POLITICS VERSUS TRADITION: MEXICAN BICYCLE TOWN FIGHTS FOR COUNTRY’S FIRST SLOW ZONE.
Guest writer on Copenhagenize, Giovanni Zayas, is a founding member of Cholula en Bici and a junior partner in an architecture consulting firm.
It all starts at around 12:45 PM. A stream of mostly female cyclists starts flowing erratically from several cross-streets, weaving through downtown of the Mexican town of San Andrés Cholula in all directions. They are rushing to pick their kids up from the several schools located in this area. Most of their bicycles feature improvised small wooden seats fixed to the upper part of the frame, right where their children can grasp the handlebar while being protected by their mothers’ arms. However, it is when they are riding with their children when they seem the most vulnerable. In the middle of rush hour, they have to brave impatient speeding cars, distracted pedestrians and the many other cyclists that share the main road. This reality will soon change if the urban cycling collective Cholula en Bici succeeds in implementing Mexico’s first official slow zone. The campaign called Cholula Zona 30 would reduce the speed limit to 30 km/h through a redesign of the streets in a 5 km-wide perimeter in the center of San Andrés Cholula.
Cholula, located in the central state of Puebla, Mexico, is a municipality made up by three towns: San Andrés, San Pedro and the smaller Santa Isabel. Together they are part of the metropolitan area of the state capital, the city of Puebla, the fourth largest in the country. Famous for being home to the pyramid with the world’s largest base and a church on top, Cholula is one of the oldest living cities in the continent. Cholollan, the náhuatl word that the current name derives from, translates to “water that falls in the escape place”. It is a clear reference to the city’s ages-old role of accommodating several cultures throughout its existence.
Curiously enough, the city stills seems to be a place people run away to, even 2,500 years after its foundation. Since the establishment of the Universidad de las Américas, Puebla in the 1970’s, the town has seen a huge influx of out-of-state Mexicans and foreigners, adding a cosmopolitan flair to an ancient, traditional town. The private university, with its well-off students, has also pumped a lot of cash into the local economy, spurring on small businesses, as well as franchises for big box multinationals.
The proliferation of cars in cities seems to be endemic to modern economic development. Even today, Cholula is still a pueblo bicicletero- bicycle town- a pejorative used to describe a place so underdeveloped that it is deprived from the paradigmatic symbol of status - the automobile - as a means of transportation. But in recent years, the flat streets of this town, located 2000 m above sea level, have seen a dramatic rise in traffic. It is not only the students that drive around town in their brand new wheels; locals have started to purchase their own cars with easy and cheap credit. There is still, however, a very solid base of natives and students that ride their bicycles to work or school. Whether it is the balloon vendor, the high-school kids with their green uniforms or the man selling raw milk in large metal jugs, Cholulans seem to bike anywhere and at all times.
“We used to feel safer,” claims a concerned mother named Dulce while her boy firmly grips the handlebar in order to maintain balance after his mom’s sudden stop. Dulce, like a vast majority of cyclists in the city, feels that both the 5 de Mayo and 14 Oriente streets are less safe after the San Andrés government dismantled the bike lanes during an urban overhaul of these main streets in September 2012. The lanes, which connected both streets perpendicularly, gave a sense of security despite the constant invasions by moving and parked cars and their deficient design (a meter-wide, two-way lane confined by flat,
turtle shell-shaped elements). San Andres’ mayor carried out the renovations mainly because he was eager to receive the Pueblo Mágico (Magic Town) distinction given by the Federal Tourism Ministry. The program grants federal resources to small towns so that they can exploit their tourism potential.
The original plans for the streets featured renovated city lighting as well as wider bike lanes and sidewalks to be built at the expense of a street section used only for free public parking. The neighbors allowed the widening of only one sidewalk but rejected the elimination of the public parking space, leaving no space for the bike lanes. They went as far as demonstrating outside city hall to ensure that the mayor wouldn’t try to reinstall the bike lanes.
The urban cycling collective Cholula en Bici demanded an official explanation through several letters and phone calls. The government, hoping to avoid any confrontation with the residents of 5 de Mayo and the cyclists, assured each party separately that their demands would be met. After months of waiting for the pledged construction works to begin on the streets, Cholula en Bici started the campaign #ydóndeestálaciclovía (#whereisthebikelane) which culminated in a rally on 5 de Mayo street (named for the day that marks the victorious battle between Mexico and France in the city of Puebla), a block away from the mayor’s office at the Zócalo (main square). The BICIRED (National Urban Cycling Network), the association that coordinates most of the country’s cycling groups, sent the city and state governments thousands of tweets demanding the restoration of the bicycle infrastructure. People signed petitions, voiced their demands with loudspeakers and finally formed a “human bike lane” by drawing with chalk and standing on the outline of the original lane. The conservative mayor, Miguel Huepa, sent his chief of staff to ask the protestors to meet with him before the event was over.
Cholula en Bici handed out 1,200 signed (plus 2,000 online) petitions demanding the construction of bike lanes that comply with the minimum design standards. After a two hour meeting between the collective and most of the city cabinet, the mayor approved the lanes as long as the 5 de Mayo neighbors agreed. The task was daunting, but the collective was determined to win this six month-long battle.
The following week, just as Cholula en Bici was set to begin addressing the residents, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), a prestigious nonprofit organization that advocates for more sustainable urban transport, contacted the cyclists and gave them another idea: a slow zone that would use the disputed parking spaces as one of several elements meant to reduce vehicle speed to 30 km/h while transferring street priority from cars to pedestrians and cyclists. After many debates, the collective’s executive committee decided to cease the demands for bike lanes and push for the
creation of the slow zone. Accordingly, the project was named Cholula Zona 30.
Cholula Zona 30 features urban elements that induce motorists to reduce their speed by forcing them to follow a zigzag trajectory: chicanes, outlined by flower planters, include benches and bicycle parking; “noses” at intersections reduce car’s turning radius; speed cushions, unlike the infamous, yet ubiquitous topes (bumpers), reduce speed without forcing the car to a full stop when it is not needed; and signs painted on the street floor and set on posts, remind all street users about speed limit for motorists and about cyclists’ priority.
ITDP proposed to advise Cholula en Bici on street design, and San Andrés Cholula’s local government would fund and execute the project. Government approval would be practically guaranteed since the proposal addressed the concerns of both the 5 de Mayo residents and the cyclists satisfied.
Despite the fact that Mayor Huepa became a chapulín (a “grasshopper,” or a politician that “jumps” from one government post to another) and decided to run for state congress, council member Jesús Romero welcomed the proposal as the interim mayor. During a joint news conference with Cholula en Bici and ITDP, Romero announced that he would instruct his cabinet to provide the collective with all the construction plans and maps so they could jointly design the proposal. The collective, somewhat blinded by the milestone they had just achieved, could not foresee the next chapter.
In Mexican bureaucracy, incompetence, right after corruption, might be the main obstacle to real progress. Even when the mayor appeared to have the political will, the Public Works Ministry never fully understood why the streets would be re-designed to “annoy” car drivers with obstacles for the sole sake of reducing their speed. By delaying, or failing to comply with due dates and meetings, the officials in charge with designing and developing the city’s infrastructure were showing their complete disregard for pedestrians’ and cyclists’ rights on the streets.
In an attempt to appease Cholula en Bici, they hired a contractor to paint the outlines of chicanes and noses, as well as the “30” and the “bicycle priority” signs. The contractor purchased non-traffic paint, failed to use the correct measurements and hand-drew the signs instead of using a template. In less than three days, all of the signs had been mostly washed away by rain and other environmental elements.
A non-profit, social initiative like Cholula Zona 30 was not immune to the political brouhaha so characteristic of Mexican politics. The Public Works Ministry challenged direct orders from the interim mayor, Jesús Romero, who, despite his political weakness, was still the head of the government until Miguel Huepa came back to office; he pledged to do so after the elections. However, Mr. Huepa won a seat in congress but broke his promise to finish his mandate as mayor. Andrés Cóyotl, a 27 year-old mid-level official was then appointed mayor, making him the third one in less than 5 months. Mr. Cóyotl will step down in February 2014, when conservative mayor-elect Leoncio Paisano is due
to take office.
Cholula en Bici recently announced it would cease pursuing the implementation of the slow zone with the current administration and affirmed it would restart its campaign in February with the new mayor of San Andres. Efforts with the following government may be more successful considering a more energetic administration with a brand new budget to dispose of.
Nevertheless, the collective’s members continue to promote the project through publications and conferences. After a presentation during the 6th National Urban Cycling Congress, collectives from several cities approached Cholula en Bici requesting advice on how to implement their own slow zones. Cholula en Bici also managed to get San Pedro’s young mayor-elect, José Juan Espinosa, to sign a commitment letter that includes the development of a comprehensive Bicycle Mobility Program, the creation of slow zones and a Sunday ciclovía and the pledge to never promote or apply a mandatory helmet policy. In an effort to remind the incoming mayors of San Pedro and San Andrés that slow zones will be a central demand by Cholula en Bici during their tenures, the collective displayed, on top of the pyramid (located in the border between both towns and
managed by both governments), a gigantic 36 square meter banner with the emblematic “30” sign that could be seen from most spots in the city during International Car-Free Day on September 22.
And so, Cholula, the town of absurd sidewalks and herds of wild street dogs, may have started a slow zone revolution in Mexico. It has beat the country’s bicycle capital, Mexico City, in doing so. Cholula may envy the capital’s hip, and very successful, bicycle share program, its far-from-ideal bike lanes and its massive Sunday ciclovía that runs through the Champs Elysees-inspired Reforma avenue and the city’s majestic Centro Histórico. But what Cholula lacks in bicycle infrastructure and policy, it makes up for in a population that has used, and still uses, the bicycle as its preferred means of transport.
The mammoth challenge that Cholula faces is to prevent its people from quitting their bicycles to start using cars. As stated in its organizational charter, Cholula en Bici will do everything in its power to stop such a phenomenon. And it is on the right track to achieve just that.
See more photos from the project in Choulula on Flickr in this set.