New Freeway Revolt Grips Guadalajara

Definitely No to the Freeway! (La Via Express)
Definitely No to the Freeway! (La Via Express)

While the world has gathered in Cancun, Mexico, to discuss again a shared approach to Climate Chaos, action is already being taken in countless communities. On a visit last week to Guadalajara, Mexico, more than a thousand miles west of the Climate Meeting, I had the pleasure of discovering a vibrant grassroots movement to block the construction of a new 23-kilometer elevated freeway through the heart of the city. Interestingly, this movement leans primarily on people who live along the proposed route of the freeway, but found crucial support and activism from Ciudad Para Todos (City For All), a three-year-old group of bicycle and transit activists who are Guadalajara’s most vocal opponents to the reign of the car.

This is the current situation along much of the line. Train tracks down the middle. High tension electric lines on the right, underground gas and oil pipelines under the left.
This is the current situation along much of the line. Train tracks down the middle. High tension electric lines on the right, underground gas and oil pipelines under the left.

Ciudad Para Todos gained Guadalajara's attention with a months-long campout in the green space at the far end of this road to protest a bridge.
Ciudad Para Todos gained Guadalajara's attention with a months-long campout in the green space at the far end of this road to protest a bridge.

I met Étienne von Bertrab and Negro Soto Morfín, two of the main Ciudad Para Todos activists, at the World Car-Free Cities Conference in Portland, Oregon in 2008 and later they invited me to speak to the 2nd annual Congress of Urban Cycling in Mexico held in Guadalajara in September 2009. We got together just after Thanksgiving and they filled us in on the new campaign.

In June 2010, just before they left for York, England for this year’s Car-Free Cities Conference, the Jalisco State Government published a video online describing the new freeway (La Via Express) plan. The Jalisco state government (which encompasses the city of Guadalajara) declared its intention to build a freeway on the same railroad line that a previous city government had proposed for a linear park and garden corridor with bicycle and pedestrian zones. The corridor conveniently cuts through the city and is used by laborers riding bicycles 20-30 kilometers a day between home and work.

Avenida Inglaterra is just above the red line crossing the image; it is currently a rail corridor with utility lines and limited open space on either side.
Avenida Inglaterra is just above the red line crossing the image; it is currently a rail corridor with utility lines and limited open space on either side.

Étienne and Negro brought the government video with them to England and showed it to the gathered planners and activists on the first day and made two guerrilla video responses. At first the Jalisco government protested to Youtube and demanded the videos be taken down on the grounds of copyright violation (they had garnered 12,000 views in just the first four days), but when that news broke, even more people went to see the videos. (Youtube did take down the videos for a while, but restored them after protests from Ciudad Para Todos.) All three are posted here, but this is the one primarily in English:

The guerrilla videos made by Ciudad Para Todos were circulating and galvanizing local opponents, but the neighbors had already begun organizing before they even saw the video. We met Dr. Alicia Jaik, an energetic former medical doctor, now running a small corner store along the proposed route. Her neighbor is a local politician and when he asked her what she thought of the proposal she announced her dismay. “What should we do?” asked the politician. “Get to work!” was her immediate response. Signs sprung up along the houses up and down the street.

One of the signs alongside the proposed route.
One of the signs alongside the proposed route.
This is posted on the sidewalk in front of Dr. Alicia's shop, indicating the places where neighbors have already begun the transformation.
This is posted on the sidewalk in front of Dr. Alicia's shop, indicating the places where neighbors have already begun the transformation.

A short time later Étienne was walking along the rail line with a local journalist and was thrilled when he saw the signs. With the journalist in tow, he knocked on Dr. Alicia’s door and after realizing they had much to discuss, he was invited to a meeting called a few days later. At the meeting Etienne and Negro and their colleagues presented their videos, their larger critique, and the plans that had been created by the previous municipal government for a linear park. They were met with great enthusiasm. “What can we do? When can we start? Can we do it this Saturday?” demanded the neighbors. Etienne and Negro hadn’t anticipated an action plan emerging so quickly, but they saw a good thing when it appeared. “Why not?”

That Saturday was the first gardening party, beginning with the removal of tons of accumulated trash. From that July meeting there has been a regular Saturday work party ever since. There are now over 400 new trees planted and at least eight different neighborhood associations involved. Neighbors have established new relationships with each other, and public feasts have become a regular feature of the Saturday work parties and other days. The independent Hotel del Bosque sits on an adjacent corner. They were at first cool to the activism, but became an enthusiastic participant, including their recent support of a mural painted by some local graffiti artists.

This mural was just painted in the past couple of weeks on a wall facing the corridor.
This mural was just painted in the past couple of weeks on a wall facing the corridor.

A university campus is adjacent too, and students have been eager participants as well. Painstaking work with local businesses has gained further support, many of them angered by the backroom dealing going on with big connected Mexican companies ICA, Cemex, and Grupo Mexico. A press conference of two local business associations was held on December 2 supporting demands for more transparency, public hearings, and technical evaluations of the freeway plans before anything begins. Meanwhile, the facts on the ground are getting better every weekend.

Neighbors have begun implanting a linear park on their own.
Neighbors have begun implanting a linear park on their own.
Homemade signs adorn the newly minted unauthorized park.
Homemade signs adorn the newly minted unauthorized park.
This lovely garden has obviously been growing for much longer than the rest of the efforts nearby.
This lovely garden has obviously been growing for much longer than the rest of the efforts nearby.
Neighbors and passersby already make use of the shady trees and park benches that locals have installed as part of their guerrilla park-making.
Neighbors and passersby already make use of the shady trees and park benches that locals have installed as part of their guerrilla park-making.
Picnicking and hanging out in the grassroots linear park.
Picnicking and hanging out in the grassroots linear park.

On September 22, 2010, World Carfree Day, our intrepid activists decided to install a monument in the middle of the contested terrain. They acquired a junked car, and turned it into a large flower pot, fixing it in place at one of the busiest intersections on Avenida Inglaterra. On the morning they were going to put it in place, the first arrival was pondering how to move massive concrete pieces into place when a man drove by on a big backhoe, most serendipitously! He quickly agreed to use his machine to move two big slabs of nearby concrete across the railroad tracks and even suggested a better placement for them. Voila! A new monument was installed, and we had fun visiting it last Tuesday. Here’s a few shots of it, followed by a video showing its installation, including the arrival of a Critical Mass-like procession by the GDL en Bici crowd.

The yellow sign above indicates this car was a public art installation for Carfree Day, 2010.
The yellow sign above indicates this car was a public art installation for Carfree Day, 2010.
Heavy cement was moved by a guy passing by serendipitously on a big backhoe!
Heavy cement was moved by a guy passing by serendipitously on a big backhoe!
Flowers Not Motors!
Flowers Not Motors!
This back seat is a rest stop for bike and ped commuters crossing a long way from one side of the city to the other.
This back seat is a rest stop for bike and ped commuters crossing a long way from one side of the city to the other.

The down-to-earth politics of this new Freeway Revolt in Mexico are a shining example to climate change activists everywhere. As Dr. Alicia put it to us, “Aqui, nadie es nadie, todos somos todos.” (Roughly translated as “Here, nobody’s a bigshot, we’re all in it together.”) She was emphasizing that they weren’t relying on the political parties or their representatives, to the contrary, they were disallowed in this campaign. Our friends in Ciudad Para Todos underlined the same point: The local diputado (elected representative in the state government) could participate as a citizen, but they wouldn’t support his offer to bring in work crews, equipment, and resources, whereby his political party would colonize the effort for their own ends. Dr. Alicia told us, “Before neighbors wouldn’t really talk to each other. Now we’re a community!” She’d been gardening across from her house for years, but now there are hundreds of neighbors doing the same up and down the rail line. The doctor is already scheming ways to deepen the new community’s life. She was planning to establish a free outdoor library near the benches that had already been built. “Take a book to read, leave one behind.”

Adriana and Dr. Alicia in the park.
Adriana and Dr. Alicia in the park.

A dead tree across from her small store had come back to life with several dozen fluttering hand-written “leaves.” One of our favorites said “Leave the closet and let’s be citizens all the time.” It’s just such a reinvigorated—and visionary—citizenship that is the foundation of the transition that we must make in the face of Climate Chaos, the Energy and Economic Crises, and the generally dissatisfying daily lives we lead in the second decade of the 21st century.

The dead tree with living "leaves."
The dead tree with living "leaves."
Leave the closet and let's be citizens all the time!
Leave the closet and let's be citizens all the time!

Thanks to Adriana Camarena, my compañera who fully participated in gathering this story, and without whom I wouldn’t have been able to write it!

  • Sue

    This is great. I lived in Guadalajara for a year plus in the early 1990s — and came away with a very bad case of smog-induced congestion and coughing. I lived on the outskirts of the city, hard to get back to if I was trying to stay out late at night because the buses stopped running at about 9:30 p.m. Had I had a bicycle, my life would have been much easier in some ways.

  • CBrinkman

    Chris – great article as always. I was in Guadalajara this past spring and rode the ViaRecreativa – is the group Guadalajara 20-20 involved in this freeway revolt? They were very focused on helping the ViaRec along, along with Gil Penalosa’s group 8-80 Cities. I know there is a detailed ped/bike plan in place in Guadalajara – this would seem a natural fit. I hope they are successful.

  • Great story! Best of luck to Ciudad Para Todos, Dr. Jaik and all the citizens of Guadalajara working to make their neighborhood(s) better, healthier, happier places to live.

  • Sid

    I was in Guadalajara last week, and was shocked to find that it was not possible to cross the road pictured at places unless one ran across the pedestrian crossings, as they’d omitted to install pedestrian traffic lights!!

  • Looking at encouraging developments in Portland, Hoboken, Bogotá, and now Guadalajara — and comparing them to the potential rollbacks of bike and ped progress here — makes NYC seem so provincial. The two weeks I just spent in Amsterdam just heighten the feeling.

  • Dave

    Adriana,

    I saw the same thing in Cuernavaca. The Morelos government is proposing an elevated freeway over a congested, very urban street in Cuernavaca that would destroy the neighborhood. Here are two pics of some protest signs and a sense of what the street looks like: http://bit.ly/eLLTce.

  • Leigh

    Clearly none of the people in the video regularly drive on Av. Lazaro Cardenas. It’s a parking lot anytime there’s any rain or a slight accident. I wasn’t clear on where all the extra cars are going to come from. I do agree the road will fill up with traffic, but it will also free up other severely congested arteries. The city is already divided and I can’t see how an elevated road could divide it more.

  • Wonderfully written. Thanks, Chris and Adriana, for your sensibility and support. CBrinkman: we work with Guadalajara2020 in many of the mobility initiatives and they were part of our recent press conference where also two business organisations participated. It has not been easy, but civil society is learning to work collaboratively, to understand and respect differences, and to embrace coincidences! Polititians and government officials seem to be mad, and deaf. But this has encouraged dialogue and a convergence into more radical apporoaches, leaving less to the polititians and taking chance in people´s hands.

  • Leigh, I suggest you research induced demand. Building a new road will do absolutely nothing for the existing traffic

  • I recently lived for three years just a few blocks from Av. Ingleterra. It was the route I drove every day from López Mateos to my home. The changes made by the neighbors are remarkable and wonderful. Keep the neighborhood for the people! Three cheers for Dra. Alicia and the Iniciativa Ciudadana! Codo a codo podemos vencer!

  • jim

    Great article-
    We live in Guadalajara and know the proposed freeway area well. One good friend has a business,and one aunt a home, which will all be destroyed by the freeway.

    It is nice to see people try to take a stand,but here in Guadalajara,as in most of Mexico public opnion counts for nothing. Everything has to do with development,greed,and money. These people are wasting their collective breaths and should simply plan to move on to another town.

    In the ten years we have lived here,our neighborhood of Chapalita has seen thousands of trees uprooted and numerous public areas and soccer fields destroyed,only to be covered with cement. One would hope that the Mexicans would learn by the US example,but such is not the case.

  • Shall we then leave not only the town, but the country, or even the world, which are all a mess in one way or another? I much prefer to do all I can to change things. Don’t worry about our collective breaths, Jim. It’s all based in personal and free decisions of an increasing number of people and collectives not only here but throughout the country and around the world.

  • tim modok

    Thanks for this Chris! Great to see this happening!