“Poor Mexico. So far from God, so close to the United States,” declared Mexican President Porfirio Diaz in the late nineteenth century. His words passed into history, summing up the interdependent relationship of these two powerful countries.
Today, as well as losing massive territories from California to Texas, modern Mexico is still overshadowed by its northern neighbour. For decades nearly all major Mexican cities have followed the failed US model of urban development: sprawling car-dependent cities with urban centres fractured by highways and overpasses. Besides destroying quality of life and human interaction in historic districts, this model is incredibly devastating precisely because it is self-perpetuating: more cars call for more highways; more insecurity in the centre causes more people to flee to the outskirts.
Yet there are some sparks of urban innovation changing the status quo in unexpected places. The megalopolis of Mexico City recently introduced Metrobus line 4 through the narrow streets of its historic centre, breaking the myth that bus rapid transit (BRT) systems only work on major roads.
Moreover, in a city where two new cars arrive for every baby born, the EcoBici public transit system has broken the city’s resistance to bicycles in one fell swoop. Since its launch, this comprehensive bicycle mobility strategy has won over men in ties, women in high heels, even the elderly, and is now a common two-wheeled sight on the country’s most famous avenue: El Paseo de la Reforma. “At first everyone thought they were crazy”, says strategy manager Ivan de la Lanza, and that no-one would dare ride a bicycle in this chaotic city. But now there are 50,000 users making 18,000 daily trips, with a planned expansion to cover five times as many users.
I found another valuable example in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second city and the capital of Jalisco – the land of tequila. Unfortunately, a number of politicians have for years made their names by expanding roads. Worse still, some have torpedoed valuable projects (such as the planned line 2 for Macrobús BRT) just for political expediency.
Although Guadalajara remains the most motorized city in Latin America, its citizens’ movement is remarkable and tireless. By creating the Metropolitan Platform for Sustainability, they have managed to overcome the greatest obstacle to citizen action: the egos of leaders in various citizen groups.
Moreover, relying on their creativity they have also managed to reverse disastrous projects like the Via Express Guadalajara (an elevated urban expressway), while establishing what some of us in urban sustainability call ‘a strong collective intelligence’, that politicians cannot ignore.
A raft of projects – GDL en Bici, Ciudad para Todos, Cuadra Urb, CEJ, Cita, LTU, etc. – has shown Latin Americans that we can heal the urban diseases of our region: indifference and individualism. One activist reminds me: “It doesn’t matter who ends up being elected, eventually their time is up. We, the citizens, are the only ones who will always be there, pressing for change”.
by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 11 February 2013. Images: Flickr / C.V.Vegas / A.Portales / T.Bao. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.