Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Public Transit in Mexico City: The Nitty Gritty

National Geographic recently published an article by the name of “Bikes and Buses Propel Mexico City to Prize in Sustainable Transport”. The article itself is very good and tries to illustrate some of the more positive aspects of transit improvements that have occurred in Mexico City….and there are many positive aspects. Public transportation is cheap, a bike share program is gaining in popularity and expanding (though for the moment it is mainly focused in the more trendy neighborhoods) and the incredibly successful bus rapid transit system (known here as MetroBus) is being expanded. Mexico City is becoming better managed and more organized and in a city of 20 plus million people, this is no small task. The city seems to be starting many of these programs in its core and then spreading outward. All of these changes are good and have brought much positive attention to the dynamic city that I call home. While the positive attention is good it isn´t always representative of the actual situation here on the ground and much of the critiques of our city come from people who don´t live here and may have never visited. But headlines such as one which was recently featured at Planetizen called “How Mexico City Went From Commuter Hell to Paradise in Two Years” completely distort reality.

Let me make it perfectly clear: Mexico City is not a commuting paradise. If you ride transit on the weekends or outside of peak hours it is more than adequate but beyond this timeframe, all modes of transportation are stretched to their limit. It´s important to remember that peak hours here run considerably longer than in our American and European counterpart cities. The morning rush begins at 6 am and lasts until about 11:00. The afternoon rush begins around 4 and keeps pushing onward until about 9p.m. And the most crowded parts of peak rush are nothing short of Hell on Earth.

To understand why, you have to remember the size of the city and demand that creates. Mexico City is impossibly large and many of the people who commute into the city are from the outlying, much poorer areas. The national housing program known as INFONAVIT which helps people purchase homes, has been responsible for the construction of millions of single-family homes located in the ever increasing sprawl which is impossibly far from the jobs of Mexico City. Add to this complicated jumble, the millions of homes located in the informal settlements which encompass the already densely packed city and spread into the states that surround the Federal District. It is not uncommon for the average citizen of the region to spend 6 hours a day in a full-on guerilla style commute so over packed that people are literally hanging out the sides of buses. Multiple connections complicate matters as does the arrival of trains that you can´t even board due to the overstuffed press of people. Oftentimes you can´t even leave the train at your desired station because the passengers are so packed into the train that they can´t make the required movements to get out…..even if you are located two people from the subway doors. This applies equally to the Metrobus as it does to the Metro. The actual metro stations are often safety hazards in themselves.

Fire safety in almost all the stations are an afterthought. Restaurants with cooking equipment are located in many of the stations. Sprinkler systems are nonexistent. Evacuation routes are never indicated nor are emergency procedures. In the event of leaving a station during an emergency, one must navigate their way through a maze of illegal vendors who often locate their stands on the stairways which serve as exits and entrances. Even the sidewalks are difficult to pass through because of the space these stands occupy.

Safety on the microbuses are a problem as well. Very little regulation is applied to the system of microbuses or “peseras” and “combis” that deliver transportation to the routes where the Metro and Metro bus cannot. While leagues above the converted school buses with makeshift plywood seats that you find in the border cities, the equipment is often old, dirty and poorly maintained. Exhaust fumes routinely drift into the cabins of these buses while they travel and it has been many occasion when the drivers are smoking, texting or talking on the phone throughout the course of my journey. Even worse, I have walked onto buses that strongly smell of marijuana which I could only assume the driver had just smoked. And I must stress again, the overcrowding which is on a level that exceeds the bounds of what anyone would consider safe.

Mexico City is no paradise for public transit simply put because we are one of the world´s largest cities and we have such a great need. But it is good to see that the city takes the issue seriously and is making more organized strides to address the problem. As with most cities in Latin America, we lack the tax structure and resources that many developed countries have, so progress occurs piecemeal. Despite this, it is amazing to see Mexico City become more organized and create so many positive improvements in such short time. Out need is great and our population is immense and growing but there is a solution for everything, though it won´t be easy. We have such a long way to go and this change won´t happen overnight but we are moving forward. We can do what seems impossible.

What will determine the success of these changes won´t just be built in policy. It will have to be a mental and cultural change in which we better educate ourselves, take ownership of issues and practice mutual respect for other human beings. These are the types of changes that take time and these are perhaps some of our biggest challenges. Optomistically, I hope we are up for it. I certainly am.

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