Biking as a means of healing Tijuana
It is just 8 am on a gray Sunday morning, when the empty street at Zona Rio starts to come alive with people arriving in their cars; nosily families gather, couples, girlfriends who are enthusiastic despite the drizzle.
They take their bikes off racks and smile at each other.
Babies on special bike-chairs, women over 70; couples on tandem bikes; working men in simple second-hand bikes share the ride along with famous plastic surgeons with their Italian bicycles, worth as much as many cars in the city.
This is the weekly bike tour, but this Sunday is special; it is the sixth anniversary of the group Ciclopista Tijuana, an active citizen group in charge of creating and organizing two weekly bike rides and lobbing for better public policy for cyclists around town.
The anniversary was celebrated by over 650 cyclists of all ages, who joined for a 22 Kilometer (13.6 mile) bike ride around the city, the same route taken every Wednesday night, starting and ending at City Hall, going by Zona Rio, the old city high school Lazaro Cardenas and Benítez Boulevard.
“The ride was designed by one of our founding members, Florencio “Lucho” Vásquez; he died recently but his legacy lives on every time we take his route” says 54 year-old Marisela Fierro, one of the main organizers for Ciclopista.
Tijuana born and raised, Marisela raised her own children at Colonia Libertad —right by the border— and first started biking, after she injured herself, after running her whole life. The lesion was a big disappointment and she had to stop running, but she turned it around and found cycling, her new passion.
With her, another dozen Tijuana residents get together to organize the weekly trips, they train volunteers to control the riders –who vary from 100 to 500 every week. Together they ask for permits and call for a police escort.
“Bike riding is not just a sport, it is a way of transportation; its affordable, clean, environmentally friendly, fun and healthy for all of us” she explains. “Tijuana is far from being designed for bike rides, but there is no reason it cannot change into a friendlier place to ride”.
In the last decade, cycling has been on the rise at this border town, pushed in part by the fad of gym classes like Cycling and Spinning, where people started to explore bike riding and creating their own off road trails.
Ciclopista has been so successful that rides are sprawling around the city.
Since late last year, along with the weekly Wednesday and Sunday rides, there is another trip on Monday nights called Urban Rides, where members suggest the routes to take into historic Tijuana neighborhoods, and trips can last until midnight.
And on Thursdays, a group of female riders created a night ride through Zona Rio named Ladies First.
Bike riding as a citizen’s act
But besides aiming for the growth of cycling as a sport and means of transportation in such a complicated city, Ciclopista aims to straighten the bonds between Tijuanenses, inviting them to experience the city in a whole new way.
“The rides are a way to reclaim the city as our own, to become at home in our streets and promote the love for the city; to nurture a feeling of belonging that is so urgent in times like this” Fierro explains. “There is a great need to re-connect with our neighbors”.
But just in 2010, two bikers have died in Tijuana streets. In both cases, the men were riding alone when, reckless drivers (one of them drunk) hit them, killing them instantly.
During the weekly rides, some drivers honk at the crowd, angry that they have to wait for the riders to get into a busy intersection. Some public transport drivers have even disobeyed police and try to break-up the group in search of a shortcut.
It is then that unity arises. In a collective effort, some experienced riders surround the “disobedient” car and driver, and refuse to move, while the rest of the group passes the street. Only when the last rider has passed, do the rest of the bike riders allow the driver to continue, giving him a lesson in biker etiquette.
“It has been a path to education, both for the riders and drivers” Fierro explains. “We hope the children that join us in the rides today, will remember their experience when they themselves become drivers. I hope they become better neighbors and politicians that can value the importance of alternative means of transportation”.
Besides their triumphs, Fierro knows there is much to learn and do, as they turn to their San Diego neighbors, where they are advanced in the culture of cycling and respect for riders.
For the future, Ciclopista members have lobbied for the construction of a new bicycle route —besides the one at Zona Rio— at Rosas Magallón Boulevard, in the eastern part of the city, an area with high population growth.
The group is also pressuring the city government to assign bicycle lanes in some areas, to put up signs and educate police on the rules and safety measures for bike riders. It even aims to have a bike rental system similar to that currently serving downtown Mexico City.
“This group shows just how many Tijuanenses are willing to join in and volunteer, to become better citizens; we are more than willing to join a cause, as long as it is meaningful and does not have a political background and the aim is simply for us all to live better” says Fierro.