Citibike and Ecobici: Bike sharing from Manhattan to Mexico City

Imagine if Fifth Avenue closed down every Sunday morning and afternoon to let bike riders and pedestrians roam free?

It might look something like Mexico City’s grand avenue Paseo de la Reforma. For the last several years, the city’s main artery shut down every Sunday and federal holiday to encourage residents to exercise and stroll without fear of traffic.

Reforma on Sunday
Reforma on Sunday

It was there where I took my first ride in 2010 on Mexico City’s innovative EcoBici system, a bikeshare following in the pioneering steps of Bicing in Barcelona and Velib en Paris.

Many Mexico City observers back in 2010 had similar criticisms to those lambasting Citibike today (although there was no media outlet that launched a bizarre anti-bikeshare crusade a-la-New York Observer). Certainly, anyone with any experience in Mexico City knows the city isn’t the most hospitable place to drivers, much less pedestrians or cyclists.

To the Zócalo
To the Zócalo

But I drummed up the courage to be one of the system’s inaugural members, and was an avid user of the system for almost a year, when my grant finished in Mexico City. Through the year, I answered countless questions from standers-by, curious at these new docking stations and the somewhat-byzantine process of signing up for a card (no key for this system). At the same time, ridership grew steadily and the bikes became a more prominent feature of the city’s landscape.

Now with biking directions

Even main avenues have preferential lanes now
Even main avenues have preferential lanes now
Roma street scene
Roma street scene

Every time I have returned to Mexico City, there are more and more people on the bikes and more and more stations in use. Grandfathers ride with their teenage grandchildren, yuppies ride to work, artists cart their wares from space to space, and even the occasional gringo like me speeds by.

After Citibike launched in New York several months ago, I gave some thought to the pros and cons of each system. I think there are a few important criticisms of New York’s new program worth mentioning in light of what has been an incredible urban planning success in Mexico City.

Here’s a quick comparative look at the two systems, wholly unscientific and based on some stats and mostly my observations:

Every system has its advantages and flaws but it seems like New York’s are a bit more technically severe than those in Mexico City. This isn’t the most important factor in a bike share program, of course, but it does affect users’ satisfaction with the system and willingness to take more frequent rides. Changing culture takes a longer time, however, and it remains to be seen if grouchy New York drivers warm up to the idea of thousands of amateur cyclists among their ranks. It also remains to be seen if pedestrians begin to have any sympathy for their two-wheeled friends.

But Mexico City is an inspiring tale, reminding bikers across New York and the world that with a little public planning and investment, even the most chaotic cities can be tamed and humanized by more bike traffic. It also shows how changing attitudes and cultures is as important a task as making sure the bike stations are installed and functioning. I’m afraid New York still has a long way to go on both fronts.

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