Over the Wheel – Mexico

As one Mexican city experiences a population explosion, activists fight to find space on the street for the humble bike.

Guadalajara is the second-largest city in Mexico and is growing every day. Between new textile industries moving in, technology companies opening offices and the draw of overall economic vitality, the population has skyrocketed.

One of the sure signs of this bustling energy is the millions of cars streaming into the city every day, by the thousands.

But there is a committed group of activists striving to fight this choking onslaught and make the streets safe for alternative and cleaner forms of transportation, specifically the bicycle.

Yeriel Salcedo leads a passionate band of bicycle riders who want to make sure that their city is safe for anyone who wants to go through the city over the wheel – on whatever those wheels may be.

In the past 20 years there has been an explosion of growth in Guadalajara and today it is Mexico’s second-largest city.

Current estimates suggest that more than four million people live there. And the estimated number of cars is nearly two million. It is considered to be one of the most densely populated cities in Latin America as well as one of the most polluted.

Though heavy industry accounts for a significant part of the pollution, the majority comes from car and truck congestion.

The city currently has a higher index of cars per inhabitant than Mexico City which has an estimated population of 20 million.

According to official figures, the number of vehicles in the Guadalajara Metropolitan Zone has tripled from 509,566 vehicles in 1997 to 1,557,194 automobiles in 2009. It is estimated that 350 vehicles are added to city streets daily.



There are millions of bicycles around the world. Beyond the utility of this machine, the bike has turned out to be one of the many symbols of a global green revolution that demands sustainable mobility alternatives.


Juan Pablo Rojas was born in Guadalajara Jalisco, Mexico.

He studied mass media communication at the Iteso University in Guadalajara, cinematography at the Film School of the Argentina’s Film Union and a master’s degree in screenwriting at MGDA in Santiago de Chile.

For years he worked in his company, Cinema Estudio, creating advertising, documentaries and fiction. His personal films have focused mainly on ecological and environmental subjects.

In 2012, his first fiction work, a short film called Lucero, was premiered at the Santiago Film Festival.

He focuses his documentary work on those sectors of society that are promoting new paradigms of life based on social equality, awareness, development, conservation and sustainability.

Guadalajara, Mexico – my hometown – like many other cities in the world is facing the impact of accelerated growth; pollution, traffic and accidents. These repercussions are an everyday phenomenon in this city where almost two million cars circulate the streets. This has become a very complex problem and the solution is not easy. Rising to this challenge are a group of citizens who have decided to use their bicycles instead of their cars and it is them that this documentary focuses its lens on.

This small but brave decision has started a social movement that continues to grow day-by-day, promoting a more sustainable city.

To genuinely reflect this movement on film was the most challenging part of this process. The city of Guadalajara has many collectives with highly committed people who are constantly struggling to create a better city. We shot a lot of material and I had to carefully choose what to include because the information is vast, the people are countless and their stories too many to tell in 25 minutes of film. Throughout the filming process I had the support of groups such as GDL at Bicycle and City for All. I am grateful for the support of these honourable people with whom I built a strong relationship during the filming process, which helped me keep the camera shooting constantly.

A cyclist in this city faces many issues, such as the lack of appropriate infrastructure, poor urban mobility policies, the discrimination that comes from the false belief that a car is synonymous with social status, the apathy of a society that resists change and the lack of road safety culture that constantly causes fatal accidents.

Despite all of these problems, I found a very committed group of people who have the courage to speak up and struggle for the bicycle to have a place on the streets. Yeriel, our main character, mentioned several times that this is not a fight against cars; this is an endeavour to create alternative forms of mobility. Beyond the wheels lies a bigger and nobler commitment: to achieve a green, sustainable, bike friendly city that will provide a higher quality of life for its inhabitants.

Riding a bike is not just about helping the environment; it is about improving ourselves. Suddenly before your eyes, lays a whole new city you thought you knew and a sudden awareness emerges about everything that surrounds you. The movement in this city acknowledges the power of the bicycle and does not aim to convince or force people to ride it, but asks them to simply reconsider trying it for themselves, or at least, to respect the ones that already are using it.

During the filming of this documentary we faced several issues, such as using the camera on a bicycle to be able to follow a mass of cyclists around the city, shooting in noisy places or having to re-write the story several times according to how our reality was changing. All of these factors made it a very challenging and engaging production. I cannot praise enough the human quality of all of the people who were involved in this process. I am really grateful to the members of this movement who allowed me to tell their story and most of all for the trust and support coming from Al Jazeera and all the production crew who made this possible.

Unfortunately, by the end of 2012 the group has placed more white bicycles. I hope that this film can make people reflect on the importance of road safety and how more forms of mobility can circulate through the city safely, whatever those wheels may be.


Viewfinder:  Were there any special challenges or issues that you faced and had to overcome in producing this story?

Juan Pablo Rojas:   One of the challenges with this film was that we had to record while riding bikes. We decided to do that for two reasons. I think that to tell a story really, you have to go in to that story as much as possible, and at many different moments producers kept coming up to me saying that you should be on a motorbike – and it would be safer but we analysed this and in the end we decided that this was a film about bikes and so we should film on bikes. So the problem of having the camera and audio on the bike was hard – so we got tandem bikes and resolved it like that.

What role can a documentary play in society?

I think it is an important role. I don’t think a documentary has enough power to change a situation but it does have the power to push the subject on to the public agenda. I think that if the documentary manages to present a problem, to develop it, and to suggest a possible solution in 26 minutes to all of those people who are going to see it, there will be a seed planted in their minds and they are going to know about the problems and that something has to be done about it. I think that that is the principle role of the documentary for me.

Are there universal themes that you feel are represented in your film?

One is the topic of fossil fuels. This is a global issue. We also talk about how citizens can really change things when they are organised and that that can be applied to any problem anywhere. The other issue is that I think there is a general discontent around the world about capitalism which has reached crisis point and people have started to question its consequences and they realize they are very serious.

Documentaries are increasingly important in storytelling. From your perspective why is this?

I think I am part of that generation that can go out and make films without having to rely on big investment or big budgets. And that means that there are a lot of stories being told. In the past few years, audiences going to see documentaries have hit record highs in Mexico with a documentary on the justice system which was one of the most watched films in the history of Mexico – it came as a big surprise that it was competing alongside fiction films. And I think that the fact that documentary is conquering the space usually designated to feature films is fantastic. This generation knows how to use cameras and to edit on small systems and on a budget: now it’s time to concentrate on powerful content – and that’s the big challenge.

[<a href=”//” target=”_blank”>View the story “Twitter chat with filmmaker Juan Pablo Rojas” on Storify</a>]