Mexico City has long been considered one of the most polluted cities in the world. The government has tried to clean its polluted air over the years by implementing vehicle emissions standards and inspection programs to cut down on old cars and other polluting vehicles. The city has also set its sights on improving public transportation and just this summer inaugurated a dedicated bus lane down one of its busiest streets. Producer Jana Schroeder climbed onboard the metrobus to find out how the new system is faring.
YOUNG: Mexico City has a new bus system. It’s called the Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, modeled on similar transportation systems in cities ranging from Curitiba, Brazil to Cleveland, Ohio. It has its own dedicated lanes on main city streets, so the buses don’t have to compete with cars and trucks. Jana Schroeder reports on how the new system is faring and how it might help a city with some of the world’s worst traffic and smog.
[SOUND AT METRO-BUS STATION]
SCHROEDER: The new metro-bus corridor runs in both directions on the longest avenue crossing Mexico City. The 12 and a half mile stretch on Insurgentes Avenue has 36 boarding stations. On a rainy Friday afternoon, the buses stopping at this station are packed.
RAMIREZ: Porque ya no hubo cupo…(fades under)
SCHROEDER: Santiago Ramírez tries to board a bus and gives up to wait for another. It's already full, he says. You have to push your way on, even though we’re at the beginning of the north-bound lane.
[SOUND BUS STATION AND SOUND ON A BUS]
SCHROEDER: A few minutes later, another bus arrives. I decide to climb on board, and stand shoulder to shoulder with Alfonso Perez. I ask him what he thinks about the city’s new metro-bus system.
PEREZ: Fue bueno…Menos micros que contamina…(fades under)
SCHROEDER: It’s a good idea, says Perez, and should reduce air pollution. But he says the new system was launched before it was ready.
PEREZ: Lo metieron a fuerzas. Pudieron haberse esperado… (fades under)
SCHROEDER: When asked what the hurry is all about, he said Mexico City Mayor Andres Lopez Obrador is about to leave his post, and wants to inaugurate the new metro-bus as his last legacy. This complaint about the city mayor—who’s resigning to run for president in next year’s elections—is the criticism most heard about the BRT--but not the only one.
Manuel Guerra is the director of the Autonomous Institute for Ecological Research. He says the metro-bus system can be very quick and efficient, and believes that might motivate car owners to leave their vehicles behind. But he says Insurgentes Avenue was a poor choice of location for the bus corridor.
GUERRA: So it was decided to be built on the main avenue in Mexico City which is an avenue with a great tradition with a lot of trees. It is one of the few big avenues in Mexico City that had lots of trees on the sidewalks and in the middle of the street.
SCHROEDER: To make room for the metro-bus, 1,000 trees were removed—an action protested by ecologists and residents. The city has promised it will plant six new trees around the city for each one cut down.
GUERRA: There were other possibilities where not so many trees had to be felled, and it had a much more logic of transportation efficiency, because other alternatives would have linked the metro-bus with the subway lines and with other lines of surface buses.
SCHROEDER: While the new metro-bus has some links to the subway, Manuel Guerra insists that Revolución Avenue, running parallel a few blocks over, would have been the better choice. He says environmentalists and urban planners weren’t consulted on the metro-bus plan.
GUERRA: We had no access to the project. We were not invited to any discussions about the viability about the number of passengers, the number of buses and so on. It was all decided in a closed circle, inside city hall.
SCHROEDER: Still, many in Mexico are happy about the city’s attempt to replace old, polluting, gas-powered small buses, with the new large, efficient diesel metro-buses. Although the city has an extensive subway system, with over four million users daily, most of the city’s public transportation is provided by privately-owned micro-buses, sun by powerful groups. According to the city’s Environment Minister Claudia Scheinbaum, micro-buses cause 20 percent of the harmful emissions polluting city air.
SCHEINBAUM: It took us three years to negotiate the metro-bus from the owners of the old buses to the new system. You can see in Insurgentes, you don’t see any old buses circulating.
SCHROEDER: Those old buses were part of a poorly regulated system of micro-bus routes that crisscross the entire city. They only hold about 25 passengers – compared with the new buses’ 160-person capacity. What microbus drivers earn depends on how many passengers they have, so they compete among themselves, driving dangerously and stopping anywhere to pick up a passenger, often creating traffic congestion.
SCHEINBAUM: We have substituted 350 buses for 80 buses, and the 350 buses used to be very old buses, so you have reduction in both in local pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions. One hundred fifty of them are going to be destroyed.
SCHROEDER: While destroying old microbuses may seem like an extreme measure, the city wants to show that it’s actually getting them off the streets, and that they won’t just show up in another part of the city, where they’ll continue to clog traffic and pollute the air.
[TRAFFIC SOUNDS AT METRO-BUS STATION]
SCHROEDER: But that’s exactly what some say is already happening.
GUTIERREZ: Yo creo que vale la pena, sí va a reducir el trafico. El problema es que aquí en Insurgentes lo reduce…(fades under)
SCHROEDER: Miriam Gutierrez waits in line to board the new metro-bus. She’s noticed less traffic on Insurgentes, but says some of the micro-buses have ended up a few blocks over, on Revolución Avenue, causing more congestion there.
So, while some like the new system, others fear that it’s a small fix for Mexico City’s traffic and pollution woes. Although the city plans to add more metro-bus corridors, some environmentalists say what they city really needs is a comprehensive public transportation plan with a long-term vision. For Living on Earth, I’m Jana Schroeder in Mexico City.
[TRAFFIC SOUNDS FADE]
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