Who needs speed limits?
Mexico City's clogged roads are the focus of a five-year plan to streamline transport and teach residents better driving habits
MEXICO CITY — Traveling on weary feet, sluggish buses, and packed subways, José Asunción Fausto commutes three hours daily between his home in the poor eastern environs of sprawling Mexico City and his job with an insurance agency in the clogged city center.
His daughter Paola makes a similarly arduous journey to reach her university in the north, spending more time in transit than in class.
His wife, Alicia Espinosa, has decided just to stay home.
"It's so much work just to get to the subway," she says, "that I rarely leave our block."
These are just the kind of people a new five-year, multi-million-dollar project to unclog one of the world's most congested and polluted cities hopes to reach.
"Their lives are chewed up by this," says Lee Schipper, a public transport guru from the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Washington D.C. who is advising Mexican officials on the program. "Everything here is twisted by transport."
Latin America's largest city is the only major urban center in the region that lacks an integrated traffic and public transport system. City residents make more than 19 million trips every day in the metropolitan area, according to the city's Transport Ministry.
But there is reason for hope. Successful programs in the Colombian capital of Bogotá and Brazil's Curibita have lowered air and noise pollution and also improved the economic output of city residents by giving them, quite simply, more time.
Dr. Schipper and others admit that making vast Mexico City work will be a far bigger challenge. But in a megalopolis, home to more people than the entire state of Texas, where even simple trips to the grocery store can turn into half-day odysseys, it is all the more crucial.
"In this city, transport is inhibiting life," Schipper says.
Short-term plans include redrawing city maps to steer bus and car traffic onto separate roads, supplying larger, cleaner-fueled buses, and surveying millions of commuters to reconfigure and streamline mass transit routes to their needs.
The long-term goal boils down to nothing less than changing the behavior of Mexico City's 22 million inhabitants.
In a megacity with a long history for grandiose fix-it plans (officials once mulled installing huge fans to blow away the air pollution and now debate putting a second story on major arteries to ease congestion), that may sound like just more hot air.
Officials and advisers alike insist that practical solutions to Mexico City's problems are fairly simple. It's educating people that will be the hard part.
"For this to work," says Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, the city's environment minister, "we need to convince the residents of this city that this is being done for their own good."
It is the first time anyone has attempted to redraw Mexico City's transport system while taking all the major players into account and on board. The WRI team is sitting down with directors of private bus and taxi companies, aid groups and activists, and officials from the city ministries of environment, transport, and public housing. Their counterparts from surrounding Mexico State have been included since, WRI points out, most of that state's residents work inside the federal district.
And where most previous plans have simply put more roads on the map, the new proposal seeks to make existing roads work better.
"The mentality of building more roads to make more space is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope," says Schipper. "This is about undoing a vicious cycle."
It is also about taking a look at where the biggest needs are. Private cars account for less than a quarter of travel in Mexico City, yet few past efforts have focused on making the public transport system flow more fluidly.
Mexico City's Metro, for example, is the world's fourth-busiest subway, and carries about 1.3 billion passengers each year. Yet some lines are virtually empty even at rush hour, while others are overstuffed throughout the day. Vast tracts of the city have no Metro access at all.
Cheap, privately run minibuses and vans constitute about half the city's transport. But they are unscheduled, largely unregulated, and often dangerous. They stop wherever and whenever customers flag them down, creating huge jams.
The WRI plan, which has funding from the Shell Foundation and pledges from the World Bank, hopes to integrate the private bus companies into a citywide system that would flow passengers into major Metro stations and cut down on the shorter hops millions of Mexico City residents are forced to make in their daily routines. Longer-term plans would expand the Metro.
High-speed bus routes would ferry residents who needed to traverse the city across longer routes. More than 30 corridors have already been selected as bus-only roads, and major busmakers such as Mercedes, Volvo, and International Harvester have agreed to provide vehicles, Schipper says.
Private cars and taxis, meanwhile, would be segregated to other roads, and public-awareness campaigns would try to encourage better driving habits.
"This sounds good," says taxi driver Santiago Godinez, who has 17 years experience battling Mexico City traffic. "Drivers here are very aggressive ... and there are simply too many of us fighting over too little space."
That's why other proposals seek to get people out of their cars, buses, and trains altogether. City planners are considering restricting certain regions to pedestrians, including parts of Mexico City's Centro Histórico. Bike paths are being carved out and "parking lots" planned where people could lock their two-wheelers.
"Bicycles are a wonderful, inexpensive way to bring the city back to the people," says Leon Hamui Sutton, an activist campaigning for bike routes to ease congestion and pollution. "We want to have a city for the people instead of a city for the car."
If it works, the new system could give millions of Mexico City residents as much as 10 to 12 extra hours a week to earn extra money, study, or simply enjoy their free time, says Francisco Garduno, the city's transport minister.
"We need to understand that our current transport system is not an end situation, but a means to an end," he says.