Reclaiming the streets

Joanna Moorhead is surprised to discover that polluted Mexico City has become a green pioneer

It's 9am in the centre of one of the busiest, most traffic-clogged cities in the world, and I am cycling, entirely alone and without a car in sight, along its central, tree-lined, four-lane boulevard. I brake as a roundabout approaches, but a police officer is waiting, whistle between his teeth, to beckon me across: he is holding up a barrage of traffic on the intersecting road, entirely for me.

I sail past, registering as I do the hundreds of vehicles backed up to north and south. Only when I am safely across the roundabout does the policeman give them the go-ahead to inch their way along the overburdened minor avenue, while I continue freely along my generous expanse of empty, exhaust-free highway.

What is this, an ecowarrior's dream? Well, it could be: but no, it was a recent Sunday morning in Mexico City. I was cycling along the main traffic artery, Avenida Reforma, a road built by the Emperor Maximilian during a spell of French rule in the mid 19th century. Usually, the scene on Reforma is of nose-to-tail cars, most of them clapped-out, pre-1990s models. Vehicles move slowly, exhaust fumes cast a pall over the road, and there is a constant backdrop of noisy horns and aggravated shouts from angry drivers, punctuated from time to time by the sickening crunch of car on car as a roadway altercation goes awry.

On a normal morning, this road is an environmentalist's worst nightmare. But not so at the end of each week, because, for the past few months, traffic has been banished from Reforma each Sunday between 7am and 2pm. It's a bold move, and the brainchild of the city's mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, who has gone green big-time (certainly by Mexican standards). In another headline-making move, the mayor and his closest advisers now cycle to work on the first Monday of every month - no mean feat for Ebrard, a 48-year-old smoker who, by his own admission, doesn't exercise as much as he might.

Ebrard is talked of as a presidential candidate in 2012, but the Reforma cycling initiative certainly can't be dismissed as populist. Local people, on the whole, hate it. "It's all very well for tourists like you, wandering out of your hotels on Reforma and enjoying the rare smell of fresh air and the eerie silence because there's no traffic," says Mirella, who lives in Mexico City. "But for a mother like me, based slightly out of town in the suburbs, what it means is I can't bring my kids in to the city-centre museums on a Sunday the way I used to. The traffic in the smaller roads off Reforma is simply too chocka."

Mexico City - DF, for Distrito Federal, as the locals call it - has grown quickly. In 1950 it had roughly three million inhabitants; today there are more than 19 million. And, tragically, that mushrooming population has been starry-eyed about the benefits of car use, as demonstrated par excellence by their North American neighbours. The Mexicans might be scathing about the folks who live in the country next door to theirs, but when it came to cars they swallowed the American dream hook, line and sinker. Which is doubly sad given that their city centre is so compact and would - were it not for all those cars making the place dangerous and unpleasant for walking and cycling - be perfect for ambling and pedalling round.

But car overuse is etched on the fabric of DF: environmental groups have long pointed to this city as one of the most polluted on the planet, and the chief culprit in that pollution is exhaust fumes. It's not just about the high number of cars there, it's about the fact that most of them are decades old, burn poor-quality fuel, and are being driven at 7,000 feet above sea level (thinner air makes pollution worse).

Soberingly, it's not so long ago that Mexico City was known for the purity of its air. The novelist Carlos Fuentes's first book, a portrait of DF published in 1959, was called Where the Air is Clear, a title the author has since called ironic. Back in the 1950s, though, it was known for its blue skies and picture-postcard views of nearby snow-topped mountains: mountains that (you can almost guarantee) youngsters growing up today will never glimpse, through the haze hanging above their inner-city playgrounds. In a recent piece of research, children at primary schools in DF were asked to draw the sky. Almost all of them chose grey, brown or black as its colour: none used blue.

According to conservative estimates, roughly 2.5 million working days were lost in Mexico City last year due to respiratory problems caused by pollution. Mayor Ebrard would like to see that figure slashed - but he realises, in a city where life is more about short-term gain than long-term strategy, that he's pedalling uphill. All of which makes his Sunday traffic truce on Reforma all the more impressive. It is, in a sense, one of the most unlikely locations on earth for so pioneering a green statement.

But then again, maybe it's inevitable that the most ambitious initiatives will come from the world's most polluted places. There is a similar scheme in Bogotá, Colombia, another traffic-throttled city. And one scheme begets another - the World Bank recently agreed to give Mexico City US$100,000 to make the space more bike-friendly. A hundred and eighty-six miles of bike lane are now planned.

A few years ago this would all have looked like madness to DF dwellers, less than 1 per cent of whom use bicycles to get around. Even now, if you walk down Reforma on a weekday, as I have been doing regularly for the past month, you can see why it might strike any reasonable soul as suicidal to encourage bicycle use here: if the pollution doesn't get you, the bad driving surely will, eventually.

Come Sunday, however, the scene is very different. Small children are cycling beside their parents, rollerbladers whizzing along the quiet expanse of tarmac, and walkers strolling hand in hand. To be sure, the drivers backed up on the side roads off Reforma are honking their horns and shouting loudly in derision at the lunacy of the scheme. But maybe, just maybe, one or two of them are sitting behind the wheel of their stationary car and thinking quietly to themselves. And maybe they're thinking: Hang on a minute! How mad is this? It all looks rather nice, on that big wide road up there with just a few bicycles on it. Maybe next week I'll leave my car at home and join them instead . . .

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.