Episode 8: The Guerrilla Cyclists of Mexico City

Frustrated cyclists in Mexico City took matters into their own hands, building DIY bike lanes to show the government how to get the job done.

Children bicycle around Plaza de España, in Seville, Spain.
Photograph by Eduardo Briones, Europa Press, Getty Images

Tired of waiting for the local government to build more bike lanes, a group of cyclists in Mexico City, the largest city in North America, took matters into their own hands: they painted the lanes themselves. As traffic and pollution continue to choke cities, bicycles can ease the pain. Yet cities around the world struggle to build biking infrastructure. Grassroots activism is finding creative ways to get the job done.

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TRANSCRIPT

[Mexico City traffic sounds]

JORGE CÁÑEZ (ACTIVIST): I was born and raised in the chaotic streets of Mexico City.

ILANA STRAUSS (HOST): This is Jorge Cáñez, an activist. He’s standing at an intersection in Mexico City wearing a black mask and a cape.

CÁÑEZ: I was an ordinary citizen until one day I went to a Lucha Libre match—you know, the Mexican wrestling. And I decided to get a mask, a cape, and to be the pedestrian vigilante of Mexico City.

STRAUSS: He looks out onto a busy street filled with traffic—lots of honking and swerving. People walk cautiously, trying to get out of the way of cars.

CÁÑEZ: The cars are very fast, and there’s people with disabilities, elderly people, even mothers and fathers with strollers.

STRAUSS: There are also cars parked on the sidewalk, so pedestrians have to venture out into the dangerous streets.

And that’s when Jorge emerges out of the shadows.

[Traffic sounds] 

CÁÑEZ: My mother tells me not to do this because I can get in trouble. But once I put my mask and my cape, and I watch myself in the mirror, you know, it is like telling to yourself, like, I’m here to do justice—and that’s my goal. And let’s go out to the streets and do it.

[Sound of Cáñez walking over cars]

STRAUSS: I’m watching this video that Jorge’s friend took of him. Jorge takes a breath, and then he jumps onto the front of one of the illegally parked cars. And then he walks over it.

CÁÑEZWe’ve been walking for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. And just one hundred years ago, we started to drive these killer machines, you know, so something wrong happened with history. So now we have to take back our streets and send this message that the pedestrian is on the top of the cars. 

STRAUSS: Jorge has actually become kind of a local superhero for his activities. He goes by the name Peatónito, which means “little pedestrian.” He wears a black and neon green costume and patrols the streets, helping people on foot and on bikes.

CÁÑEZAnd then I have the cape that my grandmother made. This is a cape that has white and black stripes, just like a pedestrian crosswalk.

STRAUSS: He paints bike lanes on busy streets. And he circles potholes and broken sidewalks so people don’t trip on them. When he’s done, he adds a little p, like a signature. Then he leaps to his next mission.

CÁÑEZ: It’s like having two different personalities, of course, because yeah, you feel different. You feel like an authority. You feel like somebody that has a mission in this life, and it’s going to spread a message to the people in the streets, you know. And then I go back home and take off the mask and the cape, and do my normal work, you know. 

STRAUSS: I’m Ilana Strauss, and this is Overheard at National Geographic, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo, and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week, we try and answer a question: Is a bike-friendly world an impossible fantasy, or a reality just around the corner? We’ll meet an urban planner who tells us how to accomplish that—and it’s not just painting more bike lanes.

And we’ll hear why activists in Mexico and the Netherlands are so passionate about cycling that they’ll go to great lengths to capture the attention of people in power.

ARELI CARREÓN (BIKE ACTIVIST): We kidnapped the city chief of government.

STRAUSS: What?

More after this.

STRAUSS: All right, let’s get something straight here: When we talk about biking in this episode, we’re not talking about recreation. We’re talking about bikes as an alternative to cars— a way for people to get from point A to point B.

There’s good reason to make that switch. Transportation is the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.—and cars make up the biggest chunk of that. Bikes, on the other hand ...

JOHN PUCHER (TRANSPORTATION EXPERT): I mean, there’s virtually no pollution, almost no energy use, and the energy that’s used is actually good for you.

STRAUSS: By “energy that’s good for you,” John Pucher means exercise. John is an urban planning professor emeritus at Rutgers University. He specializes in bikes.

PUCHER: And it's not always so easy to get along without a car, but for all the time I was at Rutgers, I had no car.

STRAUSS: I actually don't have a car myself so ...

PUCHER: Oh, I love you. I love you. I love you. We're going to get along very well, Ilana.

STRAUSS: All right, so if bikes are so great, why don’t more people in North America bike? It comes down to safety. When surveyed, more than half of Americans actually say they are interested in biking. But they think it’s too dangerous because of, you know, cars. From 1981 to 2010, motor vehicle traffic was the leading cause of death for people under 44 in the U.S.

John says that there’s an easy fix for this, and it’s not just creating bike lanes everywhere. It’s creating what’s called a bike network. That’s a web of connected paths that can take a traveler from any one point in the city to another. It’s made with things like greenways, which are off-road paths, so cyclists never have to worry about cars.

PUCHER: They combine those with protected bike lanes—with these physically separated lanes—have the concrete barriers or bollards or shrubbery of some sort dividing the cyclists from the motor vehicles.

STRAUSS: So it sounds like what you’re saying is for a city to be bike-friendly, you don’t need every street to have bike lanes. You kind of just need enough of a network that you can get pretty much from anywhere to anywhere on a bike—safely.

PUCHER: That’s exactly correct. The key word is connection. So you don’t want to have a really state-of-the-art protected bike lane here and a wonderful greenway over there, but nothing in between.

STRAUSS: Bike networks are actually part of this larger transportation network—buses, trains, sidewalks—that let people get around without cars. You bike to the train station, take a train to another city, then take the bus to your house—that kind of thing.

Activists like Jorge often push for all of these things at once. Like last May Jorge attended a protest after a Mexico City subway train collapsed, killing at least 26 people.

[Protesters chanting “justicia”]

Massive crowds of cyclists and pedestrians march down a main thoroughfare. There’s so many of them that they can only walk at a snail’s pace. Some of them carry white roses. They chant “justice.”

These protestors were angry. They alleged corruption was going on.

[Sounds of music]

In another moment, mourners gather in front of the collapsed train, lighting candles around a memorial filled with flowers. Some play music.

[Sounds of music]

STRAUSS: Mexico City is just one of many cities that doesn’t have the best bike infrastructure. I live in Chicago—one of the best cities for biking in the U.S.—but bike lanes are still pretty few and far between here. Protected bike lanes are even rarer. And the few greenways and protected bike lanes that exist—they’re often disconnected, meaning I get stuck biking through busy traffic.

And yet bike infrastructure is incredibly cheap to build—it often just takes a can of paint and some traffic cones. So what’s the holdup?

To understand how countries like the U.S. and Mexico have become so reliant on cars, we have to go back in time.

PUCHER: It's important to realize that in the United States, we were one of the very earliest countries to be mass adopters of the automobile. So already in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, we had much, much higher levels of car ownership than other countries in the world. 

STRAUSS: These cars created a powerful new group: the auto industry.

PUCHER: And they lobbied Washington very, very strongly to oppose any car-restrictive measures. 

STRAUSS: The auto industry got all kinds of pro-car legislation passed: money to build highways, free parking in the street, policies that encouraged developers to build the suburbs, and even laws against people walking in the street—a place that had always been pedestrian territory. These measures made it harder to get around with any other kind of transportation.

Other places in the world–including Jorge’s town, Mexico City–followed the U.S.’s lead.

So how do you convince a city in a car-centric country to make a bike network? Meet this woman.

ARELI CARREÓN: My name is Areli Carreón. And I am 51 years old, and I’ve been a bike activist in Mexico City since 1997. I am part of the founder members of the Bicitekas crew, which is the oldest-going bike lobby group in Mexico City.

STRAUSS: When Areli grew up in Mexico City, the air was heavy from all the car pollution. This was a big problem because her sister had asthma. And seeing people having asthma attacks is terrifying.

CARREÓN: And they begin to, you know, to turn blue—their lips and their fingertips—and  well, it’s really scary to watch, and this was caused by pollution.

STRAUSS: Her sister’s asthma attacks were so intense that they often had to rush her to the emergency room.

So as Areli gets older, she became passionate about finding a way to reduce air pollution from cars. And she starts to see cycling as a solution.

CARREÓN: And then I thought, Why do we have this instrument that is very accessible on price, that is easy and healthy and democratic and fun—and why don’t we have a way of using it every day?

STRAUSS: Areli became a cycling activist. And that meant a lot more than just going for rides.

CARREÓN: Literally we have tried it all, from going naked on bicycles ...

STRAUSS: What? Tell me about that. Tell me about that.

Yep, a nude bike ride through the city. This happens in other cities too, and it’s a tactic to get people to pay attention to cyclists.

But Areli took it a step further. She dressed as a famous statue in Mexico City called the “Angel of Independence.”

CARREÓN: So I joined this ride. I was disguised as this monument that represents the city—all painted in gold, naked. It was like body painting on gold, and with my wings. 

STRAUSS: She took off riding down the street with about a hundred other activists. People really took notice.

CARREÓN: And it was like, Oh, the monument is riding a bike. You know, it was amusing for the people to watch. 

STRAUSS: So at the time, Areli had been talking to a guy on a biking message board. And she sent him a photo of herself as this golden angel. He replied back, saying she was beautiful.

CARREÓN: And that later on became our love story. And I got married with him, and we have two boys and 13 years of happy marriage until this day. 

STRAUSS: So they became this powerhouse cycling couple. Scott supported the family, which gave Areli time to get really into her cycling full-time. She got more ambitious and decided to take the issues directly to the politicians. The Mexican government had been promising more bike lanes, but they were stalling on their plans. 

CARREÓN: Like politicians were laughing at us in our faces and saying, Cycling will never be a thing in Mexico City—that thing that you do is impossible.

STRAUSS: So in 2011 she and her fellow bike activists decided to paint their own bike lane on the street, right in front of their Congress. About 20 of them show up one day with brushes and they just started painting.

Then the police showed up. But the activists had a plan.

CARREÓN: The police came over and were, you know, like watching what we’re doing. So the people that was in charge of talking to them were like, Hey, Police, how are you? Hey, what’s up?

[Police]: Hey, what are you doing, ay?

[Activists]: Oh, we’re just painting here, this something for the politicians to pay attention to what we do because we want to ride our bikes.

[Police]: Ah.

And, you know, and just chatting like that is like, “Oh, we have some coffee, and do you care to join us? And no, you want some tamales and some of them?”

So some of them said yes and joined the fun, and chat around us and just watch us.

STRAUSS: They also worked directly with politicians.

In one event, the city’s mayor at the time, Marcelo Ebrard, was riding with the activists as part of a campaign to promote cycling in the city. They were supposed to ride along a prearranged route.

CARREÓN: But at some point, our guy that was guiding the ride just decided just, you know, out of the blue that he would ride in another street. So we took another route, and their security was really upset and really, you know, scared that we took off with the chief of government.

STRAUSS: The chief, on the other hand, was having a great time.

CARREÓN: You know, he never was upset or anything. I guess he never actually knew what happened afterward.

STRAUSS: Areli said this accidental kidnapping allowed them to talk with the mayor one-on-one. And later, she found that combining this ground-level, direct action with talking to politicians paid off: Mexico City started installing the bike lanes it had promised.

CARREÓN: Twenty years ago, there was nothing. There was not one meter of bike lanes. And today we have 270 kilometers.

STRAUSS: That’s about 170 miles. And Areli hopes that this could be the beginning of Mexico City becoming a bike mecca.

And if you think that’s a pipe dream,  get ready. We’re about to travel to a country that is a cyclist’s dream—and they got there with the help of their own vigilantes.

More after this.

A city with more bikes than cars may sound like a fantasy, but it’s already happened.

[Sounds of bicycles on the street]

Today, the Netherlands is known as the biking capital of the world. Dutch streets are filled with bikes. They roll through some of the smoothest and most connected bike paths in the world. Here’s John Pucher again:

PUCHER: People have this image, I think Americans have an image: Oh, cycling is just paradise, and it’s always been paradise in Europe and Germany and the Netherlands and Denmark. Wrong. Not true. 

STRAUSS: In the ’60s and ’70s, the Netherlands was, like the U.S., dominated by cars. The Dutch economy was booming after World War II, and more and more people started buying cars. 

More traffic meant more crashes. In 1972, more than 450 children died in traffic accidents.

MARJOLEIN DE LANGE (MOBILITY EXPERT): From all European countries, the Netherlands had the highest level of children being killed in road accidents.

STRAUSS: That’s Marjolein de Lange, a mobility expert and cyclist from the Netherlands. When she was a kid, she’d hear about these accidents.

DE LANGE: And we heard that this girl was killed in a car accident just a couple of blocks away, on a main road where I had been cycling every now and then. So it was quite intense. And another girl, she was killed on the road between two villages.

STRAUSS: And then it happened to a newspaper reporter.

DE LANGE: His daughter was killed on a bike on the way to school in a traffic accident. And a year later, another daughter was nearly killed. And he said, We have to go and do something about it.

STRAUSS: So his newspaper printed a front-page editorial about the traffic deaths, titled “Stop the Child Murder.”

A community of activists grew around this movement. They demanded safer streets and better infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians. One such activist was Tom Godefrooij. He’s a visual artist and urban planning mobility expert from the Netherlands.

TOM GODEFROOIJ (URBAN MOBILITY EXPERT): Well, back then the car was the king of the road, so the city was packed with cars—cars were driving everywhere.

STRAUSS: In the early ’80s, Tom and some other activists wanted a bike lane on a particularly tricky one-way street.

GODEFROOIJ: So at some point we sent a letter to the municipality that if they wouldn’t do it, we would do it.

STRAUSS: So one dark night, Tom and his fellow cyclist friends snuck out onto the street and started painting the lane themselves. Just as they were finishing up, two police cars rolled up.

GODEFROOIJ: And they put us all in the car to take us to the police station. 

STRAUSS: But the police didn’t seem too angry.

GODEFROOIJ: Well, they said we had done it very nicely and it looked well.

STRAUSS: At the police station, they said that?

GODEFROOIJ: Yeah, yeah.

STRAUSS: The police held them in custody for a few hours and let them go. 

GODEFROOIJ: But the most funny part was that one of the shopkeepers (in that time) the next morning noticed the cycle lane in front of his shop.

STRAUSS: The shopkeeper got mad because he thought the lane should be a space for parking, not bikes. And then this funny thing happened.

GODEFROOIJ: So he started to remove our lane, and then he was fined by the police by doing illegal work on the street. [laughs]

STRAUSS: The newspapers wrote about the lane for a week. The city finally caved to public pressure and decided to keep it.

GODEFROOIJ: The municipality claimed that they had wanted to do it themselves. We then send a bill to the municipality for having done the job for them. [laughs]

STRAUSS: Tom and activists around the country got what they wanted.

GODEFROOIJ: In those days the shopping streets were packed with cars, and now there’s hardly any. So nowadays there is no need to go painting bicycle lanes in the night because that’s been done by the municipalities. 

STRAUSS: Thanks to these movements, these days the Netherlands has more than 23,000 miles of bike paths. When you walk through a Dutch city, you see streets filled with bikes, not cars. And as for traffic deaths? Tom says that in the mid-’70s, over 3,000 people were dying in traffic accidents a year. That was in a population of 12 million.

GODEFROOIJ: So that was quite high. And now the number of fatalities each year is—with a growing population, which is now 18 million—we are now at about 500 a year.

STRAUSS: I’ve heard people say a bike revolution like this could only happen in the Netherlands. But this can happen—and is happening—around the world. London, Paris, Tel Aviv, Beijing—they’re all rolling out bike networks.

And if you think the U.S. will never get there … Again, John Pucher.

PUCHER: And so here in the United States, I find so many people who are disappointed or they’re impatient, and they say, “Oh, it’s never going to work in the United States.” Well, we’ve just started.

STRAUSS: The U.S. has only been building out bike lanes and other bike infrastructure for the last 20 years or so. But we’re ramping up big-time. Most cities are making it way easier to bike around. New York, Los Angeles, Portland, and 50 or 60 other American cities are building out their bike networks.

In fact, if you live in a city, there’s a good chance this is happening near you: I notice new bike lanes popping up in Chicago all the time. It’s the kind of thing that’s invisible until you start looking for it. And then you see it everywhere.

PUCHER: And so we’re sort of at the beginning stage of where Europe was maybe five decades ago. And so it’s going to take us a while to get, really, a broad spectrum of society cycling.

STRAUSS: Or it could happen fast. Like look at the Spanish city of Seville. The government there rolled out a whole bike network in less than two years. Now the city has over 50 miles of protected bike lanes, and cycling has increased over 11 times.

Areli believes quick change like this could happen in North America too. She says we’re moving away from the car century and into a new era, a world that isn’t dominated by the fear of getting hit with cars.

CARREÓN: So I’m happy to say that this other world is existing already, and it’s coming. And it’s no point in resisting and denying that it’s happening. It’s not only for a woman’s sake, or for the Earth’s sake or for the children’s sake—it’s everybody needs a better planet, a better way of living. And we have the tools to do that. And one of the tools that is very cheap and is maybe in your garage right now is a bicycle. So go, use it, enjoy it.

STRAUSS: More after this.

There is so much ground we couldn’t cover in our episode. If you want to dive even deeper into the world of green transportation, subscribers can check out our September issue of the magazine, which features stories about electric cars and hydrogen-powered planes.

Also, if you’re interested in keeping up with the bike enthusiasts in our episode, you can follow urban planner Jorge Cáñez on Twitter @peatonito. Learn more about Areli Carreón’s work at bicitekas.org. 

And finally, you can read more of John Pucher's research in his book Cycling for Sustainable Cities. That’s all in your show notes.

And if you like Overheard, please take a minute to rate and review us. It’s a big help.

CREDITS

Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Laura Sim, Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, and me, Ilana Strauss.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Our senior producer is Carla Wills.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer.

Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak.

And Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music, and also sound-designed and engineered this episode.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.

And I’m your host, Ilana Strauss. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.

SHOW NOTES

Want more? 

There’s so much ground we couldn’t cover in our episode. But fear not. I’ve written an online story that goes into more detail on what's happening in the United States: What parts of the country are becoming more bike-friendly, and which areas are still struggling? You can read that at natgeo.com. 

Also explore:

Follow our vigilante superhero Jorge Cáñez on Twitter @peatonito

And learn more about Areli Carréon’s group—the first bike lobby group in Mexico City—at bicitekas.org

John Pucher’s book Cycling for Sustainable Cities features a collection of research reports sourced from transportation experts all around the world.

Read about Minneapolis' bold plans to expand its bike network and make it more accessible and equitable.

And for paid subscribers: 

Dive even deeper into the world of green transportation by checking out the September issue of the magazine, which features stories about electric cars and hydrogen-powered planes.

If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please consider a National Geographic subscription. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe today.