It’s easy to understand early doubts about Ecobici, Mexico City’s bike-sharing system.

When the service launched in February 2010, it immediately became Latin America’s largest public bike-share, permitting members to borrow communal bikes after paying an initial fee. This was still a fresh transportation form in the region. Furthermore, the capital possessed little historic bike culture and among the world’s worst traffic. And that’s ignoring bike-sharing’s traditional problems: theft and vandalism. (In Paris, some shared bikes ended up in the Seine River.)

But ask now, and those initial fears about Ecobici are mere memories.  

There are 27,000 active users. Three thousand other people are on a waiting list because the system has reached capacity, according to the city’s Secretariat of the Environment. The users have registered some 1.9 million trips since Ecobici began.

“It has proven that the bike is a very practical and gentle way of moving around the city,” says Areli Carreon, one of the founders of Bicitekas, a Mexico City cycling civic organization. “The bike is something that is a trend now. It’s fancy and fashionable.”

Ecobici has not only been undeniably popular, it has people wondering if the newest wave of bike-sharing could wash over the rest of Mexico and Latin America as it already has in parts of Western Europe, the United States, Canada and East Asia before.

“It’s always great to have local examples of projects like this,” said Dani Simons, director of communications and marketing for the New York-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), which has offered technical support and advice to Mexico City’s public biking coordinators. “A lot of cities do say, ‘We’re so different, we’re not Paris, we’re not Copenhagen.’ But if it’s a city that feels a little bit more like yours, it’s more believable that you could do it too.”

With cynicism about biking pervasive in Mexico City, Ecobici’s acceptance proved even more triumphant, says Maricarmen Mendoza y de la Llave, a spokesperson with the Federal District Secretariat of the Environment.

“It’s not just, ‘Oh, it was successful,’ it was much more important. And I think yes, that we can be an example for other cities – above all, Latin America – where the budgets are similar,” she says.
Ecobici members pay roughly $25 a year in exchange for an unlimited number of up-to-45-minute trips, picking up a bike at one computerized dock and returning it to any other. If members don’t return a bike within 24 hours, they are charged roughly $416.
Word has spread about Ecobici’s success and other cities are paying attention, says Dhyana Quintanar Solares, the former biking strategy coordinator under the city’s Secretariat of the Environment. She now works for ITDP’s Mexico office.

Quintanar Solares said her organization has had “informal conversations” with officials from Colima, Guadalajara, Mérida, Oaxaca and Monterrey.

“They want to know how much it costs, how fast they can implement it, and whether bikes get stolen,” said Quintanar Solares.

Of course, not every city will rush to relinquish funding. “These are expensive projects,” she says, “It’s not like buying trash cans to place in the city.”  Launching Ecobici last year cost roughly $6.25 million.

Nevertheless, cities tend to copy well-received programs, indicated Paul DeMaio, founder of MetroBike, LLC, a Washington D.C.-based bike-sharing consulting firm.  

“There’s rivalry,” he says. “There’s competition between cities and regions and this is what helps bike-sharing get around.”

Ecobici may be the biggest bike-share in Latin America, but it’s not the first. In fact, a private group founded a system in Guadalajara in 2008, and Mexico City possessed a much smaller, bike-share/rental system called Mejor en Bici, which launched in 2008. Bikes-shares have also launched in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and other locales, but always with fewer bikes than Ecobici.

Mexico City has already announced plans to dramatically increase the number of bikes and expand into new neighborhoods. Currently, there are 1,300 bikes in circulation, out of 90 stations. The 2012 expansion will broaden the system to 3,960 bikes and 275 stations. Up to 73,000 members will be accommodated. The city has also pledged to create more bike lanes.

Thus far, among the thousands of users, there have been only seven reported injuries and one robbery, according to the city’s Secretariat of the Environment.

It’s been a long road to Ecobici, says advocate Carreon. In 1998, she and six others founded Bicitekas and immediately began staging dramatic pro-biking protests in the city. Several times, they coordinated “Die ins,” in which participants would throw themselves on the streets, pretending to be dead to raise awareness about bike safety or wearing gas masks to protest traffic pollution.

“People were taking pictures of us and saying, ‘What are they doing?’” said Carreon, “And this was our strategy, saying, ‘We are here; we have the right to be here.’”

In 2007, the city established “Muévete en Bici,” a Sunday program which closes off certain streets to cars, allowing bikers, skaters and pedestrians to reign. When Ecobici arrived in 2010, it offered a new chance to test urban biking.

Inside the zone that contains Ecobici stations, biking increased by 45 percent between 2009 and 2010, according to an annual count by the city’s Secretariat of the Environment.

Ecobici helped “break the concept that you can’t use a bike in the city, because that’s the main problem,” says Alan Huber Suchowiecky, owner of People for Bikes, a recently-opened cycling shop in Mexico City.   

Huber Suchowiecky’s betting that cycling will grow. Ecobici might even generate some clients.

“It’s going to be the first experience. Then, they can try their own bike,” he says.

Ruth Samuelson is a freelance writer living in Mexico City. She can be reached at ruth.samuelson@gmail.com