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The Malecón in La Paz, Mexico is the public space Portlanders dream about

Posted by on January 17th, 2020 at 3:52 pm

Better than Better Naito.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

I try to not think about work while on vacation, but I couldn’t help think of Better Naito and Waterfront Park while I was in La Paz, Mexico with family over winter break. The reason? A dreamy piece of public space known as the Malecón.

Luxuriously smooth concrete, a place for biking, lots of hidden nooks to hang in, and they even have their version of Mill Ends Park.

The Malecón (English for promenade or sea wall), is a three-mile stretch of Paseo Alvaro Obregon along the edge the bustling city of 250,000 in Baja California Sur 90 miles north of Cabo San Lucas. On a map the Malecón separates La Paz’s downtown and commercial zone from the Bay of La Paz and Sea of Cortez, but in real life the space brings the city together. During our week there it was full of life everyday and became my favorite place to hang out. It’s easily one of the best examples of human-centered seaside infrastructure I’ve ever experienced.

Held up against Waterfront Park and Naito Parkway, there’s really no comparison. Here’s why:

It’s safe and family-friendly

Even at night.

Carfree spaces are the goal, but when you can tame the speed of drivers to 15 mph and below, every public space becomes 100% better. And guess what, where people don’t threaten others with big and dangerous vehicles, families soon follow. I was overjoyed to see so many people of different ages and statures on the boardwalk and bikeway. Multiple generations of families walking hand-in-hand, tiny kids being taught how to ride with an elder by their side, teenagers roller-blading and skateboarding, young couples in love.

Unlike Naito Parkway, drivers on the Malecón rarely if ever go above 15 mph. Usually it’s even slower than that because it’s more of a place to cruise.

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Beyond safe traffic, the Malecón is an inviting place because it’s very well-lit and there are many programmed spaces that feel welcoming at all hours of the night. There are almost 200 benches, lots of little niches to claim, and spots where you can choose to be on display or have privacy.

In constrast, Waterfront Park is separated from downtown by a wide, multi-lane road where people routinely drive well over safe speeds. The park itself is mostly just grass and darkness that — outside of Portland Saturday Market and large festivals in the summer — can feel scary and uninviting at night.

The materials and finish are world-class

2009 vs 2019.

In the last 10 years the Mexican government has made significant investments in the surfaces and furnishings. They recently replaced tile pavers with a polished concrete surface that looks great and feels luxuriously smooth. On October 2019 they had a big celebration to toast the latest $10 million in upgrades that included new plazas, lighting, a grand gazebo, intriguing sculptures, and more.

Everything feels and looks top-notch, which tells users that the space is respected. I find that when people feel spaces are built with respect for their experience, they respect the spaces more.

One of the coolest spaces is at the Malecón’s northern end. A BMX park has been built in the middle of the street with bikeways running along either side.

Proximity

While drivers and their cars are still more present than I’d hope (idling pickups next to the ice cream shop’s tables is no fun), the proximity between the boardwalk and the city itself felt wonderful. In Portland, I feel like Waterfront Park is so far away from “downtown” because of the way we’ve allowed development to happen along (and on) Naito Parkway.

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And as much as I love Better Naito for its carfree cycling space, it’s separated from other people walking on the riverfront path. If there’s one rule of public space design, it’s that people crave proximity to other people (even if they don’t admit it). I’d rather see bicycle riders adjacent to walkers (with ample separation through design of course) than car drivers.

Teeming with life

Just off the Malecón was this mob scene at a bike/stake/scooter rental place.

Portland has a lot of planning goals. We should add another one: An ideal number of people in major public parks and spaces. It was so exciting to be at the Malecón at night. One time on a clear and warm evening it was just packed with people (in a good way). One one block just off the boardwalk we came to a storefront that was abuzz with activity. There were bikes and people on them everywhere so I instantly perked up. I thought maybe a huge, critical mass type ride was starting. Turned out to be a rental shop that was mobbed with customers. From bikes to trikes to skates and scooters, people were grabbing anything they could find that had wheels on it. There was a palpable eagerness to hit that smooth concrete and get rolling on the Malecón ASAP!

The bikeway design

The bikeway isn’t as wide as it should be, but it works for now. It’s a two-way path, painted green with yellow curbs separating it from auto users. To give you an idea of how much pride La Paz residents have in it, every morning I would see work crews sweeping sand out of the bike lane by hand.

Click for captions

Toward the northern end of the bikeway it moves into the center of the road. To get it safely across they’ve installed right-angle turns for bicycle users and — most importantly — serious speed bumps for auto users. Portland’s speed bumps are sort of a joke to me after driving over the ones in La Paz. The small but mighty bumps demand that you come to almost a complete stop and they’re preceded by a series of small metal bumps in the road that act as rumble strips.

When the center-running bikeway crosses an intersection, engineers have made it raised up above the road for added safety.

You can quibble with the design, but you can’t argue with the results. People use it. From friends on a rental tandem and people just getting where they need to go, to serious racers out for training rides (which La Paz has in large numbers), it was always in use.

With its success cemented, the Mexican government plans to keep expanding the Malecón and making it better. By this spring another 1.6 mile. $2 million extension will open. I can’t wait to check it out next time we go.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Chary M HeidingerFrank SelkerHello, KittyThe Last VoyageurThe Last Voyageur Recent comment authors
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The Last Voyageur
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The Last Voyageur

Baja is the friggin best.

Those speed bumps are called “topas” and they are one of the best things about Mexico, IMO. I wish we had them here.

Eric
Guest
Eric

Close! “Topes”

I wear many hats
Guest
I wear many hats

Did you notice that drivers in La Paz treat all stop signs as idaho stops?

Gregg
Guest

BUT. Did you snorkel with sea lions?!?

Chris
Guest
Chris

I went snorkeling with the sea lions twenty years ago down there and I found it a bit scary. The sea lions love to play so they swam right at me veering off at the last second. I found it rather unnerving. It was an amazing experience but they definitely freaked me out.

Very cool that you were able to swim with the whale sharks Jonathan!

SilkySlim
Guest
SilkySlim

Those sea lions were a bit intense!! Our guide had us slowly make our way to this little cave where he said they always hang out. One of them came flying out and did this awesome little series of spin moves right 3′ in front of my wife, who did a fast 180 herself and retreated to just scoping out the little fish. We also saw two up on the rocks having a totally epic battle.

Awesome seeing the report and photos! We were there just about a year ago, and had an amazing time. We hit up the malecon almost daily.

q
Guest
q

I really appreciate this article–the focus on the public space aspect, the analysis of what it does and why it works, and the comparison with Portland’s Waterfront Park.

And it’s so sad–so many of Portland’s public spaces–Waterfront Park, Pioneer Courthouse Square, the Park Blocks, Keller Fountain, Jamison Square…are so often cut off from the surrounding buildings by vehicle traffic.

Also sad that so many people here don’t really know how wonderful urban public spaces can be, because their closest personal experience with them may be Clackamas Town Center or Bridgeport Village.

Kiel Johnson (Go By Bike)
Member

You forgot to add the official La Paz cycle track video that I filmed and produced with original score from 7 years ago. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43KHCAtxyoI

David LaPorte
Subscriber
David LaPorte

I’ve done an extensive amount of tour cycling in Guatemala, Mexico, the US and Canada, and Mexico is by far the safest of those places to ride. In urban and rural settings, narrow roads with lots of potholes and topes really slow drivers down, and high residential and commercial density along narrow public right-of-ways make streets much more multi-use spaces where road users have to work around each other and be more cautious of each other.

Julie H.
Guest
Julie H.

I think about this division of peds/bikes/cars and relation to public space when comparing Portland’s Waterfront Park with the seawall in Vancouver, BC (and the new riverfront park in Vancouver, WA where cars are on the north side of building and businesses, creating pedestrian/riverfront priority). It is so much more inviting to walk & bike when cars feel and are so far away. I really wish there was an interest in doing a complete redesign of Waterfront Park to connect it with downtown, make solid safe AAA (all ages & abilities) bike infrastructure, and add more spaces for all hours recreation/hangout.

Josh Berezin
Subscriber
Josh Berezin

Re: the area adjacent to Naito/Waterfront Park — I work at SW 3rd and Washington and my 4-block walk to Waterfront Park takes me by 5 (!) surface parking lots and one or more freeway-style offramps from the Morrison Bridge. Wildly uninviting. I definitely head down to the park less than I would if the walk were nicer.

Dana S.
Guest
Dana S.

The correct translation for malecon is “seawall” or “promenade”. “Muelle” is the name for pier. I have a house in La Paz and can vouch for the quality of life there.

Fred.farmer
Guest
Fred.farmer

It’s not true, stay away! Of course I’m kidding. The malecon in la Paz is family and bike friendly till past 10pm. Drivers in the tourist area go like 15 mph. Island time.

Frank Selker
Guest
Frank Selker

I recently passed on a trip to La Paz because the murder rate is among the highest in the world, would be number 4 on the top-50 list at Wikipedia if it were big enough to include on that list https://www.cheatsheet.com/culture/the-most-dangerous-cities-in-mexico-to-avoid-at-all-costs.html/ I imagine it’s mostly gang-related, but still …

Did you see any signs of non-traffic-related violence or feel unsafe?

Frank Aguirre
Guest
Frank Aguirre

It is awesome to read that someone who come from the “Valhalla” of bike lanes (Portland) writes something so beautiful from my home town.

I currently works for the non-profit who advocate from the very beginning for that bike-lane. you described. You can look for us in social media as BCSicletos.

Greetings!

Steve B
Guest
Steve B

Frank, you’re doing great work. Thank you and keep it up!

Maotzu
Guest
Maotzu

Part of the Malecón “scene” even though technically across the street, is the skate park. No fences no rules, but once again like the actual Malecón friendly and civil. There are the teen young adult users tearing it up and the small kids on their new Christmas boards that have their parents walking them through the park while holding their hands. Right now there is a book fair setup on the perimeter of the park, no fences separating the two, and no hassles.

La Paz in Spanish, The Peace…

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

Is nobody going to shame Jonathan for his climate footprint? /s

Toby Keith
Guest
Toby Keith

Clearly, Greta would not approve. I’m not so sure why white supremacy had to be brung up in this story either.

David DeFauw
Guest
David DeFauw

I love La Paz and I felt quite safe there. Though La Paz has made some lists of cities with a lot of homicides, these are related to the drug trade. Since I did not join a cartel, I felt pretty safe. The question for visitors from the USA is whether the city is safe for tourists. The US department of State has a list of US citizens that die in every country of the world, the location of the death, and the cause. According to that website, in 2018, 12 Americans died in the state of Baja California Sur, including 6 from drowning, 2 from car accidents, 2 from other accidents, one was struck by a car while walking, and one died of suicide. None of these deaths happened in La Paz. There were no homicides of Americans in Baja California Sur and the state is visited by over a million Americans per year. I am not bringing this detail to this discussion to be morbid, but just to put our FEAR into perspective. Apparently, the main thing to be scared of in Baja California Sur is swimming. Here is the website that the state department keeps of American deaths overseas: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/while-abroad/death-abroad1/death-statistics.html . This article has a similar take but also includes the the state of Baja Califormia to the north, which includes Tijuana: http://www.bajainsider.com/article/cause-death-us-citizens-mexico-2017 . It seems it really is safer in Baja California Sur for Americans than even a relatively safe state like Oregon.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

We all know fear is irrational, even in those unpolluted by racist beliefs.

Frank Selker
Guest
Frank Selker

Great to see such data – thanks.

Lenny Anderson
Guest
Lenny Anderson

Portland’s riverfront has two big strikes against it…one, the wall keeps you away from the River with a few exceptions, and two, the opposite side of the River has a sadly misplaced freeway. A river cuts Frankfurt am Main in Germany in two, but the side opposite the “Innenstadt” has a string of a dozen museums! not a dozen lanes of high speed traffic. Time to decommission.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

Time to build museums!

mark smith
Guest
mark smith

Basically, Mexican drivers have a lot less entitlement than US drivers.

middle of the road guy
Guest
middle of the road guy

I’d be happy to get your opinion on the customers of the Mexican bakery on Vancouver who park in the bike lane.

No sense of entitlement there!

The Last Voyageur
Guest
The Last Voyageur

Because all the people who frequent the Mexican bakery are Mexican? Or Mexican-American? See, you’re so racist that you don’t even know when you’re doing it.

middle of the road guy
Guest
middle of the road guy

The window stickers of the particular states is a good indicator, no?

Now, can you actually PROVE I am incorrect? Nope.

The Last Voyageur
Guest
The Last Voyageur

No, and Yes. Your logic is poor and your thinking is racist.

middle of the road guy
Guest
middle of the road guy

And let me just add: I’ve lived near the bakery for years and seen enough to confirm my belief.

So just take it from me: Your ignorance-based opinion about who shops there is wrong.

The Last Voyageur
Guest
The Last Voyageur

**comment deleted by moderator** The Last Voyageur, please be more respectful and tactful in your comments. Thanks.

The Last Voyageur
Guest
The Last Voyageur

**comment deleted by moderator**

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

This is a personal attack. Please stop it.

Mark smith
Guest
Mark smith

middle of the road guy
I’d be happy to get your opinion on the customers of the Mexican bakery on Vancouver who park in the bike lane.No sense of entitlement there!Recommended 1

It’s almost like you are in favor of a 25% off sale on all things black on MLK day.

middle of the road guy
Guest
middle of the road guy

It’s almost like you put words in other people’s mouths and create fictional actions they do.

The Last Voyageur
Guest
The Last Voyageur

Hello, Kitty
It’s possible that people can make rational decisions (even if they are different than yours) about personal safety that are not rooted in racisim or ethnocentrism. That there are parts of Mexico where you felt perfectly safe does not refute that. That you have talked to fearmongering racist white people does not refute that.Recommended 3

So? Aren’t you just so proud that you made your pedantic point?

Chary M Heidinger
Guest
Chary M Heidinger

I very much enjoyed reading your article about La Paz. It is nice to know a lot of people find it a nice, safe, place to visit and live there.
I am from La Paz, at the present time I live in La Paz, and a few years ago I was living in beautiful Damascus, east of Portland. I just wanted to say Hi and thank you for sharing your experiences.