Ecobici, Equity in Mobility?
By Tina Ziegler, on 25 January 2011
Post written by: Susana Arellano, DPU alumna 2009
Mexico City has long been known for the environmental crisis that is undergoing. Part of the proposed solution is Plan Verde, a 15 year strategy that the local government along with NGO´s and the private sector has launched to tackle issues in areas such as water and solid waste management, climate change and mobility. This last one includes improvements on the subway system, new bus routes and the introduction of the bicycle as a feasible way of transport in a culture where the car has long been privileged by city planners. New bike lanes and education programs certainly called for attention at a local level, but Ecobici made it to the headlines worldwide as the first bike-sharing program in Latin America. A year from its launch it raises questions on its future existence and its success as a program that claimed an opportunity for equity.
On February 2010, the public-private partnership between the Ministry of Environment (Secretaria del Medio Ambiente) and Clear Channel implemented Ecobici. An investment of 75 million pesos (£3.8 M) from the government along with publicity spaces for the enterprise, resulted in 85 stations and 1,114 bicycles. The bike-sharing program is similar to those currently working in other countries such as Italy, France and Spain. An annual fee of 300 pesos (£15.5) gives the users an unlimited number of 45 min rides along the four benefited neighborhoods: Condesa, Hipódromo Condesa, Juárez, Cuauhtémoc and Roma Norte. For those who know Mexico City the appointment of such area immediately leads to one of the following reactions: either it seems the most obvious selection, as it did to most of the middle/high class, or, as activists and NGO´s expressed, it is once more a clear example of the iniquity that prevails on most urban plans. The government explained that its intend was to reach the population that commutes to work and facilitate their journey after the bus or subway. It is certain that these neighborhoods, recently gentrified, have a high density of retail and commercial area; however, it is inevitable to notice that the dwellers are mostly those with high acquisitive power. Surveys demonstrate that other areas in the city register similar or higher commute rates, such as the boroughs of Tlahuac, Iztapalapa or Xochimilco where the majority of the population is from low income backgrounds. So why this specific region?
Ecobici at first glance seems the kind of project countries of the global south are striving on in order to become world class cities. The beneficiaries of the program are those located within the most visible areas of the city to middle/high income classes, tourists and to the rest of a globalizing world. The implementation of a project which has been successful in developed countries is perceived as a definite way of moving forward. However, the models cannot be replicated, especially in a context with such high inequality levels and where opportunities seem unreachable for the majority of the population. Ecobici, with few variations from its counterparts in Europe, required a demographic that could also resemble a lifestyle closer to the one from the global north. Most of the people who reside in the area fit in the profile. They are credit card holders, which was required to become a member, and had already started to embrace a culture of bicycle mobility. It was almost a won bet. Thus, it is natural to question if this large investment from public funds, which seems only for the most privileged, is capable of being part of a larger transformation towards equity in mobility.
I believe Ecobici is able to offer more to those in Mexico City. The decision of starting the program in that specific area may have seemed unjust, but it is also unfair to stereotype it as a bourgeois project and not acknowledge its potential. The location was the opportunity to have a successful precedent, therefore allowing it to move forward. By reaching approximately 22,000 users instead of the 24,000 predicted, its success on the last year has pushed it to already expand into the historic downtown district. Ecobici could be the opportunity to have a public transport project that grants freedom of mobility to those with little possibilities otherwise. Public transportation, as Diana Daste mentions on a previous post, can go beyond inclusion from a liberal perspective and into social development. Ecobici could bring closer work, education and recreational opportunities, while at the same time improve the health of a growing Mexican obese population. A government official after the launch of the program declared that cycling generates citizenship, as it claims equity of rights between those in motorized vehicles and the cyclers. Therefore, why not use Ecobici as a program that recognizes as citizens those who have been long neglected.
Change and more possibilities are underway. The extension predicted for 2012 will be 180 stations that could start to reach Buenavista and Tlateloco, areas recognized for their cultural wealth, mix income populations and tradition on social movements. The procedures to become a member have been adapted so users no longer have to be credit card holders, but can make use of the service by presenting their phone bills. Free education programs such as “Bici-Entérate” (“Bike-Inform”) continue to grow and to attract more people eager to use the bicycle as their main transport. Traffic regulations have been modified to recognize the cyclists as citizens with rights and responsibilities. It seems Ecobici can become a program for Mexico City instead of a copycat. Great potential can be appreciated and in the near future decisions on where and whom to reach will be key. Its permanence as part of a healthier Mexico City will depend on the embracement from the population of cycling as alternative for mobility. As well as, on the outcome of the current struggle from the government to achieve a sustainable program and from NGO´s and community groups to have it become public policy. What Ecobici has accomplished today is not enough, but hopefully it is just the start towards the bicycle as a tool for equity in Mexico City.