What Mexican Biking Taught Me About Chicago Cycling

Cycling in La Barca, Jalisco. Photo: Lynda Lopez
Cycling in La Barca, Jalisco. Photo: Lynda Lopez

I spent much of the last few weeks traveling in Mexico throughout Jalisco and Michoacán, the states where much of my family lives.

When I arrived in my grandparents’ town, the first sight that greeted me was people of all ages on bikes. As I visited other towns throughout the two states, bikes were an embedded feature (only less prevalent when visiting bigger cities like Guadalajara).

The people I saw ride their bikes reminded me of the people I see bike in Little Village, Pilsen, or Brighton Park, but with less apparent marginalization on the road. Though I saw car traffic in some of the small towns, there was a rhythm on the road that allowed bikes, pedestrians, motorbikes, and other vehicles to co-exist. I don’t intend to romanticize the places I saw, but it was a refreshing sight to see so many brown people of all ages cycling freely.

A bike in La Barca. Photo: Lynda Lopez
A bike in La Barca. Photo: Lynda Lopez

Mexico isn’t usually a country we think about when we think about a biking culture, but bikes are an embedded part of small Mexican towns I visited. I am sure this rings true throughout the country. I didn’t see bike lanes in most places I saw people biking and a seldom saw any helmets. I’m not saying they aren’t important, but the rhythm of how vehicles and people navigate the streets safely goes deeper than the infrastructure we build.

This reminds me of Dr. Adonia Lugo’s book Bicycle/Race: Transportation, Culture, and Resistance. This line stuck with me, “It was the people, not the traffic infrastructure who decided the order of the street.”

Cycling in La Barca
Cycling in La Barca

Granted, infrastructure can make a difference, particularly in built environments that have already paved the way for a deeply embedded car culture. However, what do we overlook and miss when we are so fixated on what we can physically build, rather than what relationships we can develop that can create safe roads for everyone?

As I sat with my grandma in front of her house, I watched the traffic go through. I watched the silent agreements that made it easy for kids and old residents alike to ride next to the cars with a seeming carefreeness I seldom feel when on my bike in Chicago. How are relationships crucial to helping us navigate the streets together?

Biking in La Barca. Photo: Lynda Lopez
Biking in La Barca. Photo: Lynda Lopez

I saw the same rhythm as I walked through my aunt’s town. People on bikes rode next to people in cars with a rhythm not granted with streetlights but with patterns developed with people on the road.

As a brief visitor, there are many nuances I am sure I missed and conclusions I cannot draw. I can merely walk away with questions based on my observations and think about how that can apply to how I think about mobility justice.

Biking in Los Charos, Michoacan. Photo: Lynda Lopez
Biking in Los Charos, Michoacán. Photo: Lynda Lopez

My biggest takeaway is to always remember so many people bike in ways and patterns we may not acknowledge and may not view as “cycling culture.” Learning to broaden what we view as cycling culture can only allow us to include more voices and experiences into the conversation to develop more rhythms on the road together. While bike lanes are one tool to create safer roads for people on bikes, the conversation has to be broader than the white stripes we can paint on the roads.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I’m of of the dwindling population of Chicagoans that grew up biking before there bike lanes, or helmet usage, or any of the “bike infrastructure” we often talk about here. And while I have no rose colored glasses regarding biking on Chicago’s arterial streets, this article does remind me how relatively laid back biking on the side streets used to be. I don’t see nearly as many kids doing that these days, and thanks to the prevalence of monster SUVs and distracted drivers in general, side streets seem to have lost a lot of that vibrancy I remember, at least in the North Side neighborhoods we frequented. I’m glad we have bike lanes and I think their main value is in sending a signal that cyclists are welcome, but I can’t honestly say it feels any safer out there because of them. If anything I’d give that nod to Divvy, which seems to have encouraged more casual riding and less Lance Armstrong wanna-be’s.

  • Jeremy

    I think there is a selfishness in American culture that isn’t as prevalent elsewhere. This develops both out of being oblivious to the needs of others and simple arrogance. It manifests itself in many behaviors, like driving through red lights, wearing backpacks while standing on the bus/train, or not picking up dog waste.

  • hopeyglass

    This was beautiful and so thoughtful, Lynda, you’re such an excellent voice here.

  • Courtney

    This comes at a perfect time. Just last night I was thinking about the mindset shift needed for folks driving vehicles to be kind/courteous/respectful of those on a bike. I want to work in my neighborhood to build more physically protected bike space but would’t it be nice if that wasn’t necessary. I would love for folks in cars to understand we’re ALL trying to get to where we need to go and speeding around a person on a bike to beat them to the stop sign or a light just isn’t necessary. A person in a car is typically going to reach their destination faster by virtue of being in a car, barring bumper to bumper traffic. How does beating me to the stop sign by 15 seconds really help you?

    Aside from that, this comes at the perfect time because I’ve been contemplating moving to this area of Mexico.

  • Calvin Brown

    Wonderful photos! That first one is definitely top ten bicycle culture photos I have seen. Do you have any photo social media to follow?

  • raulben

    Actually Chicago has a lot to learn about bike culture. In mexico city every Sunday they shut down one of the busiest streets in the world so that people can bike etc down it and it’s FREE. Here the bike the drive event charges people which discriminates against people who don’t have the money to pay that ridiculous fee. It makes bike the drive elitist IMHO. It was a refreshing site to see citizens of one of the largest cities in the world bike freely.

  • Jacob Wilson

    Way to throw a nice little dig at the end about cyclists who also happen to like to participate in the wonderful sport of cycling as well as use it as a mode of transportation.Your attitude about the sport of cycling is in itself an illustration of how and why bike culture in the US is so lacking.

    Many of those “lycra Lances” you see are the same people who have been commuting year round and fighting for the rights of cyclists for decades but just happen to also like to ride their bikes for fun on the weekend and maybe race.

    We’re all on the same team and we all have the same end goals but some people like to ride faster than you and wear different apparel, so what?

  • Carter O’Brien

    Slow down there, pun intended. I used the descriptor “wanna-be” for a reason – to describe the ones that are not serious, and don’t grasp that it isn’t OK to go as fast you want, during say, rush hour along the LFT beach zones at Oak St and North Ave.

    If you can bike fast and can do so without being a jagoff to other users of the road, good on ya. If you can’t – you sure as hell do not have the same goals I do, which is to get safely from point A to point B while respecting everyone around me.

  • rwy

    If only the drivers complaining about bike lanes understood that they wouldn’t exist if they stopped bullying cyclists.

  • TRPCLRMNTCST

    i cant believe how expensive bike the drive is. its ironic that only bikes ever pay a toll to use that road. sundays on paseo de la reforma are divine and chicago would become a more peaceful city if we could foment that type of atmosphere somewhere, anywhere

  • ChicagoCyclist

    I agree. In the public ROW, everyone should behave in a way (travel, etc.) that is focused on maintaining safety for everyone — one’s self and everyone else around. It’s common courtesy, consideration, sociability, but it’s also a matter of life and death. Reckless driving is very dangerous; so is reckless cycling — even reckless walking can be dangerous (though mostly, but not only, to one’s self). As regards places like the LFT in the summer and at rush hours, serious, high-speed, training cyclists — if they must use a public, shared-use path at all — should be out there at 4:00 AM and not when kiddies, tourists, “average” commuters, rollerbladers, assistive bikes, wheelchair users, parents with strollers, seniors, etc. etc. are out there. Public space is public, and it is an asset we all (together) need to respect and preserve.

  • ridonrides

    A few years ago, Active Trans tried to do Open Streets a few weekends during the summer. I think the cost of CPD doing traffic control to shut down motorized traffic stopped them from doing it again.

  • Lynda Lopez

    Thanks so much for saying this. I appreciate it.

  • Lynda Lopez

    I posted other Mexico bike photos on my Twitter @lyndab08. I don’t have a bicycle specific twitter, but good idea.

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  • Kelly Pierce

    Lynda Lopez fails to disclose important aspects about
    Mexican driving culture that are different from America and Europe. This “rhythm on the road” has its downsides. In
    the Mexico City area and in some Mexican states, no test of any kind is
    administered to get a driver’s license. People just need to pay a fee. Hispanics
    and Mexicans also have higher drunk driving rates compared to rates for the general population in the United States. With little to know training or
    qualification and more drunk drivers, biking in Mexico can be far more
    dangerous than in the United States.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    There’s a kernel of truth to what you’re saying here, but you also seem to be making some assumptions. Not all Hispanic groups in the U.S. have higher DUI rates than whites, and I’m not seeing anything online about high DUI rates in Mexico. https://www.iihs.org/iihs/sr/statusreport/article/35/8/3

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