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Mexico made safe mobility a human right – here’s how its streets can become safer

Mexico became the first nation to declare access to safe mobility a human right in 2020 and two years later passed the General Law of Mobility and Road Safety to protect people, reduce collisions and promote sustainable modes of travel.

Now, with this new constitutional mandate, it must redesign its streets to prioritise public transport modes and the safety of pedestrians and cyclists.

WRI research shows that relatively simple modifications – such as lowering vehicle speed limits, expanding sidewalks, adding crosswalks to streets and planting greenery along walkways – can make a huge difference in protecting pedestrians – especially women, children and other vulnerable road users – in Mexico and beyond.

Jalisco Is paving the way

Mexico’s cities, like most urban areas around the world, have designed their streets to prioritize fast-moving vehicle traffic, often neglecting pedestrian safety and accessibility. This prioritisation has inadvertently marginalized pedestrian infrastructure, crucial not only as a sustainable mode of travel, but also for accessing public transport systems.

Even with increasing vehicle ownership across Latin America, walking is still the most common form of transportation in many urban areas. In Mexico City, walking represents 47 per cent of all trips, yet only 10 per cent of Mexico’s transportation spending is allocated to pedestrian infrastructure. The World Health Organization estimates there were 16,725 road crashes in 2016, and of these, pedestrians accounted for the largest share of deaths from road collisions (46 per cent), higher than the rate for the entire Latin American region (35 per cent).

The western state of Jalisco, along Mexico’s Pacific coast, is among the first in the country to invest in a transformation. The Jalisco state government, through the Ministry of Infrastructure and Public Works, has already identified the need to build streets that prioritise safe accessibility for pedestrians and integrate with public transport, especially near schools, hospitals, parks and public markets.

These sidewalks in Mexico are poorly designed for pedestrians. The narrow walkways are often interrupted for vehicles’ access, and steps, steep ramps, utility poles and planter boxes are impediments to walkers. Photo: WRI México

The state is currently planning projects that include an indicator system to evaluate the safety of bus rapid transit stations and ensure the surrounding infrastructure supports high quality access for pedestrians, including installing safe lighting, pedestrian crossing signals, and green buffer zones. The government of Jalisco is also strengthening the technical procedures for the design (and redesign) of public spaces near schools. These areas have a higher need for additional traffic-calming measures like wider sidewalks for children who are walking to school or riding their bikes next to caregivers, raised pedestrian crossings that also act like speed bumps and continuous plant strips to prevent people from crossing the road in unsafe locations.

7 interventions that make streets safer and more sustainable

WRI México has been working with state and local governments, including Jalisco, to standardise safer streets, especially around public spaces like schools and hospitals. Infrastructure such as pedestrian zones, green spaces, public transport and traffic calming measures are all examples of modifications that can be implemented not just in Mexico, but in cities around the world. Here are seven interventions cities should consider:

1) Redesigning Existing Streets

To make streets safer, city planners must first understand existing street elements such as road hierarchy (is it intended as a highway or a residential street?), lane width, signage and street lighting, which are basic concepts for a comprehensive starting point. But then the focus of a redesign needs to be on pedestrians. Speed management interventions, such as narrower car lanes, planting trees along the side of the road to create a feeling of enclosure, smaller turning radii at intersections and raised pedestrian crosswalks, can help make streets safer for walkers. Streetlights should be spaced every 30 metres (100 feet) apart on busy vehicle roads. But for smaller roads that see more pedestrians, streetlights should be placed closer – every 10 metres (33 feet) apart – to make streets brighter at night.

2) Pedestrian Infrastructure

A critical element of safe pedestrian infrastructure is even, unobstructed sidewalks. According to minimum safe design recommendations, sidewalks should span 1.8 metres (about 6 feet) with an additional buffer of 0.8 metres (2.6 feet) from road traffic. The buffer zone can include vegetation, street furniture, bike racks, utility poles or other infrastructure. The “Complete Streets” design principles include best practices for accommodating all road users, including obstacle-free pedestrian circulation, ramps with adequate dimensions, rest furniture such as benches, protected bike lanes and safe road crossings. Even if a city can’t fully implement a full complete streets design, each of its elements can provide individual value.

This sketch shows elements of a pedestrian-friendly sidewalk in a Complete Street design. It features three zones: On the left, an area to operate doors or windows from homes or businesses while providing space for furniture; in the middle, a pedestrian-through zone for people to walk by without encountering obstacles; and on the right, space for more infrastructure like bike parking, benches, vegetation and transit stops. Graphic: WRI México

3) Green Infrastructure

Green infrastructure offers solutions to the many environmental pressures cities face, such as air pollution, noise, flooding and extreme heat. For example, planting tall trees can provide shade, green walls can keep surfaces cool and more permeable surfaces such as rain gardens, bioswales or planter boxes can absorb rainwater. Landscaping and greenery can also be implemented alongside pedestrian infrastructure, utilizing space on medians and buffers, alongside walls and in roundabouts. Not only does greenery provide physical benefits, but it can also improve pedestrian safety by blocking people from stepping into busy roadways or preventing street crossings at dangerous points. The added greenery also has been proven to improve the visual landscape and increase residents’ happiness.

Green infrastructure provides many environmental solutions for cities. In the image on the left, the trees are too low to offer shade and the surrounding strip does not allow for rainwater absorption. The photo on the right, however, depicts a sidewalk with a continuous strip of trees that can create shade, provide climate regulation and visual improvement to the street. Photos: WRI México

4) Cycling infrastructure

Cycling is a very efficient and inclusive mode of transportation that requires little space and resources. But more infrastructure and safety provisions could encourage more riders and fewer cars on the road. Key components of cycling infrastructure include segregated one-way lanes with a minimum width of 1.8 metres (6 feet), well-organised intersections to minimise the risk of collisions and frequent bicycle parking where bikes can be locked and secured by one or both wheels. Additionally, bike lanes should be continuous and connected to other modes of transportation like public transit stations.

However, infrastructure alone might not be a complete solution. More consideration for women could encourage more riders. Bogotá, Colombia, recently saw an increase in bike trips from six per cent before the pandemic to eight per cent in 2023, but found the number of female riders, who currently account for only 24 per cent of cyclists of cyclists, has not increased. Women report that barriers include safety concerns, particularly from harassment, lack of amenities such as bike parking and showers at work, as well as insufficient knowledge on how to ride.

5) Bus infrastructure

City planners often forget that public transit users start and end as pedestrians who need safe spaces to wait for buses or other forms of public transportation. Several types of bus stops can be implemented, with varying amounts of space used for benches and coverings. Better vertical signage with route information, fare costs and a contact number should be located next to street lighting and must not obstruct pedestrian traffic. Space permitting, a 1.5-metre (five feet) roof over benches is recommended, with a covered space of the same size for people standing or in wheelchairs. Additional safety suggestions include a transparent backing of the waiting area and a panic button for emergencies, which can be placed on a light post for simple electricity connection.

These sketches show different types of bus stops with increasing amounts of dedicated waiting space and shelter. Green infrastructure can be integrated into the design to offer additional shade. Graphics: WRI México

Also, bus rapid transit lines should be well integrated into other travel networks. Mi Macro Periférico, the newest bus rapid transit corridor in Guadalajara (the capital of Jalisco), saw a surge in ridership to more than 300,000 riders per day because of its integration with cycling and walking infrastructure. The city built 620 bicycle parking spaces along the corridor to improve accessibility, as well as constructed pedestrian bridges and planted trees and other greenery along walkways, demonstrating the benefits of connecting public transit with “active mobility” like biking and walking.

6) Traffic calming infrastructure

When designing or redesigning streets, there must be a shift in perspective from moving vehicles to moving people. Modifications to roads can reduce speeds and create safe spaces for all its users. These street elements include medians, speed bumps, raised pedestrian crossings, roundabouts and curb extensions.

One tactic, called a ‘road diet’ reduces the space allocated for vehicles and parking to make room for bicycle lanes, medians, wider sidewalks, landscaping or an exclusive bus lane.

In Jakarta, Indonesia, which in 2017 was the fourth-most congested city in the world, the government expanded its sidewalks to make the city more walkable. Implementing a road diet in Jakarta’s biggest financial district in 2018 increased walkability by up to 40 per cent and increased public transportation ridership by 15 per cent. By 2021, Jakarta’s world congestion rating dropped to 46th.

7) Gender accessibility

Alongside each of these elements of safer streets, greater attention should be given to women’s mobility and safety needs. Globally, men and women’s travel patterns are distinct. While men most often travel directly from point A to point B, women tend to make more stops along their journey, or “trip-chain” for basic activities such as shopping for daily goods, running errands and completing other administrative tasks along their main route. Additionally, women are still the majority of caretakers and often travel with children or elderly people. Yet streets and sidewalks are often inaccessible or inadequate for pushing karts, wheelchairs or strollers, and for resting along the walking route.

A woman, who is pushing a stroller and walking with a child, walks on the road because of narrow and poor sidewalk conditions in Mexico. Photo: WRI México

Safe streets don’t stop at sidewalks and better lighting. Crosswalks need to provide more time for a mother pushing a stroller, shrubs should be trimmed to maintain a clear line of sight to public spaces and there should be signage on how to get help if needed. Cities should also make it a priority to provide safe and clean public toilet facilities. A report from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health shows anxiety around finding a toilet outside of the home can prohibit girls and women from partaking in daily activities.

As congestion increases, walkable streets need to be a priority

Walking and cycling are the most climate-friendly modes of travel and increasing their use will be critical for cities to reducing emissions. But this cannot be achieved without safe infrastructure. As cities’ streets get more congested with cars and trucks, more collisions are likely to occur between vehicles and pedestrians, particularly if they must continue to share the road. Protecting the most vulnerable road users must be a priority.

A city with equal access to public spaces with open air, greenery, slower vehicle speeds, convenient public transportation, low levels of noise and air pollution, and short travel times will improve the quality of life for all its residents. Additionally, planning urban spaces, streets, crosswalks, bus stops and cycling lanes with attention to women’s needs and their dependents will further improve the safety and travel quality of all users.

To learn more about how Mexican cities are improving road safety, read the Safe and Walkable Environments Guidebook in Spanish or the document brief in English here. This post is part of WRI’s Mobility and Accessibility Program (MAP), supported by FedEx, to improve public transport globally and in Brazil, China, India and Mexico.

This article originally appeared on WRI’s Insights.

Anna Kustar is Urban Mobility Research Analyst for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Sandra López is Urban Mobility Analyst for WRI México.

José Hernández is Technical Mobility Specialist for WRI México.

Anamaría Martinez is Research & Equity Coordinator for WRI México and WRI Colombia.

Author: WRI Center for Sustainable Cities

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