Alejandra López-Carbajal, Environment and Development MSc student at LSE, argues that her own Mexico City is living proof that cycling is key to creating more liveable cities and reducing urban transport emissions.
I always find it difficult to talk about climate change. I mean, the whole story about accumulating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere being the driver to rising temperatures and a bunch of non-desirable consequences all over the planet is hard to digest, distant to reality and… boring! What’s more, anti-climate change lobbyists have been very effective in spreading the word about it all being a hoax, so I often stumble upon people who simply don’t believe climate change even exists. Sigh.
That is why I won’t talk about climate change, but about how it is worth trying to help build a better world by doing things that are closer to everybody’s mind, for example, reducing traffic congestion and yes, at the same time, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which brings me precisely to what I do want to talk about next: urban mobility and local development.
If you live in Europe – and London, indeed – you would probably have in mind an image of a city in which there are public transportation systems that combine buses, Metro, light trains and trains, and where you can cycle or walk around to get from point A to point B.
Well, where I’m from, that is the ginormous and often chaotic Mexico City, there are lots of cars, something over 2.9 million cars, because, you know, having a car is cool, is necessary, is fundamental for social status, is a must. People want to have cars. If you are young, you ought to have a car as soon as you get a driver’s permit (16 years old), as soon as you or your parents are able to buy one. And if you are not so young, you need a car to get around because you have always had one, because that is how you have to move around the city.
Cars are good business and Mexico City was designed for cars, pretty much as many other cities in Mexico and as in many other countries outside Europe. Public and private infrastructure and financing for transportation go primarily towards car users. Better and improved car infrastructure means, in the end, more cars. It really doesn’t matter that people spend hours and hours sitting in their beautiful cars to commute – commuting by car in Mexico City can take up to 4 hours every day, seriously, 4 hours! It doesn’t matter either that air quality is regularly bad or that street noise is quite heavy. Car ownership is widespread and for millions and millions, it is desirable.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t other means of transportation. Mobilising 28 million people is hardly an easy task, and Mexico City’s extensive network of public transportation means includes 12 Metro lines, light trains, bus rapid transportation systems and buses… that are mainly used by low-income populations, meaning those who don’t have enough money to buy a car. Cycling? Again, for really poor people.
But wait, that last bit is now slightly changing. In trying to redefine the paradigm of urban mobility and enhancing the idea that it is people and not cars that have to be mobilised, infrastructure has recently started being developed for non-motorised transportation means, i.e. walking and cycling.
Mexico City’s local government realised a couple of decades ago that the extensive use of cars and resultant pollution had negative consequences on health. In response, regulation has been implemented in many forms, particularly for improving fuel quality and therefore eliminating toxic particles in the air. However, traffic jams are still a burden, resulting in a 15 km/h average speed of a car in the city, while public transportation runs at 14.6 km/h and bicycles at 16.4 km/h.
Wait, what? Bicycles are the fastest means of transportation? Well, for short trips that’s basically right. And because of that fact, in the last decade there have been serious attempts to make the bicycle a viable alternate solution for urban mobility. This has been done through a series of awareness-raising and sport activities, the establishment of cycle lanes, and a public bike-sharing system (like London’s Cycle Hire Scheme) in the city centre and its surroundings.
Moreover, these efforts are targeting a group of young middle class professionals, and individuals who know that cars are great and most probably have a car already, but who are also losing too many hours a day without traveling farther away. And guess what? It’s working! Since 2010, the public system of bike-sharing has gathered over 100,000 users and has now been used for almost 10 million trips that would otherwise have been made by a mode of transport releasing large quantities of greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions that, by accumulating in the atmosphere, are driving an increase in temperatures and many other climate-related catastrophes.
But let’s not talk about climate science or its dreadful projections for the decades to come. What really matters is that change is taking place. Several local governments, together with an increasing number of cycling constituencies around the world, are now promoting cycling. Not just across Mexico as a country, but also in many cities in Latin America, in the US, in different countries in Asia. Even in China – where bicycle ownership dropped in 35% in 1995, giving way to a massive increase in car ownership from 4.2 to 8.9 million – even there, cycling is recharging batteries and gaining ground as a feasible transportation means.
Moreover, cycling is not something that depends on governments or private investors to make it happen, it is about behavioural change, it is you and me, and your friends and your family. Everyone can make a change by pedalling, cycling wherever you want to go and whenever you want to instead of using a car. And using a bicycle is actually nice: it reminds you of your childhood, is good for your health, it gives you freedom of movement and is a great example of local and individual climate action.