Parks and Bicycles Were Lifelines After Mexico City's Earthquake - CityLab

Seconds after a powerful earthquake struck Mexico City on September 19, the mobile phone network was down. Stoplights ceased to function as electricity failed, and the city’s streets had turned into one vast traffic jam. In a few frantic minutes, millions of people were driven out of buildings into the public space, incommunicado except for the wi-fi network.

In the aftermath, the quality of the city’s public infrastructure became of supreme importance for its citizens—and in some cases, even a matter of life and death.

Following a disaster, “the difference between the sidewalk and the pavement of the road disappears and people start walking everywhere,” says Jesus Iglesias, a civil engineer who researched the seismic impact of Mexico City’s major 1985 earthquake on the city’s buildings. He says people instinctively avoid buildings after tremors—worrying that glass, rocks, or ornaments could tumble down—and they meet in the street.

Even so, “going on foot is not a very good way of travelling in an area struck by a disaster,” says Ivan de la Lanza, director of pedestrian and bicycle mobility of the World Resources Institute Mexico. “The best option is the bicycle.”

In the rush to get somewhere after the earthquake, bicycles and motorcycles emerged as the safest, fastest, and most-effective option. These wove past rubble and through traffic with relative ease. Bicycles played three basic roles in the disaster response: first as a mobility option for navigating obstructed streets without contributing to vehicular chaos, then as couriers of medicines and other light supplies, and finally as a way to scout heavily damaged areas before larger vehicles entered.

Since the city’s bike-sharing system doesn’t operate totally independently from the electric grid, many of the Ecobici bike-sharing stations were down in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Some other stations didn’t lose power; a few run on solar cells and batteries. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many people did use the available bicycles.

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