EcoBici shared bikes are a popular way to get around in the central part of Mexico City.
Mexico City is staggeringly large: Its metropolitan area is the most populous in the western hemisphere and is home to over 21 million people. Moving this crowd of people around every day is no small task. Despite having an extensive and popular underground metro system (the second busiest on the continent, after New York City’s subway), crippling traffic congestion is an everyday fact of life for Mexiqueños. In its ongoing fight against traffic jams and air pollution, the city is not only expanding its rail system but also finding success with two alternative, cost-effective forms of transportation: bus rapid transit (BRT) and bike sharing, both of which are coming to Chicago soon. Thanks to ITDP and the Rockefeller Foundation, I had the opportunity to visit Mexico City and experience how these systems work.
The first line of the city’s bus rapid transit system, Metrobús, opened in 2005 on Avenida de los Insurgentes, a wide, mostly-straight artery not unlike Chicago’s own Western Avenue: It runs the length of the city from north to south, passing through varied neighborhoods and connecting to multiple rail transit stations. Before Metrobús, traffic along Insurgentes moved at a snail’s pace—an average of 12 km/h, or 7.5 mph—despite having three or four lanes in each direction. Residents and business owners feared removing one lane in each direction to create a dedicated Metrobús lane would only further slow traffic. Instead, replacing local buses with Metrobús actually improved the flow of traffic on Insurgentes, raising average speeds to 17 km/h, or 11 mph. This corroborates the findings of an MPC study, which indicated that dedicating a lane to BRT on a corridor such as Western Avenue could, at worst, slow traffic by only one mile per hour.
Of course, the primary goal of Metrobús was not simply to increase traffic speeds along Insurgentes, but to provide dramatically improved transit service for everyone. Travel times for Metrobús users are significantly shorter: Most journeys take about half as long as they did before, because the bus maintains an average speed of 30 km/h, or 19 mph. There’s never a long wait for a bus, either. During rush hours, multiple buses arrive each minute. They only pause briefly at stations while passengers board, because all of the buses’ three or four doors open at once, like a train. Passengers have already paid their fare by passing through a turnstile at the station entrance. The stations large, airy stations have platforms that match the level of the bus floors, allowing wheelchairs to simply roll right on.
In addition to benefitting transit riders and road users, Metrobús service has been a boon for business. Several restaurants and stores that I spoke with noted an increase in pedestrian traffic and business near Metrobús stations, even in places where there was already an underground metro station. The metro has a reputation among locals as being overcrowded, dark, and less safe than other forms of travel. Metrobús, on the other hand, is perceived as comfortable and safe, which has attracted new riders to transit—and new customers to businesses near stations.
Three bus rapid transit lines are already in the works in Chicago: a pilot project on Jeffrey Boulevard, an east-west corridor through the loop connecting Union Station to Navy Pier, and the Western/Ashland corridor. Jeffrey will be operating later this year, and the east-west corridor is in the design process. Given its wide streetscape, long length, and connections to existing CTA and Metra rail, the Western/Ashland corridor holds the greatest potential to be home-run BRT.
Another exciting development we can look forward to in Chicago is bike sharing. Mexico City’s system, EcoBici, debuted in 2010 in the trendy Condesa neighborhood. It was quickly expanded down the wide, skyscraper-lined Avenida de la Reforma to connect Condesa with the Zocalo (main square) and the historic center of the city. The system was instantly popular, not only in the morning and evening rush hours, but also at midday, when many office workers now elect to ride to lunch. For a short time, demand exceeded supply and there was a waiting list to become a member. EcoBici now has 90 stations and 1,200 bikes, plenty to meet the current demand from its 24,000 members (who take some 9,000 trips every day). It will soon expand to cover two more neighborhoods, with 275 total stations and nearly 4,000 bikes. When that expansion is completed later this year, EcoBici expects to serve 73,000 users and 27,500 trips every day.
EcoBici couldn’t be much easier to use: You walk up to a station, tap your card, grab a bike, and go. If you need to, you can adjust the seat height. The bikes are well-maintained and ride smoothly. They have bright LED lights on the front and back (powered by the rotation of the wheel), chain guards, wheel fenders, and three gears for easy acceleration and cruising. I never had a problem finding a nearby bike station, and there were always bikes to take and open slots to return them to. You can find the nearest bike station and check its availability on the web or with one of several mobile phone apps. Compact trucks shuttle the bikes around the city, evening out the supply of bikes, or carrying them to the shop for maintenance.
Part of the key to EcoBici’s success—and the growing popularity of bike commuting throughout Mexico City—is outreach and communications. The city government actively promotes bike commuting and recreational biking with their Muévete in Bici and Ciclotón programs, which shut down certain city streets to auto traffic (usually on Sundays) to allow people to become comfortable riding bikes. A city-supported urban cycling school, along with “bike to work” and “bike to school” programs, help change attitudes and teach people how to get around safely on bike. There is also a free, pocket-sized urban cyclist’s manual distributed by the city, with tips on everything from maintenance to how to ride safely and legally. The message seems to be getting through: I saw cyclists of all ages and skill levels plying the city’s congested streets. Although Avenida de la Reforma features protected bike lanes (and special signals for cyclists), dedicated bike lanes are relatively rare throughout the rest of the city. That doesn’t seem to be a deterrent to most, though. Bikes have integrated into the city’s traffic quite well, especially considering that there were almost no bikes on streets a few years ago.
Bus rapid transit and bike sharing are great additions to the list of transportation options in Mexico City, and I’m confident they’ll be popular when they arrive here in Chicago later this year.
Read more coverage from others who were on the same trip:
- Getting on the BRT bus: U.S. cities eye Mexico program that benefits workers, Kari Lydersen, In These Times
- How Mexico City fought and cajoled to reclaim streets for pedestrians, Noah Kazis, Streetsblog
- BRT imposes order on Mexico City steets, speeding and greening commutes, Noah Kazis, Streetsblog
- Rio + 20: What if transportation is an afterthought?, Diana Lind, Next American City
- Mexico City's bus rapid transit system (with video), Eddie Arruza and Ash-har Quraishi, WTTW Chicago Tonight
- Chicago explores bus rapid transit (with video, featuring interviews with CTA President Forrest Claypool and MPC Vice President Peter Skosey), Eddie Arruza, WTTW Chicago Tonight
- Bike sharing (with video), Ash-har Quraishi and Eddie Arruza, WTTW Chicago Tonight
- Get onboard: It's time to stop hating the bus (audio), NPR with Will Doig of Salon.com