MEXICO CITY (CT) — Residents of earthquake-damaged Mexico City have a new reason to embrace bicycles — they’re helping repair lives.
On a Tuesday afternoon earlier this month, a 7.1 magnitude quake rocked the Mexican capital. The timing was uncanny — it had been 32 years to the day since an 8.0 magnitude earthquake left 10,000 people dead, 30,000 injured, over 400 buildings demolished, and thousands homeless.
The death toll of the recent September 19 earthquake was significantly lower, with just over 300 fatalities (180 in the city, 138 in surrounding states), 40 buildings collapsed, and nearly 4,000 buildings likely to be uninhabitable.
Mexico City has a population of close to nine million, which swells during the workday with people from surrounding suburbs. After the earthquake, cell phone service and electricity cut out in wide swaths of the city, as residents scrambled to find their loved ones. Cars jammed major roadways and several lines of the Metro system shut down. The rubble of collapsed buildings blocked streets in the Del Valle, Roma, Condesa, Tránsito, and Coapa neighborhoods.
Del Valle was one of the hardest-hit areas in the earthquake, which originated on the border of the near-by states of Morelos and Puebla.
During the earthquake, people poured out of offices, schools, and restaurants, terrified by the intense shaking. In the aftermath, hundreds of city residents hopped on their bicycles, and started looking for a way to help.
One was cycling activist and technology specialist Fernando García. He was with a television crew in the Del Valle neighborhood when the quake hit.
“Suddenly, the ground started to move,” he said. “Once it stopped, I grabbed my bike to check in on the neighborhood.”
First responders on two wheels
Mexican authorities were slow to react after the 1985 quake, prompting volunteers to organize and rescue people trapped in collapsed buildings.
Unlike in 1985, this time word traveled quickly over social media, and volunteers flocked to the impacted areas. A generation of young people who had grown up hearing stories of 1985 grabbed whatever tools they could find, and took to the streets to begin digging out survivors.
Nearly 40 buildings had collapsed, though the number would soon rise, and thousands of other buildings suffered structural damage. Police and volunteers cordoned off dozens of streets to protect residents from falling glass, concrete, and other objects. Yellow caution tape was draped around the rescue sites, and volunteers created human barriers so that cars could not pass through into the disaster area.
Meanwhile, ambulances, police cars, army trucks, and cars carrying aid fanned out across the city.
The volume of vehicles and the blocked streets were a potent combination. Major arteries jammed with traffic. Ambulances struggled to leave disaster sites to reach local hospitals. City officials begged people to keep their vehicles off the roads.
Amid the chaos, bicycles have become the missing link, allowing supplies to reach those in need, and averting the paralyzing traffic jams across the city.
García, 36, was uniquely qualified to help. A week and a half earlier, after an earthquake hit the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, he helped form a network to pick up donations by bike to send south.
Known as Acopio en Bici (Donations by Bike) the group had grown to 80 members on September 19 when Garcia realized their services would be needed to help the people of Mexico City. By that evening, Garcia said, they were already coordinating donations.
Acopio en Bici operated through a group chat on the popular messenger application WhatsApp, where García and other coordinators notified cyclists when and where their help was needed. New requests to join the group started pouring in. By the weekend, more than 250 had joined the WhatsApp group, reaching its limit.
To incorporate more people, the group opened a channel on the application Zello, where an unlimited number of people can join and learn how, and where, to help.
“There were certain points this week where vehicles just couldn’t get into Xochimilco,” said García, referring to a borough in southern Mexico City that was hard hit in the quake. “There were cyclists who had to go through two or three kilometers of bumper-to-bumper traffic, and they managed to get through where cars couldn’t.”
The list of supplies that cyclists have carried across the massive city is long: medicine, non-perishable food, water, cleaning and personal hygiene supplies, hot meals, batteries, shovels, picks, and construction helmets. García said some cyclists have crossed the entire city three times in a day. From Roma to Xochimilco and back is 50 kilometers, meaning some have pedaled nearly 100 miles per day, through congested streets, carrying supplies.
“Now everyone in the city knows that bicycles and motorbikes are the most agile ways to get around,” he explained. “When people at the rescue sites or shelters have an urgent need, the first people they seek out are cyclists.”
Acopio en Bici was just one of many groups to use their bikes to help their neighbors.
Ken Merino, 28, works for the DFMess courier service, based in the Roma neighborhood. Just blocks from the park that serves as their headquarters, an office building at 268 Alvaro Obregon collapsed, trapping dozens of people inside.
“We were working on Tuesday, and after the quake we decided we had to do something to help,” said Merino. “We have the time, and this is our profession, so there’s no reason not to help.”
While cell service was faulty, the couriers of DFMess used their walkie-talkies to communicate. They began delivering equipment such as shovels, buckets, helmets and gloves to the sites where rescue workers were digging through the rubble.
Rescue workers called for complete silence at times, to hear cries for help from survivors. People making deliveries by bike could quietly approach the rescue sites, while cars, and their noisy engines, needed to stay clear.
Fellow DFMess courier Elizabeth Juarez explained that motor vehicles were also restricted around gas leaks, another reason bicycles were preferable.
Not all the volunteer cyclists were couriers, or activists. Juan Lovero, 70, spent last week using his bicycle to transport donations to rescue workers in the Roma neighborhood.
A plumber, Lovero works for himself. With buckets slung over the handle bar of his simple but sturdy bike, he loaded up with donations.
“I just decided to help out for a few days,” he said. “They’re asking for helmets and boots, so I am bringing over these helmets to donate, and some rain ponchos because it looks like it will rain later.”
Lovero lived through the 1985 earthquake, volunteering then in the Juarez neighborhood to help rescue survivors.
“This is nothing compared to 1985,” he said. “This entire area was destroyed. There were just lines of bodies on the street.”
How an earthquake could make Mexico City more bike-friendly
Mexico City has a vibrant bike culture, and the city government has invested in a bike-share program, new bike lanes, and other infrastructure. However, cycling groups tend to be divided: riders on fixies, mountain bikes, and racing bikes all have their own groups. The earthquake relief is a rare example of Mexico City cyclists coming together around a common cause.
“It doesn’t matter if you have a fixed-gear or a mountain bike, everybody is coming out to help,” said García. The couriers, known for their high socks, cut-off shorts, and enormous cargo backpacks, are now riding side by side with commuters on foldable bikes, and young men on sleek touring bikes, typically used for deliveries at local markets.
The Saturday after the earthquake, García put out a call for cyclists to meet on Revolución Avenue in the south of Mexico City. About 20 cyclists were waiting to load plastic sacks on to their bikes to bring to the sites of collapsed buildings, where volunteers were clearing rubble.
“Sometimes in this city it feels like we have an ongoing fight between cars and bikes. Many people who drive think that bikes are just taking up space on the road,” García said, in between fielding phone calls. “But these past few days, it seems like even people who don’t usually bike are dusting off their old bike and getting out into the street. It’s really been great, even the cars respect us more. They give you space on the road, some people have even been applauding us as we go by.”
Juarez, of DFMess, agreed. “Right now there is a really friendly atmosphere on the street, cars give you the space you need.”
The efforts of cyclists to help earthquake victims has not only changed the attitudes of drivers, but some government institutions.
The Metro system, which usually only allows bikes on Sundays, has permitted cyclists to board trains if they don’t impede other riders. And the city bike-share program is permitting bikes to be used for up to 24 hours, instead of the usual 45-minute limit before applying an extra charge. Several bike shops are offering free repairs to cyclists assisting in earthquake relief.
Across the city, a new type of cooperation is emerging between cyclists, drivers, and motor-cyclists.
Merino said he’s not surprised that bicycles have proven essential since the earthquake.
“People of humble backgrounds have always used their bikes as a tool to work here,” he said. Mexico has always been powered by bikes. I think if people took the chance to rediscover this tradition of cycling locally, Mexico City could be like a Copenhagen.”
In a metropolitan area of 20 million people, with some of the worst traffic in the world, tensions on the street often run high in the Mexican capital. Cars, taxis, buses, bicycles, and pedestrians struggle to share crowded roadways.
But for a few days after the devastating earthquake, Mexico City residents — including the often marginalized cyclists — overlooked their differences and worked together to get their city back on its feet.
About the author
Martha Pskowski is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City, reporting on urbanism, immigration and the environment. When she isn’t writing, Martha is exploring Mexico City on a singlespeed. Her work can be found at marthapskowski.com.