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The Eternal Problem: Traffic and Transport in Mexico City

Despite the traffic problem in Mexico City being nothing new, little seems to be done to change it. How can we address this situation properly?
By The News · 28 of July 2017 15:57:50
Metróbus Linea 7 road works stalled in Mexico City, No available, photo: Cuartoscuro/Galo Cañas

“Mexico City faces a very practical supply and demand problem,” says Eugenio Riveroll, co-founder and CEO of Mexico City-based mobility solution company, Sin Trafico. “The city is so crowded that the amounts of roads available are simply not enough for the amount of people who want to use them.”

For those who live in Mexico’s capital, this news will come as no surprise. The second-largest city in Latin America, and home to over 21 million souls, has strained under the weight of its cars for several decades. This year, the TomTom Traffic Index found the city to have the worst traffic in the world.

“But urban planners say that when we already have a lot of cars on the roads,” Riveroll continues, “building more roads is like being overweight and just buying larger-sized pants.”

And in reality, there is nowhere left to build. How best then, to tackle Mexico City’s eternal dilemma?

The Size of the Problem

According to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Inegi), there are 4.7 million vehicles registered in the city, with a further 5.1 million registered vehicles in the neighboring horse-shoe shaped State of Mexico, many of which are used daily on the commute in and out of the Mexican capital.

Such vast numbers lead to predictable problems. The average driver here spends 227 hours a year — or almost 10 full days — waiting in traffic. During peak hours, the average speed of traffic is a measly 3.7 mph; barely above walking pace.

This gridlock leads to environmental problems too. In May of this year, pollution levels hit a 17-year high and prompted the city’s mayor, Miguel Ángel Mancera, to pull a million cars off the road under the Phase 1 Contingency Plan.

The Metrobús system, founded in 2005, has helped to more effectively streamline the city’s public transport. Dedicated bus routes enable the metróbuses to quickly zip between stations, though these too are crammed full during most hours of the day.

Despite this, improvements in public transport infrastructure have come up against many obstacles. The planned construction of the Metrobús Linea 7, which should be capable of carrying 300,000 passengers a day, was halted and has now had its route changed amid protests from local residents along its intended route, some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city.

Again, this is nothing new.

Changing Attitudes

Salvador Medina, Urban Development Co-ordinator at the international non-profit, the Institute for

Salvador Medina poses for a photo at his ITDP office. Photo: The News/Peter Appleby

Transportation and Development Policy, explains the need for attitudes towards public transport to change.

“Car possession is positioned with higher class status in the city,” he says. “Most of the resources we have for the city and mobility are dedicated to car infrastructure and very little to public transportation, public spaces, bicycle routes or pedestrian infrastructure, reinforcing this idea.”

The runaway success of the Ecobici bike sharing was also opposed in a similar fashion when it was to be opened in the Polanco area, a center of wealth and power in Mexico City.

“There is a lack of interest or willingness to change,” explains Medina. “A lot of people in Polanco opposed the Ecobici placements because they didn’t want their parking spaces taken and didn’t want to see other people arriving by bicycle. There is a sense that public-space is not for everyone.”

Arí Santillan has a better understanding of this than most. A communication’s editor at sustainable urban development NGO TheCityFix Mexico, last year he became known for a video he recorded and uploaded to YouTube. While he was cycling his daily commute, a young man driving an Audi became enraged by Santillan’s apparent blocking of his vehicle and threw his bike over a fence before getting into a fight with a policeman and fleeing. All this, while he illegally drove on a bus and bike only lane. The video caused a social media storm, gaining almost five million views as the driver involved, Rafael Márquez Gasperín, was dubbed “Lord Audi.”

Santillan consequently gave interviews and discussions about the experience, as media across the country picked up the story.

“I think it had such an impact because the video reminded us of everything we want to stop in the country,” says Santillan. “The lack of interest in respecting laws and regulations and the denigration of people because they have a lower economic status. It’s about the relationship of power between the car and the bicycle.”

Every day, 135,000 journeys are made with an Ecobici. Photo: Cuartoscuro/Galo Cañas

So how best to change attitudes to alternative modes of transport in a city where the car is king?

For Salvador Medina, the mobility of the city is an issue of equality. “The tendency to fund car infrastructure only reinforces the idea that those who have money drive cars, and those who don’t, use public transport,” he says. “People are forced poor quality public transport and cannot move around the city easily. That generates huge inequality.”

The usual charge of the need for education to change behaviors is one he doesn’t accept. “We say that many things won’t change unless we change education first, but I believe that is a false argument. For example, people used to smoke in bars and restaurants. The law was changed. Now it’s very rare to see someone smoking in a restaurant.”

Instead, he believes it’s the role of public policy that is most important, set out by a government that understands the needs of different areas of the city. “Funding mechanisms can be created. Charges can be set. But we can’t expect the same outcomes in Itzapalapa as we can in Polanco.”

Technology’s Role

Eugenio Riveroll believes that technology can play a major role in improving traffic congestion and the public transportation situation in the near future.

His company, SinTrafico, harnesses the insights of big data to offer novel perspectives of real-time traffic flows. Through collaborations with emergency services, local governments, and users, SinTrafico brings together data from hundreds of thousands of data points to understand traffic movement better.

“If big data were to be used for more effectively, managing the ability of all vehicles this would immediately improve air quality and pollution,” he says.

“For example, traffic lights and almost every kind of road management system in Mexico City are programmed and operate on a pre-designed basis. We don’t have any proactive management of this infrastructure. Traffic lights pretty much have the same duration throughout the day at every intersection, at every junction. So if there’s a problem or congestion in one street and another is empty, traffic lights aren’t able to adapt and react to that.”

Eugenio Riveroll, co-founder and CEO of SinTrafico. Photo: The News via SinTrafico

Riveroll is a proponent of the Transport Oriented Development approach to urban planning. The TOD approach has become popular around the globe, promoting mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods that make use of multiple public transport services to reduce car use and quicken travel times for all.

“Many people who move about in Mexico City have to travel huge distances, many kilometers, from their home to their jobs. It’s common to take at least three modes of public transport for one trip. That’s very inefficient.”

Though authorities have been slow in using technology to improve the flow of a city, Riveroll says that attitudes are changing.

Mexico City is slowly making taking the necessary steps to form a reactive, dynamic road management system, but there is much left to do.