Mexico redefines the right to safe mobility

Mexico redefines the right to safe mobility

Establishing a national right to safe mobility grounded on sustainable and social justice principles

At 28 years old, Emmanuel Vara worked as the director of mobility for the fifth largest city in Mexico. His appointment in such a key position of his city’s local government was not undeserved, having previously worked in Puebla’s Municipal Planning Institute. He was also an active member of Cholula en Bici, a cycling collective in what is now deemed Mexico’s most bicycle-friendly city. Well known among fellow cycling and urban mobility activists, who affectionately called him “Manu,” he was one of the first to implement ciclovía or the Open Streets program in the city center. True to his convictions about sustainable mobility and concern for climate change, Manu would ride his white fixie bicycle to work every day, unlike most public officials around him. He kept up this routine daily until the morning of November 21, 2018, when a young BRT bus driver ran a red light at high speed along an unsanctioned lane, killing Manu instantly. 

Hanging on the traffic light at the intersection of Calle 11 and Avenida 4, the white frame of his bike – a ghost bike – can still be seen as a reminder of this tragedy.  It was not the first white bike memorial that cycling organizations put up in Puebla, or the rest of Mexico, and was part of the impetus to work towards its first national Road Safety Law. Since 2012, Mexico has consistently reported more than 16 000 yearly casualties caused by traffic incidents. To put things into perspective, that’s 13.2 deaths per thousand inhabitants, compared to the European average of 5.1 deaths per thousand inhabitants calculated in 2019. In contrast with other more motorized countries, the unsafety of Mexican roads disproportionately affects its most vulnerable populations. While motorized vehicles are involved in 62.61 percent of road accidents, pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit users have accounted for half of the victims in the last five years. More poignantly, road accidents unjustly affect Mexicans that have yet to reach driving age, as motor vehicle accidents constitute the leading cause of death among schoolchildren and male adolescents. They are also the cause of more than 32 thousand permanent disabilities among the population. 

All of this reflects an inherent inequality in the risks most Mexicans face when traveling. Automobile trips form barely one-third of the nation's transportation mode-share in its main cities. Mexico City’s most recent origin-destination survey (2017) reported that only 22.3 percent of trips are made with private motor vehicles, while 50.9 to 65.9 percent walked and/or used transit to get to their destination.  The 2017 mobility survey also quantified the results of ten years of pro-cycling policies. The reported 40 percent increase in bicycle trips is often attributed to the municipal ciclovía programs, its Ecobici public bike-sharing system, and the steady expansion of bicycling facilities across the city.  However, these achievements undersell the citizen-led efforts of cyclist and pedestrian collectives and organizations often behind the internationally recognized best practices for active mobility and road safety.

Much like Manu Vara in Puebla, citizen-experts are young, well-informed activists that become so involved in demanding better conditions for cycle users and pedestrians that they often come to occupy important decision-making positions in non-governmental organizations (NGO) and city governments. NGOs and activists have thus influenced urban mobility policies locally, but have also established nationwide networks of cooperation that produce significant changes at the federal level. 

The Coalición Movilidad Segura is a coalition of more than 61 civil organizations from across the country dedicated to sustainable mobility and road safety, pushing forward a federal bill that guarantees all road users the right to a safe transportation environment. After three failed attempts since 2014, the Coalición succeeded in promoting the recognition of the right to mobility under conditions of safety, accessibility, efficiency, sustainability, quality, inclusion, and equality in Mexico’s Constitution. This constitutional amendment has paved the way for a national regulatory framework that guarantees the newly enacted right to mobility. Although the Road Safety Law developed by the Coalición was recently approved, it has not been without its challenges. The Law's systemic approach to road safety is framed within the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and espouses the UN Decade of Action.

The ample scope of the Mobility Law entails the collaboration of several government agencies that are separately in charge of regional planning, public financing, highway administration, health services, public safety, and human rights. It proposes to create a National System of Mobility and Road Safety that would require the coordination of three levels of government, as well as the harmonization of design, enforcement, and data gathering criteria. It’s no small task, as some stakeholders have already pointed to the risks of normative overlapping the contextual differences among Mexican cities, calling for the autonomy of local authorities to regulate the speed and efficiency of vehicular traffic and logistics systems. The Mobility Law has certainly elicited a widespread consensus on the concept of mobility as a public right centered on the integrity of the human body.

However, it's been a veritable quandary as to how to incorporate these principles into the adjoining agendas of electromobilitypublic transitfreight transport, and the connectivity of marginalized communities. The emphasis of the Mobility Law on Vision Zero goals, low-speed road design, shared responsibility systems, outreach, and education campaigns, and privileging the most vulnerable, low-emission means of transport might be at odds with both Mexico’s reliance on motorized vehicles for its economic development programs and the current administration’s stance on fiscal austerity. Although road accidents cost 1.7 percent of the nation’s yearly GDP and the public transport industry generates 4 percent of the national wealth, the financing of the Mobility Law’s objectives has yet to be defined or guaranteed. Regrettably, none of the financing mechanisms proposed in the original bill were included in the version revised by the Senate, citing the need for the discretion of local governments in securing the necessary funding. 

Still, Mexico’s forthcoming Mobility and Road Safety Law has opened the way for new avenues of dialogue around the wellbeing of urban dwellers, issues of equity in access to public space, and strategies to tackle the ongoing challenges of climate change.

Not only does the Mobility Law reflect global concerns of sustainability and social justice in mobility systems, but it has also found common ground among opposed political parties in the legislative branch.  Thanks to the persistence of young, thoughtful leaders from civil society who have meaningfully participated in the development of the law and the grounds of what the “right to mobility” should look like, it has overcome the commonplace biases of elite projection on issues of mobility. For one, it has used the topics of mobility and road safety to highlight the need for governance at an interconnected, metropolitan level, emphasizing the benefits of establishing shared regulatory frameworks and information databases. But most saliently, it has shifted discussions from supplying normative infrastructure facilities for unhindered transportation modes, to securing the safety of all users. In this sense, the Mobility Law is congruent with the current government’s concern with addressing disadvantaged populations and policy reforms that tackle root, system-wide problems. 

Following the death of Manu Vara, his colleagues, friends, and family were quick to establish several civil initiatives and organizations to ensure that no other Mexican community would experience such a preventable tragedy. Mobility activists launched Ni Una Muerte Vial that, among other things, tracked social and traditional media sources for news of pedestrian and cyclist road fatalities during 2019, painting a more accurate picture of the urgent need for road safety measures. Rather than condemning the bus driver for Manu’s death, the family started ¡Manu Vive!, a non-profit organization that carries on Manu's efforts to improve the conditions for mobility in the built environment. “As a mother, I can tell you that there’s only so much responsibility one can ask of a 19-year-old,” Manu’s mother said about the bus driver, noting that he is just another victim of a failed transportation system.  Both organizations were actively involved in the drafting, promotion, and co-signing of Mexico’s first Mobility and Road Safety Law, which is presently on its way to the lower House of Representatives to be enacted into law later this year.


Claudio Sarmiento Casas

Claudio Sarmiento-Casas

Architect, Researcher, and Urban Consultant



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