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Traffic has been banished
by Katy Purviance on 04/04/08 @ 08:21:38 pm
Categories: Articles | 611 words | 2108 views

I just read this artilce in the New Statesman by Joanna Moorhead
called, “Reclaiming the streets.”

You probably know about Mexico City.

I mean the pollution.

The traffic.

The nasty nasty smog.

Now imagine the eco-dream…

It’s 9am in the centre of one of the busiest, most traffic-clogged cities in the world, and I am cycling, entirely alone and without a car in sight, along its central, tree-lined, four-lane boulevard. I brake as a roundabout approaches, but a police officer is waiting, whistle between his teeth, to beckon me across: he is holding up a barrage of traffic on the intersecting road, entirely for me.

I sail past, registering as I do the hundreds of vehicles backed up to north and south. Only when I am safely across the roundabout does the policeman give them the go-ahead to inch their way along the overburdened minor avenue, while I continue freely along my generous expanse of empty, exhaust-free highway.

What is this, an ecowarrior’s dream? Well, it could be: but no, it was a recent Sunday morning in Mexico City. I was cycling along the main traffic artery, Avenida Reforma, a road built by the Emperor Maximilian during a spell of French rule in the mid 19th century. Usually, the scene on Reforma is of nose-to-tail cars, most of them clapped-out, pre-1990s models. Vehicles move slowly, exhaust fumes cast a pall over the road, and there is a constant backdrop of noisy horns and aggravated shouts from angry drivers, punctuated from time to time by the sickening crunch of car on car as a roadway altercation goes awry.

On a normal morning, this road is an environmentalist’s worst nightmare. But not so at the end of each week, because, for the past few months, traffic has been banished from Reforma each Sunday between 7am and 2pm. It’s a bold move, and the brainchild of the city’s mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, who has gone green big-time (certainly by Mexican standards). In another headline-making move, the mayor and his closest advisers now cycle to work on the first Monday of every month - no mean feat for Ebrard, a 48-year-old smoker who, by his own admission, doesn’t exercise as much as he might.

Ebrard is talked of as a presidential candidate in 2012, but the Reforma cycling initiative certainly can’t be dismissed as populist. Local people, on the whole, hate it. “It’s all very well for tourists like you, wandering out of your hotels on Reforma and enjoying the rare smell of fresh air and the eerie silence because there’s no traffic,” says Mirella, who lives in Mexico City. “But for a mother like me, based slightly out of town in the suburbs, what it means is I can’t bring my kids in to the city-centre museums on a Sunday the way I used to. The traffic in the smaller roads off Reforma is simply too chocka.”

Mexico City - DF, for Distrito Federal, as the locals call it - has grown quickly. In 1950 it had roughly three million inhabitants; today there are more than 19 million. And, tragically, that mushrooming population has been starry-eyed about the benefits of car use, as demonstrated par excellence by their North American neighbours. The Mexicans might be scathing about the folks who live in the country next door to theirs, but when it came to cars they swallowed the American dream hook, line and sinker. Which is doubly sad given that their city centre is so compact and would - were it not for all those cars making the place dangerous and unpleasant for walking and cycling - be perfect for ambling and pedalling round.

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