Kim von Schönfeld explored the cycling scene of Mexico City and London for her master’s thesis. In this article you can read her reflections on the role of bottom-up cycling initiatives in improving the sustainability of these two megacities.
Bottom-up initiatives worldwide are receiving more and more attention from governments. Not only are bottom-up initiatives valued because they increase the state’s legitimacy but also because they make government’s jobs easier. With the economic crisis in 2008 both the market and the state were weakened and became more interested in relying on citizen’s solutions to urban problems. This is also the case when it comes to transportation issues, such as congestion and pollution. Pressure for making transport more sustainable, particularly in terms of decreasing CO2 emissions, is globally increasing. At the same time megacities such as Mexico City and London are still struggling to reduce private car use and encourage more sustainable means of transport. One of the most environmentally and also socially sustainable modes of transport is cycling. Conveniently, cycling is also highly advocated by bottom-up initiatives around the world. Bottom-up initiatives encouraging cycling have the potential to facilitate the sustainability of cities – if they work. This essay tries to uncover some ways in which they can be successful and how.
‘Bottom-uppers’ and the ‘Multi-Level-Perspective’
The term ‘bottom-up initiatives’ has many connotations but is difficult to define. Miazzo and Kee write that bottom-up initiatives can be understood as “urban development projects including end users as not only consumers but also as co-decision makers, co-creators, and/or co-managers before, during and/or after the construction/renovation phase.” They also offer the term ‘bottom-uppers’ to describe those active in such initiatives. The term ‘initiatives’ in this essay refers to specific projects or events, usually initiated by a certain organisation. When such an organization is concerned with only one (even if recurring) project or event, it can sometimes be called an ‘initiative’ itself.
Bottom-up initiatives tend to be defined in contrast to top-down initiatives. The latter are usually interpreted to be led by governments, though they can also include private actors or Public-Private-Partnerships (PPPs). It is difficult however, in this dichotomy, to place actors such as Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), which can at times be closer to bottom-up initiatives and at other times act together with or even themselves as top-down initiatives. While this essay focuses on bottom-up initiatives it is relevant to keep in mind that there is often not such a clear-cut distinction between bottom-up and other initiatives.
The ‘Multi-Level-Perspective,’ or MLP, within transitions theory (see for example Geels) provides a framework in which bottom-up initiatives and their potential impact on change can be studied. The MLP analyses systemic change and can help uncover points for intervention to steer change in a specific direction. It identifies three levels for analysis: a socio-technical landscape level, a regime level and a niche level. The landscape level includes wider and often international economic, technological or demographic trends. The regime is a set of norms, reinforced through rules and regulations over time that infiltrate even into the smallest actions and plans in society and government. Bottom-up initiatives usually fit into the niche-level, which is the space in which deviation from the regime is possible although there can also be bottom-up initiatives that reinforce the regime, either on purpose or by accident. Several initiatives in Mexico City and in London are discussed below to show how this can be the case and how it can influence the sustainability of cities.
Mexico City is a huge, diverse, and rather chaotic city, especially in terms of transportation. As the capital of Mexico, it is an economic and political centre and the focus of attention of many state activities and boasting projects towards other countries. Its struggles in terms of transportation, also in relation to contamination and congestion, have been on-going for decades, despite extensive investments in public transport (see for instance Cervero and LSE Cities), and are far from resolved. In the dry seasons, smog can at times become severe. In an attempt to solve the problem, and with particular urgency due to its ‘exemplary’ function outward (as well as inward to the rest of the country), however, Mexico City’s government has begun encouraging alternatives to the private car. Environmental sustainability is increasingly on the agenda in transportation projects. Through bottom-up pressures, increasing steadily since the early 1980s, cycling has gained an increasingly prominent role in this ‘green’ transport agenda. And it certainly works to these initiatives’ advantage that cycling is not only environmentally sustainable but also addresses urgent issues of health through physical exercise (Mexico has surpassed the USA in its levels of obesity already in 2013, see Huffington Post), and issues of social justice and the liveability of the city. The latter is also a major point of advocacy for the largest bottom-up cycling initiative in the city, Bicitekas.
Bottom-up cycling initiatives are common in Mexico City, be it in the shape of political activism, weekly or monthly city rides, educational initiatives or commercial spaces. Bicitekas is an organisation set up in the 1980s by a group of friends interested in the function of the bicycle for making the city more liveable and sustainable. They have become incredibly influential politically through persistent campaigns as well as protest organisations for instance in memory of people who died while riding a bicycle in a traffic accident. Mujeres en Bici are a group of women (and some men) organising educational events for (not exclusively) women to learn how to cycle in Mexico City – including lessons outside of and in live traffic as well as some other initiatives. Te enseño a andar en bici uses a similar concept at a smaller scale, teaching women to cycle and repair their own bike, also intending to counter gender-related fears and prejudices about cycling. Insolente are another group of women who promote cycling amongst women, though mostly by drafting a route for them to safely cycle to work and back, and subsequently joining them for their first ride. It may appear that cycling initiatives in Mexico City focus exclusively on women, this also has to be seen as a reaction to gender related inequality and safety issues (in transport), which tend to discriminate against women. Nevertheless these and other cycling initiatives are usually also open to include men. In terms of ‘leisurely’ cycling, RodadasMX gives an overview of the about 60 initiatives in Mexico City that focus on riding through certain areas of the city, usually at night – and here most participants tend to be men as well. These initiatives are recreational in that cycling is their main aim, rather than reaching a particular destination. Nevertheless these initiatives are often motivated to ride at night in a kind of weekly protest for space for cycling in the city. The Paseo de Todos is a type of monthly critical mass ride, where entire roads are blocked for the cyclists simply because they form such a large group. Here conflict sometimes arises when car-drivers do not want to stop for the long mass of cyclists to pass, so they begin honking. Police has been forced to safeguard the cyclists from the car-drivers even though this ride is not a government initiative. Last but not least, commercial spaces with a special focus on cycling are also common in Mexico City, especially in the ‘hip’ areas of for instance the Roma and Condesa neighbourhoods (central areas of the city) – an example is the café La Cadencia.
All of the above initiatives emerged out of the identification of a problem by a small group of citizens who decided to take ‘making change’ into their own hands. These initiatives are not all equally focused on influencing the sustainability of Mexico City – however, they arguably all do work towards that goal. Whether through education (in most cases) or through pressuring government for projects such as placing segregated cycle-infrastructure (Bicitekas) or even just by cycling through the city and showing how ‘cool’ cycling can be these initiatives all aim to increase cycling as a mode of transport in the city. Through these initiatives some people are directly motivated to cycle and others might at least increase their acceptability for such a choice, making it a more comfortable mode when sharing space on roads for example. At the same time, some groups in society see the increase in cycling as a threat to their own space (e.g. pedestrians and car drivers) and become more negatively influenced the more cycling initiatives they notice. While in terms of the Multi-Level-Perspective in transitions theory all of these initiatives are small niches and the regime is still much more private-car-oriented, they appear to be successful niches, infiltrating more and more into the regime. They do so for instance through political activism, as Bicitekas, or through simply increasing the number of cyclists in the city and the positive image they have (indirectly creating political pressure). Some people from these initiatives have also worked in government ministries. This increasingly induces the government to side with the growing group of cyclists rather than the non-cyclists in situations of conflict between these groups.
London may not be the first city you, dear reader, think of if prompted for a comparison with Mexico City. However: London is also an enormous city, struggling with chaotic and unsustainable transportation. It is a capital city and a political but also economic centre and driver of its country. In many ways it is the focus of the UK’s expenses, betting on its ability to support the country’s economy nearly on its own. Despite having an extensive public transport network and succeeding in freeing the centre of the city from much of its previous congestion, private car use is still rather high and air quality is struggling to keep to EU standards (see The Guardian and The Independent). And it is no surprise, really, that The Proto City has published an article on London in its series on Suicide Cycling. As the article states, the conditions for cycling in London are improving significantly, but there are still many people who, just like in Mexico City, would call you suicidal for cycling there.
There are also several bottom-up initiatives in London trying to further increase the attractiveness of cycling in London. The LCC is one of the largest campaign organisations focusing on cycling in London, with many projects, including campaigning for more segregated cycle path provision by government as well as providing local support for learning how to cycle or fix bicycles. Sustrans is a charity focusing on supporting sustainable transport more generally, with the main aim to increase social and environmental sustainability and better liveability in cities. In terms of cycling they mostly focus on applying for funding to work on infrastructure projects at borough and city level, though they also work on educational programmes. More radical pressure groups also exist, such as the Stop Killing Cyclists campaign, which focuses on highlighting traffic accidents involving cyclists and advocates for radical changes to improve cyclists’ safety and health conditions on the road. The CTC is the Cycle Touring Club and as the name suggests focuses on cycle tours – however these usually take place outside the city even if the organisation has local groups per city borough: usually they organise there to do rides into the countryside. Next to these initiatives, there are several commercial spaces, such as the Look Mum No Hands café, which includes a workshop as well.
As in Mexico City, these initiatives emerged of their own accord, based on the demand as sensed by the initiators. Here the goal of increasing the social and environmental sustainability of London is more commonly explicit (LCC and Sustrans), though Stop Killing Cyclists has an explicit focus on social justice and radical change, and the CTC and commercial spaces focus much more on leisurely and individual attractiveness of cycling. Through their influence on the imaging of cycling and explicit campaigning for cycling as a sustainable mode of transport, these initiatives arguably have a significant impact on the possibilities for the development of a sustainable mobility regime that includes significant amounts of cycling. They are niches, some larger than others, but they seem to all be contributing to a more accepting attitude towards cycling among policy makers, planners and the general public. Even those initiatives highlighting (currently) dangerous sides to cycling (Stop Killing Cyclists) seem to be generating pressure on policy-makers whose actions in turn improve these conditions and the acceptability of planning for cycling. This is rather similar to the case in Mexico City, showing not only that increases in cycling are a global trend (which does form a landscape pressure on the regime as well) but also that bottom-up initiatives seem to be significant in this process.
Cycling is one of the most sustainable modes of transport, both in environmental as well as social terms. However, it is not suitable for everyone and some people would simply rather not cycle. There is a conflict here when bottom-up cycling initiatives try to become part of a regime, substituting at least some of the wide chains of support that have been geared mostly towards car use in the past half century. A regime, as a set of accepted and reinforced norms, values and rules, does leave some room for variety, but it tends to favour elites or majorities. If cycling becomes ‘the regime’, other modes are likely to lose out. However – in the long run, this is one of the most sustainable options cities have to solve various issues of climate change, pollution, congestion and quality of life. Bottom-up initiatives are beginning to make changes in the regime, partially by generating conflict with those who lose out (decreasing acceptability) but also, by being persistent, making more people aware of cycling’s advantages (eventually increasing acceptability). Bottom-up cycling initiatives make their city sustainable through the paradox of both decreasing and increasing acceptability, thus first unsettling and then changing the regime. Their value should therefore not be underestimated!