A Cycling Congress in Mexico
Guadalajara, Mexico was host this month to the 2nd annual Congress of Cyclists in Mexico, a national gathering of bicyclist activists from around the country. I was invited to give a speech, which I somehow managed to do in Spanish (thanks to my media naranja for translating and coaching me!), detailing the history of cycling and Critical Mass in particular. I loved being at the Congress, meeting people from all over Mexico, a few old and new friends from the U.S., and one remarkable woman from Quito, Ecuador.
The city of Guadalajara is an ironic place for this conference. It is a
town overrun with SUVs, streets jammed with cars, 6-lane, one-way
boulevards, sprawling suburbs in five other municipalities making a
metro area of 6 million or so. In spite of its obvious car-centrism,
Guadalajara has a number of beautiful public plazas, several
pedestrian-only zones closed to cars, both in its downtown and in a
gentrified artsy-touristy neighborhood some distance from the city
center. They’ve even installed a real European-style bike lane (or
ciclovia as they’re generally known in Spanish) on one of its major
thoroughfares, with plans to extend a network of such lanes in several
The Congress opened with several short speeches, a perfunctory welcome from the distracted mayor of Guadalajara (he left as fast as he could after his talk), and a much lengthier speech from the minister of culture. His talk was more informative and sounded very good, full of "new urbanism" concepts, favoring public transit (there is already a BRT system in part of the city), bike lanes, public spaces, denser and taller urban planning, etc. He explained that the city government could not provide the impetus for this agenda indefinitely, and in fact, that time may have already passed (far short of achieving any meaningful transformation of the city’s transit priorities). He urged the audience, civil society in general, to take the lead and push for the changes it wants to see. An ecologist from the state of Jalisco, in which Guadalajara resides, spoke last and was quite adamant about how little had been achieved and how severe the impediments were.
In fact, this was a common lament among the folks here (a couple of friends I made at the Car-free Cities Conference in Portland last summer made the effort to get me down here). The city is not only not advancing a sustainable transportation agenda, they are impeding it. Even if they were sincere in their efforts (which was not considered credible among most of the Congress participants) the common problem in Mexico is official corruption, where monies dedicated to any public infrastructure are often siphoned off into private pockets.
That said, the Congress itself was a great experience. Delegates from around Mexico showed up, representing such towns as Monterrey, Puebla, Mexico City, Queretero, Aguas Calientes, Ensenada, Xalapa, Tijuana, Oaxaca, San Luis Potosi, and more. The CACITA folks from Oaxaca showed up in a biodiesel bus packed with a dozen amazing contraptions, all pedal-powered appliances and tools, and had fun demonstrating them during the Congress. Lots of women attended and participated in spirited panels and discussions. Generally the delegates were under 30, but there were a few of us older geezers too…
The gathering reminded me a lot of the old days in San Francisco, before the Bike Coalition had become so large and "official," when a strange amalgamation of personalities were pulling and pushing to build new organizations, to find ways to get the ears of local politicians and planners, and to finally make bicycling an everyday transportation option… and there were some of us–then and now–who wanted to see bicycling as a starting point for a much deeper transformation of everyday life. Here in Guadalajara, all these types were present, the organizers and control-freaks, the plain-old freaks and hippies, the efficiency-obsessed, the techies and tour organizers, the revolutionaries and velorutionaries, the bicycle merchants, and the hopeful, youthful, idealistic, naive, savvy, and inspiring individuals who were ready to be part of something bigger. To be sure, a bicycling movement is growing in Mexico. Bicitekas of Mexico City has been going for 10 years, but in the rest of the country, cycling activism is in its formative years. At the Congress the well-rehearsed arguments made their appearance of course: helmets or not? Bike paths or vehicular integration or bike boulevards? Are we accommodating everyone or commuters? Short trips, long trips, or both?… and so on…
Not everything was focused on the nuts-and-bolts of cycle activism. A poetic contribution came across the sea with Oscar Patsi, blogger at La Revolucion de las Mariposas. He’s a funny, unprepossessing guy, late 40s or so, speaking with a gravelly voice as he smoked his way through his presentation. He gives the bicycle credit for restoring his mental health and self-esteem after a darker period of his life. "I ride my bike and I know my city," he told us, and that he is the "finder" among his friends. When they want to have a bite, or procure an object, he knows exactly where it is because as a cyclist he has a much more developed sense of where things are.
He’s a big fan of the folding bicycle as quiet pollinator because when you show up with it, folks know how you arrived, so you don’t have to explain a thing… plus it makes you appear vulnerable and open. Anyone on a folding bike MUST be a good person! Also, with a folding bike you don’t need chains and a lock. "If you love your girlfriend, you don’t want to tie her up! So if you love your folding bike, you don’t want to chain her up either!"
He juxtaposed the bicyclists as butterflies vs. the autos as rhinos (with small brains, charging straight ahead, unable to see to the side and alter their course), but went further to describe a style of bicycle politics based on silence and demonstration. One suggestion of his for the many women in the audience is to stage a weekly Day of Pregnancy, putting pillows under their shirts and ride through the city, thereby getting drivers to be more aware and sensitive. Even men can get into the act by placing a small-child-like object, perhaps a doll, in a backpack and ride around that way–horrifying motorists along the way: "What is he doing??! Is he crazy carrying a child like that?!?" He advocated getting together with a few friends and making a rolling bicycle-based theater weekly! Put on some costumes and have at it… they used blue uniforms once and rode in formation and the way cleared around them as everyone thought they must be police!
He clearly enjoys the day-to-day flirtations bicycling makes possible, describing a process of circling around a beautiful woman walking down the street (doing a Veronica), keeping a respectful distance, but being able to slow down to her pace and strike up a conversation after one or two passes… ultimately bicycling is sexy, and Patsi has fun promoting it that way. He left us with a little poem:
No todos los bragas son principes
No todas las braguitas son princesas
Pero los culos mas hermosos todos van en bicicleta!
Not all briefs are princes
Not all panties are princesses
But the most beautiful asses are always on bicycles!
Guadalajara has a "Via Recre-Activa" every Sunday, closing 12 kilometers of major boulevards through the center of town from 8 to 2 for free open use (similarly Mexico City has a big Sunday bicycling scene). Guadalajara has also established a fleet of free public white bikes, or bicipublicas. By many measurements, the Mexicans are WAY ahead of San Francisco, from the dozens of public pedestrian streets and plazas that are heavily used, to the free public bikes and the Sunday street closures every week. (Partly it’s that Mexican culture has not been as thoroughly subsumed by the modern atomized life that prevails in the U.S., so it’s still part of the fabric of life to go out for walks, to enjoy shopping in pedestrian zones, etc.) That said, there’s a long way to go here, just as there is an even longer way to go in San Francisco.
One of the most inspiring examples I learned about at the Congress wasn’t in Mexico but in Quito, Ecuador. While riding in a boisterous Critical Mass through Guadalajara on Saturday night, I found myself next to Heleana Zambonino, an intense and dedicated activist making her first trip out of Ecuador. We started talking (she had very good English, thank goodness, since my ability to converse in Spanish remains terribly limited) and before long she started telling me about her work in Quito with a group called Ciclopolis. A quick summary: starting about six years ago, inspired by the idea of Critical Mass that they’d gotten wind of, they started a "Ciclo Paseo" every Sunday from 9 to 3 over 29 km, that is now drawing as many as 50,000 people to a ride! They have an email list in Quito of over 40,000 people! There are four different social-public rides EVERY week! They do bike games on sidewalks one day, a night ride once a week, and much more… Even more impressive is that they got 70 km of ciclovias put on city streets. The city installed the bike lanes on sidewalks at first, but after their group organized protests, they got the city to rip out what they’d done and do it all over again!! Amazing!
All this is to underscore how slow and unsatisfactory our progress here in San Francisco is. How can we be having 4 blocks of Valencia rebuilt without having proper Copenhagen-style bike lanes installed… after ALL THESE YEARS?? How many more times are we going to have to settle for tepid, unsafe, ill-maintained painted bike lanes in the car door zone? Leaving the U.S., even just across the border to Mexico, I’m reminded again of how little progress we’ve made, how car-centric we continue to be (against all common sense and planetary ecological concerns), and how much further along many parts of the world are, but almost entirely invisible to us!