Pedal Power Politics
By Bill Moore
There are about a half dozen of us seated at a cluster of three tables that have been pulled together in a small, out-of-the-way restaurant on the south-side of Mexico City. Its decor is simple, almost stereotypical "Mexican" cantina with bright tiles and heavy wood. It occupies the second story of a corner building; the first floor is a parking garage for patrons, one of whom appears to be regular customer and is seated at the end of the polished table, just two seats away.
Marti Batres appears to be in his mid-to-late 30s. His hair is black and his neatly trimmed beard is maybe a week old, if that. He seems young for a politician who can with a few cellular telephone calls rally a quarter of a million constituents into the streets of Mexico City. In fact, I am told that he may be in line to be the next mayor of the second largest city on the planet.
Bates and a close confidant, who is seated next to me, are reputed to have utilized their political muscle to get the government to subsidize corn prices in Mexico for the poor who depend on it as a basic food staple. Prices jumped 50 percent earlier this spring because of commodity speculation on the Chicago Board of Trade and the increasing demand in the United States for corn from which to make ethanol.
But the conversation today isn't about corn or even the electric car, which Batres had just test driven from city hall to the restaurant. Instead, I wanted to know about the mayor's bicycle edict, the results of which I had video taped earlier this morning, and clips of which I have assembled into a minute-long collage, set to the strains of Aaron Copeland's "El Salon Mexico" and performed by the Mexico City Symphony.
Batres has an open, amicable face and he responds to my questions without hestitation, though translation has to be through Victor Juarez G., who is shepherding Nissan Sentra/Tsuru electric car conversion project through the labyrinth of city bureaucracy. The Secretary explained that, in fact, the current mayor had inherited the nucleus of the bicycle commuting program from the previous administration that had funded the creation of some 80 km (50 miles) of bike paths, nearly all, like in the U.S.A., on abandoned railroad right away; and most of this is in the south part of the city, he added. The northern and eastern section of Mexico City are under-served with good paths and the current mayor plans to address that.
But first, Mayor Ebrard thought it important to lead by example, so three months ago he ordered his administrators and their employees to join him and start riding bicycles to work the first Monday of the month. Batres told me that employees, including himself, average 6 km one way to work by bicycle. And that morning in the Zocalo, Ebrard had announced that the city would begin implementing procedures to allow cycling commuters to put their bicycles on various city transit systems, similar to what is being done in Santa Cruz, California. This way, those who live further out have no excuse to not ride their bikes at least part of th way.
(I suspect that some of the riders I saw on the plaza actually drove their cars to a convenient parking spot or had a spouse drop them off and then rode in the rest of the way to work, since they appeared hardly rumpled by the ride.)
He pointed out that the National University of Mexico is also taking steps to encourage greater use of bicycles around campus including setting up a bicycle loan program and dedicated bike lanes and paths.
I asked him would an electric bicycle be permitted and he smiled and said, Si. Yes, it would be okay. Separately, Juarez G. explained to me that a flood of cheap Chinese electric bicycles several years ago have sullied the reputation of electric bikes in general, but that a second wave is beginning to re-enter the country, though he is uncertain of the quality.
My next question was about the city's Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT) called MetroBus, which took just 18-months to complete. This has been a huge success and the city plans a $600-700 million program to increase the one current line to ten. The two center lanes of the major six-lane thoroughfare running through the heart of the city is now dedicated to BRT and is separated from the four outside lanes by a system of round speed bumps. Transit stations are also located in the center lane, making it easier to passengers to get on and off the bus. The handful of MetroBuses I saw were all full. Now the next challenge is to convince the city to use hybrid-electric buses on the expansion, instead of the current fleet of articulated diesel buses.
Mexico City also has an extensive subway system and some 35,000 privately owned and operated Ruta transit buses that hold about 30 passengers. These too are candidates for conversion to electric and hybrid drive. There is also a 40-year-old electric bus system that is amazingly quiet.
Before we had to rush off -- without eating lunch -- to show the Sentra EV to the Mayor's senior advisor, I was able to ask Secretary Batres what has the most challenging part of his job and he replied that is was water. He explained that the southern fringes of Mexico City are begging for more water. He said that he's offered them jobs, electricity, better transit service, but they insist water is their most critical need.
Through Senor Juarez G., he stressed that all social issues are tied to the quality of the environment and that environmental rights are becoming increasingly important.
"It is impossible to have a good quality of life with pollution, water pollution, air pollution, soil pollution, and for Mexico City, water is the most critical issue."
At Juarez G's urging, I hastily collected my equipment, expressed my thanks and urged Batres and his colleagues to keep up the good work.
I really wish I could have had that lunch, though!
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