Mexico City's car-free Sundays have created a mindset of sustainable mobility that has perpetuated throughout the week. Photo by Carlos Alejandro Figeuroa/Flickr.

Mexico City’s car-free Sundays have created a culture of sustainable mobility that has spread well beyond the weekend. Photo by Carlos Alejandro Figueroa/Flickr.

This year marks the seventh anniversary of the “Muévete en bici” (Bike Move) program in Mexico City. Every Sunday for the past seven years, the city has closed many of its streets to cars, and opened them up to pedestrians ready to dance, to jog, to bike, and connect to their community in new ways. This phenomenon has rapidly grown to become the fifth largest car-free day in Latin America, with 4.2 million users and 48 kilometers (30 miles) of streets closed.

But this car-free day has gone beyond a Sunday morning pastime. Muévete en bici has radically altered the culture of the city, run by the Non-Motorized Mobility Strategy Office which has in turn created the ECOBICI bike-share program and dedicated bike lanes network. No one knows how far this sustainable mobility revolution will go, but now the world is watching Mexico City for best practices in promoting active transport.

A day for sustainable mobility emerges

In April 2007, Sundays in Mexico were irrevocably changed as 10 km (6 miles) were closed to cars along the crowded Paseo de la Reforma avenue. Over this year, 220,000 citizens would spend their Sundays relaxing along the avenue, and later, the car-free circuit of the Ciclotón. Over the years, the car-free day has expanded from activities such as biking and walking to salsa lessons, urban theater and music, healthcare and social services, political campaigns, specialized stores, and cycling mechanics, who set up their separate stalls to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Now in its seventh year, the Paseo de la Reforma and surrounding streets has seen its millionth visitor.

Expanding sustainable mobility outside of the avenue

2008 saw the expansion of human-centered mobility outside of one corridor of the city. The Ministry of Environment using the results of the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s (UNAM) study “Strategy for Non-Motorized Mobility for Mexico City” helped convince city leaders that there needed to be one office to coordinate the many emerging sustainable mobility initiatives across the city, turned into the Non-Motorized Mobility Strategy Office which was tasked with  building better bike infrastructure, integrating cycling into the wider transport system, creating a cycling culture, and increasing access for all the city’s residents to cycling.

Along Muévete en bici, this new office created “bike schools” to teach young students how to bike to promote sustainable mobility and an active lifestyle from an early age. In 2009, the Non-Motorized Mobility Strategy Office started the ECOBICI public bike-share program which built on the momentum of the Muévete en bici program, with 42% of the bike-share users having had their interest in biking sparked by the car-free day. The ECOBICI expanded sustainable mobility to the whole of the central city with 275 stations and 3,700 bikes for rent. Finally, hoping to widen the demographic of cyclists and make biking safe for all, the office created a dedicated 48.6km (30 mile) bike lane network throughout the city and bike parking at transit centers.

Engraining sustainable mobility into the entire week

The change that Muévete en bici catalyzed, and which the Non Motorized Mobility Strategy Office expanded, created a massive change in the mobility patterns of the city. According to the ECOBICI GEI Emission Reduction Survey conducted by EMBARQ Mexico in 2012, 40.3% of ECOBICI users stopped using motorized transport for short distance trips. This change represents 2,065 days saved from sitting in traffic and 232 tons of CO2 emissions avoided. But the city is pushing its sustainable mobility efforts even further. At the end of 2014, ECOBICI will reach 34 square kilometers (21 miles) covered, with 444 stations and 6,200 public bikes in use, and some 20 million riders.

Even in a city very much in flux, sitting at the edge of innovation and chaos, a new generation of public officers are showing that people can take back the public realm from cars and that residents have both the passion and perseverance to make sustainable mobility a reality. With the seventh anniversary of the Muévete en bici the Non-Motorized Mobility Strategy Office, having grown to 25 employees, has become an even more integral component of the city. To mark its importance to the city’s future urban development, it is now the Culture, Design, and Bike Infrastructure Department of the Ministry of the Environment. This team is tasked with turning an important paradigm shift into concrete policies and sustainable infrastructure. The city, and the world, is watching.

Special thanks to Ivan de la Lanza, Director the Culture, Design and Bike Infrastructure Department and his team for the global inspiration and for leading the change in Mexico, and to Tanya Müller head of the Ministry of Environment, former leader of the first 7-person group that formed the Strategy.