Unmasked! The Mexico City superhero wrestling for pedestrians’ rights
Clogged with traffic, crippled by poor infrastructure – the capital is notoriously hard to navigate on foot. Enter Peatónito, the activist fighting for safer streets
Masked campaigner Peatónito pushes back a car that has strayed on to a pedestrian crossing in Mexico City. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian
The traffic light turns red at the corner of Avenida Juárez and Eje Central, the busiest pedestrian crossing in Mexico City, used by around 9,000 people every hour. Tonight, a driver stops his grey Peugeot exactly on the crossing where the masses are trying to pass. His car is now a steel barrier for those trying to reach the Palacio de Bellas Artes. A masked man dressed in black makes his way through the river of people, walking purposefully towards the Peugeot. His black and white striped cape, reminiscent of a zebra crossing, flaps behind him. He goes to the car, flings his cape over his shoulder, and pushes the Peugeot backwards to make space.
“My name is Peatónito, and I fight for the rights of pedestrians,” he says, introducing himself. The driver smiles and reverses willingly and eventually the pair shake hands. With the pedestrian crossing again flowing as it should, Peatónito heads back to the pavement where he will wait until he is needed again. The traffic light turns green.
Since 2012, Mexico City has had a “superhero” defending its pedestrians: Peatónito, or Pedestrian Man. Three years after he first appeared on the streets, armed with a highway code and a white aerosol can to spray zebra crossings and pavements where none existed, Peatónito can take pride in the victories that he and his fellow transport rights activists have achieved. Together, they fight for a safer, more efficient way for people to get around the capital – which has 5.5m vehicles in circulation – on foot.
The triumphs are tangible. This August, Mexico City’s government presented a new set of road traffic regulations with reduced speed limits on primary routes (that is, slower routes) from 70km/h to 50km/h. The reduced speed limit isn’t a mere whim on the part of the activists; it’s possible to measure how dangerous the streets of the capital are. In Mexico City, 52 accidents in every 1,000 are fatal. In the entire country, the rate is 39 deaths for every 1,000 accidents.
Peatónito on duty at the Zócalo: ‘In Mexico City, just moving from A to B is the most hazardous and inefficient thing imaginable.’ Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian
Another battle that has been fought and won is the implementation of “Vision Zero”, a series of public policies aimed at eradicating road traffic deaths, which activists worldwide have been backing for years. Their aims: an ethical focus to ensure that human life is prioritized; shared responsibility between those who design the roads and those who use them, and street safety and mechanisms for change.
The Netherlands, Sweden and the UK are among the pioneering countries to adopt Vision Zero (the first two just under 20 years ago). Then came US cities like Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco, and eight more. In Mexico, the initiative has been taken up – at least as a point of discussion – in Torreón, an industrial city in the state of Coahuila, and in Mexico City.
If today pedestrians are at the centre of Mexico City’s new road traffic regulations – having relegated cars from the top of the agenda – it is in large part the result of years of activism influencing the city’s policies on road traffic safety.