One reason: Mexico City’s 10 million people simply won’t give up their cars.
MEXICO CITY — After a couple of days of unusually cold, windy, and rainy weather made pollution levels drop, Mexico City has faced an ozone alert since Sunday, March 13. The causes:
- March is the beginning of the hot, dry season.
- Leaders of the right-wing PAN political party won an injunction in July against Hoy no circula, the program that, for decades, forced certain cars to stay parked one day a week to reduce traffic and pollution. While the injunction really only forced changes in the program, city officials decided to cancel it almost completely, allowing more than 600,000 more cars per day on the road.
- Public expenditure favors excessive car use. The federal government promises to build 16 new freeways around the country in the next two years and a similar number of urban highways, many linked to the construction of an ostentatious airport outside Mexico City. Only one new subway line has been built in the last 15 years, and half of that line was closed for more than a year due to negligence in the construction process. Center-left populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, while mayor, began to construct “second floors” of urban loop highways in order to attract middle-class votes and his successors continue to do so.
(It is also true that the city has built several Metrobús lines. This is a kind of bus with designated lines and train-like platforms on which people prepay, allowing faster movement of passengers on and off the buses. Each of these lines has been saturated since its first day of operation, thanks in part to the lack of family planning campaigns during 12 years of PAN presidencies and the first three years of the term of Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI.)
- Easy credit.
- Auto manufacturers make cars in their Mexican factories with one set of emissions limits for sale within Mexico and another for their home countries (and for others that have rules).
- A culture of legal and economic impunity for drivers. In recent years, title fees were all but eliminated under the false argument that such fees don’t exist in other countries. Free parking exists almost everywhere, including in crosswalks and on corners. Only a fraction of police officers are authorized to fine motorists, so running red lights, failing to use turn signals or yield for pedestrians, turning from the third or fourth lane without yielding for vehicles or pedestrians, driving in the wrong direction, speeding, driving without lights, and driving drunk are constant occurrences, often in the presence of the police.
- The notion that having a car makes one middle-class, or at least not jodido — broke, fucked over, hopeless. Many young or not-so-young people have cars but live with their parents in crowded conditions when renting or buying an apartment would be cheaper than paying for the car and would afford more freedom and privacy. (Having said this, the vast majority of metro area residents have neither a car nor access to one.)
In New York, the most similar North American city in terms of population and transportation infrastructure, many people who could afford a car choose not to have one. That is unusual in Mexico City: Though the subway is much faster than a car for many trips, especially to or through the center of the city, most people who are even barely middle class drive to avoid riding with the jodidos on the Metro (subway). This occurs even though it’s rarely too hot or too cold to wait for a bus or train. But once inside the crowded vehicle, you notice that there’s little or no ventilation and people do sweat (always) and faint (occasionally).
- Mexico uses a unique and intentionally confusing system, the IMECA, to measure pollutants. It is incompatible with the parts-per-million standard used in other countries and makes international comparisons difficult. Government officials do boast, however, that Mexico City has gone from being the most polluted city in the world in the early 1990s to merely one of the five worst today. (Since those days, a refinery and other heavy industries within the city have closed.)
- Marathon rush hours: 1) six to 10 a.m.; 2) 12:30 to 4 p.m., when schools let out and when people go out and drive again during the very long lunch periods that some workers and most executives have, and 3) the after-work rush hour that begins at 6 p.m. and continues till 10. Thus, rush “hour” lasts about 11.5 hours a day.
The relevant metropolitan authorities took steps to reduce traffic from Tuesday, March 15, through Thursday, March 17, with barely tangible results. Wednesday and Thursday, cars with certain final license numbers — potentially 800,000 of them — were kept off the road. It was the first time since 1999 that these measures had been applied three days in a row. The effect was much less immediate than when, in Paris a year ago, half of all cars were prohibited from circulating for a day.
The alert was called off Friday, with the promise of new comprehensive measures to be announced in two weeks.
Will Mexico City ban cars in the center of the city, as has been policy in Florence for many years and is imminent in Oslo? Will old trucks and buses — many government owned — that visibly spew diesel and other waste be taken off the streets? Will double-semis be banned within the city? Will Mexico City be the first city to convert to self-driving cars and ban the private automobile as we know it, reducing pollution, accidents, and testosterone-crazed driving? If you guessed “None of the above,” come collect your prize.
Read more of Johnny Hazard’s reporting from Mexico on The Rag Blog.
[Former Minneapolis teacher Johnny Hazard is the Rag Blog Mexico City correspondent. Hazard is a professor at the Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México in Mexico City and is author of Con estos estudiantes: La vivencia en la UACM, a book about that alternative university, and his soon-to-be-released released novel, The Pancho Villa Underground Railroad.]