I had the opportunity to use Ecobici while in Mexico City for the Walk 21 conference. The system of over 1,000 bicycles has a waiting list for membership and no options for short term memberships, so it caters primarily to residents, not visitors. Thanks to the folks at CTS EMBARQ, conference goers were able to borrow passes for a day to use the system.
From everything I’ve heard and the large numbers of red bikes I saw riding around the city, the system is successful. It has about 9,000 daily riders and the membership was capped at 30,000 members before the recent expansions, with a waiting list of several thousands. The focus of this post is not the ridership or success of the system, but a review of the riding and usability of the system. Since Ecobici is operated by Clear Channel, many of the system characteristics are similar to other Clear Channel systems, such as Washington, D.C.’s old SmartBike system.
Before you question my sanity for riding in a city where drivers don’t even need to pass an exam to obtain a license, know that I had guidance from another conference goer from the U.S. who was living in Mexico, and comfortable enough cycling there to ride his folding bicycle from his hotel to the conference each day. (And hey, I ride in South Florida. People question my sanity all the time for doing that.) Roy Dudley, who works with advocacy group Pro Ciclismo Xalapa, offered to show me around the city by bicycle, so I took him up on that. We walked down to the nearest Ecobici station, where I got to experience checking out a bicycle.
To check out, you tap your annual membership card at the kiosk, which is supposed to tell you which bicycle to pull off the rack. The first time I checked out a bike an operating system error message covered up the message telling me which bicycle to take. At first I thought my tap had not registered, but a second tap told me that I already had a bicycle checked out, so I was left to hunt for the waiting bicycle and hope no one else beat me to it. A tiny green light that is nearly impossible to see in broad daylight indicates that the bike is ready to check out. I went down the line from the kiosk, looking for a small blinking green light on the rack. When I found it, I quickly pulled the bicycle off the rack. Good thing I had a partner to grab the bicycle, though, as I was standing on the wrong side of the rack. The system is just a rail and the bikes latch into it, much like the Decobike system in Miami Beach. The Ecobici kiosk just to the right outside the picture above faces the opposite side of the rail from where the bikes are, which is not the most user friendly set up. After my friend held onto the bicycle, I clambered over the rail in my dress pants to get to the bicycle. I ended up doing this same maneuver twice because this was not the only station with this design flaw.
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Transit Miami attended this year’s Walk 21 conference, combined with EMBARQ’s International Walking and Livable Communities Conference, in Mexico City. This is the first of several posts sharing what we learned in the conference and experienced in the city, and any applications they might have for Miami.
During Tuesday’s keynote session, Jim Walker, President of Walk 21, shared London’s success story of preparing for a multimodal London Olympics. London set about accommodating people’s trips to and from the Olympics, not simply accommodating traffic. This approach incorporated transit, bike, pedestrian, and auto modes–but merely as choices in the main goal of getting to their destination. Rather than splitting planning efforts into approaches for one mode at a time, London’s planners and advocacy groups focused efforts on trips to be taken by Olympic athletes, workers, and spectators in addition to citizens of London going about their daily business. Through this process they effectively created an atmosphere where everyone felt comfortable using transit. “Games lanes” were created to reassure those who felt that the automobile was the only method that would get athletes and VIPs to their games on time, but it was reported in several sources that some athletes did feel comfortable using transit. It seems that London came close to their goal of no additional car trips due to the Olympics by accommodating so many on public transit, on foot, or on the bike.
I returned yesterday from a whirlwind weekend trip to Mexico City. My head is still buzzing, perhaps due to the overwhelming amount of smog, but more likely because the sheer amount of kinetic energy inherent to the world’s seventh largest city is still pulsing through my veins. I will post more complete and complementary thoughts over at Planetizen later this week. For now, I will keep this post as short as possible and transit-oriented.
In less than three days time my girlfriend and I were able to see a fair amount of the city, including Zocalo Square (one of the three largest in the world) in the Centro historico, the neighborhood extant of Roma, Condesa, Zona Rosa and Coyoacan, and the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which translates to ‘birthplace of the gods,’ by one account, or ‘place of those who have the road of the gods,’ by another. After walking the Avenue of the Dead at Teotihuacan, which stretches for two miles, one would feel like they were in the presence of gods if it were not for the hundred or so schlock-hawkers peddling everything from cheap rain sticks to fake bow and arrow sets. I digress.
Although we walked a good 6-7 miles each day, as that is always the best way to understand urbanism, the city;s breadth required us to intermittently relyheavily on the Subway, taxi service and a very comfortable bus that got us all the way out to Teotihuacan and back. Thus, all of our explorations would not have been possible if it were not for Mexico City’s robust, multi-layered transit system.
Let me take a step back. Mexico City is literally choking on automobile traffic. Many of its avenues and thoroughfares operate as auto-sewers broken only by the occasional monument. Such streets are incredibly wide and often have a street section comprised of wide sidewalks – three to four lanes in one direction – median – then three of four more lanes… in the same direction – wide sidewalks. Seriously, one must always look when crossing the streets. Think Biscayne Boulevard in front of American Airlines Arena as a one-way street. Hellacious.
Public transportation in Mexico City includes jitneys, buses, electrified bus lines, bus rapid transit lines, light rail and the 201km Metro subway system, which is set to expand another 24km by 2010. The subway in particular is thought of as the transit mode of choice for the middle to lower classes, which is probably because it costs only two pesos (20 cents) per ride! Nonetheless, one gets the sense that no matter how extensive the public transit, it will never keep up with the city’s ever-growing demand.
The Subway system is clean, highly efficient and very easy to use. We hopped on three blocks from our hotel and didn’t think twice about taking it to Chapultec, the city’s central park, south to the Coayacan neighborhood or all the way out to the city’s northern bus terminal for our trip to Teotihuacan.
Although I wonder how much subsidy the system receives, I also dream of the day American cities might democratize transit in such a dignified way.
A few nerdy facts about Mexico City’s Metro:
- It began operation in 1969
- It was the first system to be color coded and it features unique logos for every stop. This is because at the time of its construction so few Mexicans were able to read.
- In 2006 the system garnered 1.417 billion passengers
- It is the cheapest metro system in the world
Now, what about bicycling you ask?! Unfortunately, Mexico city is not nearly as friendly to the two-wheeler as it is to the metro rider. Actually, it’s terrible. There are no bicycle racks to be found. Bicycles are generally not allowed on the Metro system and the traffic is so deadly that unless one is very experienced, bicycling anywhere but the quietest of streets would be utterly hair-raising. Sound familiar?
Despite its current ways, Mexico city is starting to push the bicycle as clean, fast and dignified mode of transport. In 2007, the local advocacy group Bicitekas and an international NGO, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, created a blueprint for bicycle infrastructure expansion. At present the government is making good on the plan, which will eventually add 300km of bicycle routes, paths, and lanes.
In addition, the government instituted “Muevete en Bici” every Sunday from 8am-2pm. This weekly event, similar to Bogota’s Ciclovia, bans traffic on some of the city’s major avenues and connects residents and visitors to the city’s most vibrant public parks and squares. What is more, on the last Sunday of every month the city expands and renames the “Muevete” to the “Cicloton Familiar,” which closes 32km of the city’s streets and features hundreds of loaned bicycles, hydration stations and doctors to deal with any physical-related injuries.
As we left out hotel room on Sunday morning we witnessed just how successful this program has become. Hundreds of bicylists, walkers, joggers, and skaters were out enjoying their city. It was a beautiful site, one that would give anyone hope that the city of cars is changing its way. It made me salivate for my own bicycle.
If all goes well, Miami may soon be experience its own bicycle awakening. As for the transit, just hope our commissioners don’t hike the fares.
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