It’s like Los Angeles, but worse. To many, that’s the mental image of Mexico City: a city of unending traffic, unbearable smog, and unrestrained horizontal expansion. Yet when one walks the streets of Mexico City, a distinct reality comes into view: a city of wide sidewalks and integrated bike lanes, lush parks and cool street tree canopies, and dense, mixed-use urban neighborhoods. As a matter of fact, nearly every neighborhood within Mexico City’s giant ring road—the Circuito Interior—has a walkscore above 95. Many major U.S. cities lack even one neighborhood with such a high score. Even on the outer fringe of Mexico’s sprawling Distrito Federal, neighborhoods often have walkscores upwards of 70, qualifying as “very walkable.” What makes Mexico City so walkable?
The first thing an American might notice about Mexico City is just how busy the city’s sidewalks are. It’s a city of 21,339,781, and it shows. But this busyness isn’t a mere side-effect of size; it’s a natural result of the city’s generous sidewalks and high-quality pedestrian infrastructure. Many downtown roads host spacious sidewalks, accommodating an unending sidewalk ballet of commuters, tourists, and street vendors. Wide medians along major boulevards offer both refuge for crossing pedestrians and a public space in which people are encouraged to meet and relax. Many of the city’s busiest downtown areas have been closed to automobile traffic. Mexico City’s main road—Paseo de la Reforma—is reserved on Sundays for pedestrians and cyclists. “Jaywalking” is normal and in many cases is assisted by traffic police—a stark contrast to the near persecution pedestrians often face in U.S. cities. The ample space for pedestrians attracts not only foot traffic but also the people watchers who come to enjoy the vitality, in turn keeping many downtown neighborhoods safe well into the night.
The city’s high elevation and tropical location makes for a city that is both lush in vegetation and mild in temperature. Parks and wide medians offer public spaces in which pedestrians and cyclists can travel without the hustle and bustle of congested sidewalks or speeding automobiles. The trees that city officials have planted along nearly every street keep walking cool and comfortable. The cool temperatures in turn encourage the casual mixture of public and private space; cafes and restaurants playfully overflow onto sidewalks and into parks, as street vendors sell everything from school supplies to lunch to newspapers. The city’s relaxed attitude toward street vendors and food carts adds to the liveliness of many public spaces while providing entrepreneurs an inexpensive way to start small businesses.
Perhaps the key to Mexico City’s walkability is the city’s incredible mixture of urban uses. In addition to the standard cornucopia of street vendors, one finds groceries, specialty shops, cafes, and restaurants along nearly every major road in the city. Whether spontaneously or by design, development along such roads often takes the form of apartments above retail—the traditional form of urban development that is prohibited in many U.S. cities. Beyond the main roads, one finds similar mixtures among housing types: high-rise apartments next to townhouses next to single-family homes, with high lot coverage in nearly every case. Where in many U.S. cities open space is regulated into every single lot through floor area ratio regulations, Mexico City’s developments are dense and public space is efficiently relegated to the city’s ample parks and public spaces. This density and mixture of uses keeps sidewalks busy and safe at nearly all hours of the day.
Mexico City’s walkability has been achieved in a large part by the city’s efforts to produce residents with choice in transportation. As walkability evangelist Jeff Speck argues in his book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, “walkable neighborhoods can thrive in the absence of transit, but walkable cities rely on it utterly.” Whether in the form of walking or driving, bus or train, it’s easy for car-free capitalinos to move from neighborhood to neighborhood. Pedestrians in Mexico City also benefit from an enormous public push in recent years to improve bikeability. Not only has the city installed over 90 miles of attractive, well-protected bike lanes around the city; it has also encouraged bike use through large campaigns. In 2010, Mexico City began installing the fourth largest bike sharing service in the world, providing over 6,000 bikes spread across more than 452 stations around the city. The service, Ecobici, now has over 100,000 users belonging to every income group. Thanks to these ambitious—yet relatively inexpensive—projects, Mexico City is credited for starting the “Biking Revolution of Latin America.”
Perhaps the key lesson that U.S. cities could learn from Mexico City is that walkability isn’t impossible in the age of automobiles. Like many cities that boomed in the post-war era—think Sun Belt cities like Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, and Los Angeles—Mexico City rapidly burst outward and residents grew more and more car-dependent from the 1960s through the 1990s. What makes Mexico City special is that its policymakers, civic groups, and businesses embraced the natural walkability that survived this boom and developed the new urban innovations—including bus rapid transit and the city’s now famous pedestrianizaition of streets—needed to keep the city both urban and mobile. As demagogues in the U.S. fret about the purported “mexification” of America, one can’t help but hope that Latin American immigrants bring with them some of their wisdom on walkability and urbanization.