in Toronto (56 kilometers), Rivadavia avenue in Buenos Aires (35), and Roskildevej avenue in Copenhagen ( 31).
As it passes through the center of the Mexican capital, Insurgentes is a frenetic artery with four outbound lanes and four in return. The symbol of modernity that was wanted to be shown to the world during the 1968 Olympic Games, to go through it is to cross part of the financial brain of the country. An avenue dotted with large office buildings and cultural emblems begins with the Green Indians sculpted by Alejandro Casarín and reminiscent of pre-Hispanic Mexico. It continues through the Monument to the Revolution ordered by Porfirio Díaz and passes through the Juárez, Roma, or Condesa colonies. Insurgentes borders Hundido Park and the Polyforum Siqueiros and its impressive façade, painted by the famous muralist. The avenue ends at the Ciudad Universitaria and from there you can see the work of the architect Mario Pani and the murals of Diego Rivera and Juan O’Gorman. The concentration of life, culture, and economy.
16 years ago everything began to change. In 2005, when the current president of Mexico, López Obrador, who was mayor of the city at the time, inaugurated the Metrobús, a transportation system that ran through Insurgentes, replacing the old vans that competed for passage in small, smelly vehicles with impeccable buses Volvo, with professional drivers and defined stops. It was a revolution. That provoked protests, whistles and angry complaints from motorists until the obvious was confirmed: the Metrobús moves 10 times more people per minute than car traffic. On March 27, the final blow came: the mayor of the city, Claudia Sheinbaum, announced that the bike lane that was initially built temporarily during the pandemic would be finalized. which completes a circuit of almost 300 kilometers of bicycle lanes. Without excessive noise, the longest street in the city was reduced to two lanes of vehicles that suffocate at the turn of the wheel between bikes and the Metrobús.
A few blocks from there, on the street of Coahuila, Alberto Pérez, Toto, does not stop at his bicycle workshop. Sitting on a box while greasing a chain, he describes a phenomenon in which he feels he is the protagonist. “There is a boom for the bicycle and many people who had their bicycles packed and full of dust bring them to get them ready.” Toto is part of a national industry that lived through years of splendor in the sixties and seventies and that now resurfaces in small workshops. “Demand has skyrocketed, and the profile has also changed. Now people know the names, the parts, the spare parts they require, or they ask me to show them, ”he explains while adjusting some brake shoes in his Rueda Libre workshop. “In the Roma neighborhood, a couple of years ago there were 4 workshops and now there are 16,” he adds.
According to Bernardo Baranda, director of the Institute for Politics and Development, a private organization dedicated to the study of mobility, the importance of Intervening Insurgentes lies in its “emblematic” nature. According to Baranda, before any change the same reaction always occurs: first disbelief, then they question the decision, then criticism and finally they end up adapting. “Traffic behaves like gas, not water, and adapts to other ways to flow,” he says. According to their data, since the beginning of the pandemic in Insurgentes, the number of daily cyclists increased by 40%, going from about 1,800 to more than 3,000. Another example is Avenida de la Reforma, the elegant artery that runs in front of the Chapultepec Castle and the embassies of the United States or Japan, among others.
Until 1930, the capital of Mexico was a city of little more than a million inhabitants with well-designed avenues and parks where cycling was common. The arrival in 1952 of the Italian manufacturer Giacinto Benotto, founder of one of the best-selling brands in the country, promoted a national industry that lived its golden age. From that time is Bimex, one of the oldest bicycle factories in the country, acquired by Carlos Slim, one of the richest men in the world, in 1986.
With the arrival of “modernity and social progress,” as the PRI candidate says in the film Herod’s Law, in the sixties the car burst into force. The Olympic Games were joined by the oil boom, the economic boom, and the famous “managing abundance” of President López Portillo, which gave way to a capital focused on infrastructure that built sophisticated bridges, road axes, and ring roads to prepare for it. the massive arrival of the vehicle.
The car was imposed as a symbol of social status and, little by little, it was bordering “the bicycle, which was left for the screwed up”, says Paco Santamaría, a user who daily traveled from Polanco to San José Insurgentes by car, but decided to sell it to reduce expenses after having to close their offices due to the pandemic. “For a long time, the expression ‘ bicycle town ‘ was used in reference to underdeveloped municipalities in contrast to the modernity of the capital,” says Santamaría. “But at my age, those things no longer affect me,” he adds.
At the northern end of Insurgentes, the Buenavista station is a symbol of efficiency that integrates commuter trains, buses, and bicycles. Dozens of suburban trains arrive at the old station in the north of the city every day. Thousands like Alejandro Almaraz, 42, arrive from the concrete periphery, antennas, and water tanks.
Almaraz lives in Tultepec, a municipality 40 kilometers from Mexico City, and thanks to the bicycle parking lot, he can have two bicycles. One that takes him from his home to the Tultepec station and another with which he moves through the capital to his job in an advertising agency. Its objective is clear: to reduce expenses. “Transportation has gone up a lot, but thanks to the bicycle I can save almost 10 pesos every day. At the beginning, I kept the ticket money, and with that money, a year later, I was able to save to buy the bicycles I have now, ”he says. “If I did that journey by car, it would take two hours and I would spend 200 pesos (about 8 euros) for gasoline; however, this way it takes me an hour and 10 minutes and I spend about 37 pesos (1.50 euros) ”, he explains, leaning on his modest bicycle.
When the mayors of the main cities of the world meet, the mayor of Mexico City, Sheinbaum, always says that the post-pandemic megalopolis will be more participatory, more humane, with better health systems and focused on mobility. The resurgence of the bicycle has managed to unite these four concepts in an object with two centuries of life.
On Calle de San Pablo, the street in the Historic Center where the two-wheel union is concentrated, Valeria Sánchez, owner of the Bicla Bike store, admits that the pandemic has been like a lottery for the sector. “On April 2 they forced all businesses to close, but people would come to the store at any time or call us, and the demand grew and grew, so we started selling bicycles behind closed doors,” he says about the new golden age. Before the pandemic, it sold 10 bicycles a day and now it sells between 15 and 20. “It is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity,” he sums up.
With oil stains up to his eyebrows, Rolando Morales adjusts a newly purchased gearshift from the ground. Morales has improvised in the middle of the street a workshop where he employs his brother-in-law, a friend, and his wife, who tirelessly put spokes on the wheels. Even a man in a wheelchair is waiting in line for his turn. “I was an electrical mechanic, but the car no longer pulls, I don’t have customers; instead, look here how well I’m doing, ”he says, pointing to the half-dozen clients who are patiently waiting. Little by little, Mexico City leaves the intensive care unit after a year that revealed that to recover a sick person there are therapies with horses, dolphins, and bicycles.
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