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I had the opportunity to use Ecobici while in Mexico City for the Walk 21 conference. The system of over 1,000 bicycles has a waiting list for membership and no options for short term memberships, so it caters primarily to residents, not visitors. Thanks to the folks at CTS EMBARQ, conference goers were able to borrow passes for a day to use the system.
From everything I’ve heard and the large numbers of red bikes I saw riding around the city, the system is successful. It has about 9,000 daily riders and the membership was capped at 30,000 members before the recent expansions, with a waiting list of several thousands. The focus of this post is not the ridership or success of the system, but a review of the riding and usability of the system. Since Ecobici is operated by Clear Channel, many of the system characteristics are similar to other Clear Channel systems, such as Washington, D.C.’s old SmartBike system.
Before you question my sanity for riding in a city where drivers don’t even need to pass an exam to obtain a license, know that I had guidance from another conference goer from the U.S. who was living in Mexico, and comfortable enough cycling there to ride his folding bicycle from his hotel to the conference each day. (And hey, I ride in South Florida. People question my sanity all the time for doing that.) Roy Dudley, who works with advocacy group Pro Ciclismo Xalapa, offered to show me around the city by bicycle, so I took him up on that. We walked down to the nearest Ecobici station, where I got to experience checking out a bicycle.
To check out, you tap your annual membership card at the kiosk, which is supposed to tell you which bicycle to pull off the rack. The first time I checked out a bike an operating system error message covered up the message telling me which bicycle to take. At first I thought my tap had not registered, but a second tap told me that I already had a bicycle checked out, so I was left to hunt for the waiting bicycle and hope no one else beat me to it. A tiny green light that is nearly impossible to see in broad daylight indicates that the bike is ready to check out. I went down the line from the kiosk, looking for a small blinking green light on the rack. When I found it, I quickly pulled the bicycle off the rack. Good thing I had a partner to grab the bicycle, though, as I was standing on the wrong side of the rack. The system is just a rail and the bikes latch into it, much like the Decobike system in Miami Beach. The Ecobici kiosk just to the right outside the picture above faces the opposite side of the rail from where the bikes are, which is not the most user friendly set up. After my friend held onto the bicycle, I clambered over the rail in my dress pants to get to the bicycle. I ended up doing this same maneuver twice because this was not the only station with this design flaw.
The bicycle itself is a little smaller than the systems we are familiar with here, with about 20″ tires, similar to what you would find on a folding bike. This is the same basic design used by other Clear Channel systems, and presumably it allows for a lower minimum seat height than systems with full size bicycles. Much like B-Cycle’s ride, the EcoBici has three speeds to accommodate a variety of terrain. The bike doesn’t have the typical basket with 4 sides, but just a small “u” shaped rack in front and a bungee cord. At first I didn’t notice the bungee cord so I carried my bag on my shoulder. When that and my sports jacket became too warm, I discovered it cradled quite well in the rack, and with the bungee cord slipped over some hooks it held securely. In theory, this sort of open cargo carrier could hold much larger or awkward shaped loads, subject only to the rider’s handling skills. I didn’t have any skateboards or hockey sticks to test that out, though.
A quick seat height adjustment and we were ready to ride in the chaotic historic district of Mexico City. While this was my first time in Mexico City, I had heard the stories of the lawless drivers who blatantly run red lights, the criminals who will kidnap you if you stop to wait for a red light or get stuck in traffic, and so on. When I spent a summer studying abroad in Monterrey, Mexico, I decided against taking the bicycle since the drivers in that country are generally awful and tend to ignore pedestrians. (Sound like any drivers we know? We’ll come back to that.) The point here is that picking up a bicycle and riding in Mexico City is not like doing it in Copenhagen or Amsterdam. You have to be aware of what you’re getting into.
With the help of my guide and an open mind I tackled this fear. Instead of focusing on arbitrary traffic laws and guide signs, the proper way of riding in that traffic is to go with the flow. That doesn’t necessarily mean going the direction of traffic, as my guide and I rode on the left side of some roads where there was no oncoming traffic, but it means paying attention to what the motor vehicles are doing and moving in and around them in some kind of car-bicycle salsa dance. To me, it felt more like a thrill ride at a theme park or playing real life Frogger. But I used my finely honed reflexes and came out feeling exhilarated.
In this country I’m a law abiding bicyclist, and I expect the same from motorists. I get particularly upset when they invade the invisible 3 foot bubble around my bicycle. In Mexico, I found myself having to give a little more on my personal bicycle space. At a stop light a motorist rolled over the edge of my shoe with the edge of his tire. Here I would have been tempted to kick his door, or at least to call the police. There I just put my foot back on the pedal and took advantage of a gap in cross traffic to run the red light. Unlike here, where I expect a modicum of civility and expect others on the road to follow laws–in Mexico you just ride in the manner necessary to get where you are going without dying. When every one else treats the red light as a stop or yield sign, then it makes sense to follow the example.
There were few dedicated bicycle facilities, but bus rapid transit streets (like the one in the picture) and pedestrian streets all made for good impromptu bicycle boulevards. If a bus approached from behind or stopped in front, the opposing lane was generally clear to switch over to. Technically these were bus only streets so cyclists may not have been allowed there just like cars were prohibited–but that didn’t seem to deter a lot of drivers, either.
There was at least one separated cycle track we rode on (pictured to the right), and some major roads in other parts of the city that had bike lanes. For the most part the narrower streets didn’t need them as badly, as we kept up with traffic, passing the queues at the intersections.
Checking in should be the most uneventful part of the experience, just dock the bike and walk away. The first challenge, though, was the lack of guidance to help users find the stations. I had a map, but I still had to actually navigate an unfamiliar city and figure out where I was. To be fair, Ecobici has a smartphone app–but as I was not interested in exorbitant international data fees, I was representing the non-smartphone toting user. The station locations are close enough together that you don’t need to travel too far to get to one, however.
At the station, I found a working empty slot (the first empty slot had something blocking the docking mechanism), then proceeded to put the bicycle in. As you can see in the picture, the bicycle has two pegs coming out of the rack that insert into the dock. Due to the small size tires, you have to pick the bicycle up off the ground and kind of hook it into the docking rail. The first time I tried that, it didn’t dock. Turns out the docking pegs also have a spinning feature where they can rotate 90 degrees away from the direction you need them to be. This just smacks of poor design, turning what should be a simple push and a satisfying click into a process that felt more like trying to bait a fishhook.
Ecobici is a successful system, and one would expect it will help point Mexico City in a more bike friendly direction just by sheer presence. The design and the features of the bicycle and system pale in comparison to well thought out systems like B-Cycle, however. As Apple has shown us in the computer industry, sticking with a well designed product is the smarter move for long term domination. Once customers become savvy enough to realize their options, they will gravitate towards the better product. As long as a bike share system is the only one in the region, customers don’t really have a choice. But here we already have two separate systems, and we have the possibility of a third system being installed as the City of Miami works out the details of their bike sharing program, planned to present to the city commission in December. Even though indications point to this being DecoBike, what happens in a few years if Decobike makes it to Golden Beach and B-Cycle to Hallandale Beach? If anyone will have an opportunity to choose which bike sharing system to use, we may well be among the first. As such, I wouldn’t recommend Ecobici or a Clear Channel type system as one of those choices.
I bike in Miami. Turns out biking in Mexico City is not that different, once you let go of your expectations. Our expectations in this country are that drivers follow the law and behave courteously. At least our dreams and hopes are that they do. The reality is that they do not. The reality in Mexico City is much the same, but I went into the ride with full expectations that the drivers were maniacs in steel cages ready to plow you over the first opportunity they had. As such, I stayed out of plowing range, and the lopsided bike-car salsa dance came to a close with the large metal partner only stepping on my foot once. Somewhere in the middle of the rhythmic chaos that is Mexico City I had an epiphany. If people drive like this at home, then migrate to Miami and begin driving there, the driving culture of Miami begins to look like another Latin American city. This sheds a lot of light on why Miami is a city of such horrible drivers.
The revelation leads us to a question. Do we embrace the chaos and pretend we’re out for a thrill ride every time? Or do we crack down on ignorant drivers who think they can get away with ignoring all the traffic laws here? That is a decision for the community at large, from the government leaders to the citizens on bicycles and in cars. We can have a city like Mexico City that functions in a chaotic rhythm, or we can have an orderly city where our large population of tourists feel safe hopping on a bicycle and just riding. What will it be, Miami?