A Mexican family ride their bicycles along Reforma Avenue, in Mexico City. Since May 2007, Paseo de la Reforma, one of the main avenues of the city, is closed to traffic and open only to bicycles and pedestrians on Sunday mornings. (Marco Ugarte/AP)

Hey, honey, let’s go bicycling with the kids through downtown Mexico City! Just a few years ago, these would have been the words of a lone madman.

In one of the world’s biggest cities, bicycle riding is today a popular way to get around, especially on Sunday mornings, when city hall shuts major throughways to auto traffic and gives the right of way to tens of thousands of cyclists (and a bunch of Rollerbladers and joggers and dogs, too) who wend their way down grand commercial avenues and hard-bitten byways in a leisurely 14-mile loop.

When Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard began the Sunday morning rides five years ago — known as Muevete en Bici — his critics (heck, even some of his friends) thought it was a publicity stunt. Ebrard famously commutes to work once a month by bike and drags his staff along.

Sure, urban bicycle rides are popular in major First World cities, but in the Mexican capital, famous for its clogged arteries and heart-clutching smog?

This ain’t Amsterdam.

But the riders came out, in droves, even though many adults here had never ridden a bicycle before. On some sunny Sundays, the city can put 80,000 cyclists on the streets.

Other days? Good luck.

On most mornings, Mexico City commuter traffic resembles a “Mad Max” sequel, with sedans jostling for lane space with lurching, overloaded microbuses, tin cans on wheels, the junkers nicknamed “green monsters.” God help a cyclist.

Unlike in some cities suffering terminal gridlock — say, in India or China — traffic usually moves in Mexico City, which actually makes it more dangerous to be on a bike, because the cars can reach ramming speeds.

The driving culture considers pedestrians and bicycles fair game.

Areli Carreon, president of Bicitekas, a pro-cycling cooperative, calls the capital city “Cochetitlan,” or “Car Town,” a play on words for “coche,” meaning “car,” and the Aztec term for a city.

In an act of protest, Carreon and his friends erected bicycles spray-painted white at nine intersections where cyclists had been mowed down.

But they stopped.

“The idea was not to put up a white bicycle where every rider died, because there would be many, many, but to bring awareness, to alert the authorities, this is a dangerous crossing, to respect the rider,” Carreon said. “But we stopped because we would reinforce the idea that biking is dangerous, and it is not — not really.”

Miguel Esquer, a chef, was out with his two teenage daughters on a recent ride.

“Oh, they will run you over and complain that you dented their bumpers,” he said.

But not on Sunday mornings.

“We love coming out and seeing our beautiful city from the seat of a bicycle,” Esquer said. “Without the fear of death.”

The rides begin on the Paseo de la Reforma, near the Four Seasons Hotel and the Health Ministry (which has some of the best Diego Rivera murals in the city), and pass glassy bank buildings, the Angel of Independence statue, the U.S. Embassy fortress and the Mexican stock exchange, and then coast around leafy Alameda Park and the Palacio de Belles Artes.

Then the route heads toward more working-class Mexico, and riders smell grilling tacos and fresh bread, and see a few young men, glue-sniffers, sleeping in rags, and the church dedicated to lost causes, and finally the basilica that holds the icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico.

It is Mexico City, at its most democratic.

It is good exercise, and good politics, with a bit of social engineering. Ebrard’s idea is that if you want bike lanes, you need constituents, stakeholders, and so the Sunday rides offer a taste, a free sample, to change people’s thinking about getting around on two wheels.

Public bicycles

The mayor followed the Sunday rides with the city’s Ecobici program in 2010, which offers 26,000 active subscribers unlimited access to 1,200 bicycles at 90 stations for $25 a year.

According to Martha Delgado, the city’s environmental secretary, the Ecobici program will grow this year to offer 4,000 bicycles at 275 stations for 73,000 users.

“It has been a success. We shattered a myth that a megalopolis like Mexico City is not capable of considering the bike as a means of transport,” said Delgado, who envisions a city with fewer cars and more bikes.

There is a long way to go to reach bicitopia.

Despite promises, there are only a few dedicated bike lanes in Mexico City, and even these are often blocked by parked cars. There are more than 4 million vehicles on the road, and the city adds 250,000 a year. About 1 percent of the city gets around by bicycle. Residents make 30 million trips here a day. They make only 9,000 on an Ecobici.

Still, it’s a start, the first crank of the wheel.

“We started coming out a few months ago, and now this is what we do every Sunday morning,” said Alicia Fernandez, out for a spin with her boyfriend. “I tell my friends, ‘Come out for a ride.’ And they say I’m crazy. But how many crazy Mexicans do you see today? A lot!”

Researcher Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.