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.
Mexico City’s subway system lost five of its 13 lines due to electricity failure, making the BRT lines the only transport option aside from walking and cycling in many parts of the megalopolis. The BRT system continued working at 70 percent capacity that first afternoon and night, according to Jesus Padilla, CEO of CISA, which operates of Line 1 of Mexico City’s Metrobus.
“The confined lanes of the Metrobus were the only way for our ambulance services to get around Mexico City after the earthquake,” said paramedic Rodrigo de Lara as he waited at night in an ambulance outside of Mexico’s Hospital General in the aftermath of the earthquake.
Many of the city’s public parks and squares came to play a central role in recovery, too. Like in 1985 when the square around Mexico City’s Monumento de la Revolución became the main center for relief efforts, these spaces function as an initial refuge for people fleeing damaged building and as hubs for organizing rescue efforts.
Shovels, food, and medicine have been collected at the Parque Mexico and Parque Pushkin, where large paved surfaces helped facilitate the earthquake response in nearby neighborhoods. When cars could pass through the streets, they would arrive in the parks to drop off supplies; cyclists would fan out to disperse them. Centers for finding lost pets, psychiatric assistance, and childcare soon arose within the parks. Local residents donated rescue materials and provisions of food for volunteers.
“The ability to host different people with different [needs] in itself is part of a good park,” says Paul van der Voort, co-founder of Mexico City architecture and urbanism bureau DafDF. “In a disaster you see that the multi functionality of parks and public spaces becomes even more important, since the disaster creates radically different necessities which have to be resolved in the public space. Social response to a disaster also depends on people knowing each other beforehand, and this is easier in places with well-designed parks and squares.”
In the aftermath of a disaster, a city has the opportunity to redefine its priorities. The September 19 earthquake reminded Mexico City of the crucial role that public space plays in the aftermath of a catastrophe. BRT lanes and bike sharing plans are not just progressive ways of reducing pollution and traffic; they are central to a city’s capacity for disaster response. Parks and plazas proved themselves to be not just pleasant public amenities, but crucial safety valves. This megacity’s resilience in the face of this earthquake is predicated on public efforts in public spaces—and that should guide urban planning in the future.