By Paula Escalada Medrano.
In Mexico City, where every day more than 4 million cars, vans and trucks clog the streets, such a simple everyday task as going to work can be hell on wheels, which is why the bicycle is coming into its own.
"There's no other choice, the city has reached its limit for assimilating vehicles. Any situation that will increase traffic is unsustainable and would definitely mean a collapse of our road system," the environmental chief for the Federal District, Martha Delgado, told Efe.
For that reason the capital government is expanding and promoting its program of two-wheeled urban transport known as Ecobici, and before the end of the year will triple the number of bicycles available to the public.
To use the bicycles parked at bicycle stations established by the capital government in different neighborhoods around the city, users must register with the Ecobici program and pay a fee of 400 pesos (some $30) a year.
Delgado is convinced that on many occasions and especially for short rides where traffic is heaviest, the bicycle gets people where they're going a lot faster than a car could.
Which explains why, two years ago and following the example of major European cities like Barcelona and Paris, a study was taken that found Mexico City endowed with "very favorable conditions" for introducing the bike as a system of public transport.
A flat surface and a privileged climate of between 15-25 C (59-77 F) throughout the year, as well as an extremely dense population in the downtown area - 6 million inhabitants - mean that Ecobici can be a true benefit for a vast number of people, she said.
In February 2011 a program with 75 bicycle stations was launched that was later increased to 90 supplied with 1,200 bicycles in the downtown area.
Today there are 42,000 registered users of the system, and it is calculated that some 9,000 Ecobici rides are taken every day.
"The city wasn't designed for it and that's why we've had to modify the structure a little," said Delgado, who noted that at some places where cyclists found it hard to get from one place to another, they had to build bike paths.
But in general, she said, the program's success has been such that an expansion is now underway and before 2012 ends there will be 275 bicycle stations, 4,000 bicycles and 73,000 users making 30,000 trips a day.
Despite these advances, many people still won't chance riding a bike to work for fear they might have an accident in a city where traffic rules are not always respected.
"Any change in a megacity like the Federal District implies a huge cultural challenge. The city has to assimilate bikes as an alternative means of transportation and we're working very hard at transforming people's road culture to accept them," she said.
She also said that the rate of Ecobici accidents is very low and there has never been even one that resulted in somebody being killed.
The use of bicycles in Mexico City is growing and recent times have seen a proliferation of bike shops, especially in areas that are trying to establish the system.
There are also bikers' clubs that organize Sunday and nighttime jaunts as well as courses in road safety, which can serve as a first approach to riding on two wheels for those who still haven't dared to try it.
Ernesto Corona is the coordinator of Bicitekas, a civil association that for 15 years has been promoting the use of bicycles and other alternative means of transport, while promoting public policies to make it happen.
"It's much easier for people today because of the groundwork that has been laid both by public policies and by groups of bikers," the coordinator, who noted that Bicitekas offers basic courses on how to pedal a bike around the city, told Efe.
In his opinion, the acceptance of bicycles has changed in recent years simply because more people have been riding them.
The biggest run-ins that bike riders have, he said, is precisely with taxis and public transport, which have a harder time understanding that streets are public spaces to be shared. EFE