MEXICO CITY — Once the smoggiest city on the planet, Mexico City has cleaned itself up and is coaxing residents to commute on bicycles.
Taking cues from European cities in the vanguard of the green movement, such as Copenhagen, Paris and Barcelona, Mexico City has set up an urban bike-sharing system, moving faster and with greater ambition than most U.S. metropolises have.
The city has docked 1,114 red aluminum bicycles at 85 stations in four districts of the urban core. Residents who pay an annual fee equivalent to about $24.50 can ride the bikes for half-hour periods as many times as they wish. Plans are for sixfold growth in the shared bicycle fleet by 2012.
The bike-share scheme is part of a progressive makeover of the Mexican capital, once a sprawling muddle of problems. The city is revitalizing its historic downtown, skies are clearing of smog and city leaders are taking on trend-setting social issues. In early March, Mexico City legalized same-sex marriage, the first city in Latin America to do so.
Still, riding a bicycle in congested Mexico City has its challenges, and experts say that cultural factors are a major obstacle to the program's success. Four million vehicles ply the streets of the capital, and bike lanes haven't yet been set up to any extent.
"Drivers think that cyclists shouldn't be on the road. They think that bikes should go on the sidewalk. This is a widespread perception that has to change," said Martha Delgado, the secretary of the environment for the municipal government and an architect of the program.
She said Mexico City lent itself to more cyclists. The center of the city is largely flat, and the weather is good year-round.
To promote a culture more suited to cyclists, the city enacted regulations in mid-February — at the same time the bike-sharing program launched — that require motorists to yield to cyclists and pedestrians on city streets.
Delgado said the city government had trained 450 police officers to watch for traffic infractions against cyclists in the four districts where the program was active.
Even proponents of the program say public perceptions need to change for urban cycling to take off.
"A lot of people say it's too dangerous. You'll get hit, or you'll get robbed," said Areli Carreon, the head of a cycling advocacy group, Bicitekas.
Advocates of the bike-sharing system, however, say that an expanding number of cyclists in urban areas inevitably changes the way motorists perceive them.
"If there's one cyclist on the street, the motorist may not even see you. But if there are five or 10, then the motorist won't miss you," said Paul DeMaio, the head of MetroBike, a bike-sharing consultancy in Washington.
For a metropolis such as Mexico City, where commuters often take several forms of transportation to get to distant jobs, switching from bus to subway or vice versa, the bike-share program lets them avert walking the final stretch.
"Bike-sharing is really good for that first-mile, last-mile connectivity to mass transit," DeMaio said.
Bike sharing flourishes in Europe, where cities such as Barcelona already have 6,000 public bikes in use. Paris has 20,600 public bicycles, the most successful large program to date. Copenhagen, Stockholm and Milan are among other European cities with large schemes.
The success of European bike sharing has triggered a rush to create programs all over the world, including cities such as Tehran, London and Shanghai. The number of bike-sharing programs leaped from 92 at the end of 2008 to about 160 at the end of 2009, according to DeMaio's blog on the issue.
In North America, Montreal's Bixi program uses 5,000 bikes spread among 400 depots, though it functions only in the warmer months.
U.S. metropolitan areas have lagged in launching bike-share programs, partly over infrastructure and liability concerns. Washington began its small-scale SmartBike in 2008, and will expand it later this year. Denver, Minneapolis and Boston are to launch bike-sharing programs as soon as this summer.
The French-built three-speed bikes used in Mexico City have fenders, front and rear lights, chain guards and sturdy racks for cargo. They're designed for people wearing regular work clothes, not fitness fanatics in spandex.
Bike docking stations are unattended. Users swipe cards across readers, and screens tell them which bike to take. A silent lock opens, the user lifts the bike off the dock and rides away. Data are fed to a central computer, which keeps track of all shared bicycles.
Signs around the city promote the program, known as Ecobici.
As many bike-share programs do, Mexico City engaged in a public-private partnership, contracting with Clear Channel Communications, a media and outdoor advertising giant based in San Antonio, to build and operate the system.
In its first two months, Ecobici signed up 4,000 users. The goal is 24,000 by the end of the first year, Delgado said.
Interest is high. In one 24-hour period, half a million people surfed to the Spanish-language website , said Monica Mejia, the program's customer service coordinator.
Currently, 1 percent of all daily trips in the capital are made on bicycles, and the goal is to reach 5 percent by 2012, a move that could see city skies clear further of auto exhaust.
In 1992, the United Nations said Mexico City had the worst air quality of any city in the world. Since then, Mexico City has enforced tough vehicle-emission rules, banned cars from circulating one day a week and improved its mass transit system. Today, Mexico City has fallen out of the U.N.'s listing of the world's 20 most polluted cities.
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