Cycles of change

2014-07-08 12:00

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Sunday morning in Mexico City is bike time. Its main street, the Paseo de la Reforma, is taken over by ­hundreds of cyclists just taking in the splendour of their newborn green city.

Between 9am and 2pm on a Sunday, cars have no business on the Reforma; only joggers and the peloton of cyclists make their way around the famous street.

Paseo de la Reforma, or simply the Reforma, was designed by Ferdinand von Rosenzweig in the 60s and modelled after the great boulevards of Europe, such as the Ringstrasse in Vienna and the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

The street is gifted with monuments that celebrate Mexican ­history, including The Angel of Independence and Mexico’s tallest building, The Torre Mayor. Biking the street from top to bottom is definitely the best way to experience the new clean, green Mexico.

In between the grand monuments, tents with free Zumba ­exercise sessions start to rise from 6am and by 9am are filled with people hopping about. Stalls selling food, drinks and interesting crafts line the green gardens of the pretty street. Dogs and their owners are everywhere.

Tourists flock to biking stations where they simply hand in their passports and receive a bike in return. The day is theirs to soak up the culture of the Reforma.

“We do this every Sunday,” says Antonio Ramirez, a father of three. “Since they decided to close the Reforma on a Sunday, ­everyone comes here to exercise and relax. It’s fantastic.”

Environmental disaster

The Sunday cycling has become quite a new tradition in the city. But seven years ago, finding a Mexican on a bike was not that ­common. There were no cycling lanes and the innovative bike­ sharing scheme was pie in the sky.

In fact, 10 years ago, most citizens will tell you that Mexico City was on the brink of an environmental disaster.

“A decade ago the air was dirty,” says Zumba fanatic Maria Flores. “The city was dirty. It felt grimy. When I grew up in the 90s, you had to wear masks on certain days because of all the smoke.”

In 1992 the UN named Mexico City “the most polluted city on the planet”, killing 1 000 people a year.

More than 21.2 million people call Greater Mexico City home, making it the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere and the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world.

And its citizens were suffocating in its thick smog. Then in 2007, Mexico City’s Plan Verde, or Green Plan, was launched. It remains one of the most radical greening plans and today Mexico City proudly calls itself green. Investing in a new rapid bus system was a given and expanding the metro was a no-brainer.

EcoBici

But it was getting the city’s people on to bikes that would turn Mexico City into one of the greenest places in the world.

It was the bike-sharing scheme EcoBici that created the real ­revolution. When the EcoBici Individual Transportation System launched in 2010, it was the first public-bicycle system installed in any megacity in the Americas.

Its network has since expanded and as of September last year stands at 276 stations with 4 000 bicycles. It has 100 000 users, who take up to 30 000 trips a day. Users have taken more than 11 million trips on EcoBici to date. The scheme has created a new urban culture.

Regular EcoBici user Ricardo Perez says he hardly uses his car any more. He converted to EcoBici about a year ago and uses it to cycle from his home in one of the nearby suburbs about 10km away to his office close to the Reforma.

“Cycling has changed our city. The culture has changed as well. People are more friendly, more tolerant. This is the new Mexico you are seeing.”

» EcoBici users can purchase a 400 peso (R328) card that will provide them with access to the bicycles for one year. Visitors to the city can purchase a seven-day card for 300 pesos, a three-day card for 180 pesos and a single-day card for 90 pesos. Use of a bicycle is free for the first 45 minutes. On Sundays, cycling on the Reforma is free if you hand in your passport

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