In Mexico City, bicycles signal new green agenda


The first Monday of each month, several thousand Mexico City officials bike to work, braving the capital’s infamous traffic and swerving, smog-belching minibuses.

The bureaucrats are taking their cue from Marcelo Ebrard, the city’s environmental-minded mayor. Since taking office in December 2006, Ebrard has been on a mission to get “chilangos,” as the capital’s 8.7 million residents are known, to trade their polluting vehicles for bicycles.

“If we don’t take the lead, we won’t have authority,” says Ebrard, who rides four miles (6 km) to his office in the city’s historic center in a suit. “Because if I say, ‘You go by bike and I’ll go in my car,’ it won’t work.”

The goal is to boost the share of residents who bike to work to 5%, or 435,000, from the current 1.2%, or 104,000. To that end, the city next month plans to inaugurate the first 17 miles (28 kms) of what it hopes will be 286 miles (460 kms) in new bike routes—a goal that, if achieved, would mark a nearly eight-fold increase in the distance covered by the capital’s bike lanes. Meanwhile, the city is testing out the first of dozens of planned bike-rental stations, akin to those in use in Europe.

The cycling campaign is the most visible piece of Ebrard’s ambitious Green Plan, a 15-year strategy that seeks to transform this smog-choked megalopolis into the most environmentally sustainable city in Latin America.

With an annual budget of US$600 million, the program, unveiled in August 2007, coordinates 19 different government agencies. They are charged with meeting hundreds of goals—from slashing greenhouse emissions to achieving 100% wastewater treatment by 2022.

The government has begun swapping 14,000 taxis and minibuses with cleaner models. It also is finalizing plans for a twelfth subway line, the first such expansion in two decades, and has finished the first rapid-transit bus route along 12 miles (20 km) of Avenida Insurgentes, reputed to be the longest urban avenue in the world. Work on another two bus routes—out of a total of 11 planned—is underway.

And in early July, a raft of new environmental measures took effect. They include: extending to Saturdays the one-day-per-week driving ban on older cars; barring cars with non-Mexico City plates from driving from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m.; and equipping police with remote smog-checking devices.

In addition, the city government has completed the first 2,000 square meters of green roofs on government buildings and started cleaning up the polluted Magdalena and Eslava rivers. “There has never been this interest, this priority given to the environment issue,” says Martha Delgado, a former environmental educator and city council member who now heads up the city’s environment secretariat. “It’s a very, very high priority for Marcelo Ebrard.”

More and more cars

It’s about time. The Mexico City metropolitan area, which includes the Federal District and hundreds of adjacent neighborhoods that sprawl for miles into Mexico State, is home to some 22 million people. They drive more than 4 million cars, a figure that is expected to hit 6.8 million by 2020. According to city statistics, some 4,000 residents die every year of smog-related deaths, and the average resident spends three hours a day in traffic, equivalent to eight years out of a 70-year lifespan.

Proponents say the Green Plan could improve this state of affairs by producing an unprecedented long-term, multi-agency approach to pollution control.

The city’s first environmental legislation dates back only to the early 1990s. At the time, city officials were primarily concerned with battling the capital’s infamous air pollution. Mexico City sits in a 7,000-foot-high (2,200-meter) valley rimmed by 13,000-foot (4,000-meter) volcanoes, which trap smog.

The capital also is plagued with water problems. Overexploitation of underground aquifers has caused areas of the city to sink by as much as 10 inches (25 cm) a year, harming drainage systems and exacerbating floods. And a third of the drinking water must be pumped thousands of feet over the mountains from two river basins 80 miles (130 kms) away.

The city government is targeting the water-supply issue on several fronts: repairing pipeline leaks that result in 30% of the supply being lost; raising water fees to deter waste; and drastically increasing the amount of wastewater that is treated and re-injected into the underground aquifers.

The Green Plan caught the eye of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, whose foundation has pledged US$200 million toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the capital. But many environmentalists question the mayor’s lofty ambitions. “I think the goal should be that things actually work, rather than promising to be No. 1,” says Bernardo Baranda, director general in Mexico for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which is advising the city government on public transportation. “It’s a process, and you can’t do it overnight.”

Key ingredient: politics

Baranda notes that many of the anti-smog measures rely on support from the federal government, which is controlled by a rival political party. For example, the Euro IV low-emissions technology slated for use in city buses requires low-sulfur diesel, which is not yet available from Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned oil monopoly. So city officials are negotiating with Pemex for permission to buy the fuel elsewhere.

At the same time, Ebrard must persuade officials in neighboring Mexico State to adopt similar plans, since they share the same air, water supply and transportation systems.

“Papering over the city with green roofs and building 10 metro bus lines doesn’t make you green,” says Tania Mijares, a pollution expert at the non-profit Mexican Center for Environmental Law (Cemda). “It’s more a political problem than a technological one.”

City officials acknowledge the challenges, particularly of ensuring that the plan outlasts Ebrard. But by involving the public in the planning process, they hope to give citizens a stake in the program´s success.

“The most important thing is that we now have a route marked out of where we need to go,” says Delgado. “It’s very ambitious and that’s how it has to be, because the lack of environmental ambition has led to the serious deterioration we’re facing today.”

- Marion Lloyd

Bernardo Baranda
Director General in Mexico
Institute for Transportation & Development Policy
Mexico City, Mexico
Tel: +(52 55) 3626-2963
Martha Delgado
Mexico City Environment Secretary
Mexico City, Mexico
Tel: +(52 55) 5345-8176
Marcelo Ebrard
Mexico City Mayor
Mexico City, Mexico
Tel: +(52 55) 5345-8000
Tania Mijares
Air and Energy Program
Mexican Center for Environmental Law (Cemda)
Mexico City, Mexico
Tel: +(52 55) 5286-3323
Fax: +(52 55) 5211-2593