Bipolar Mexico City: traffic jams and sustainability

Nighttime in Mexico City

I used to lie down on top of the roof of my building in Mexico City, next to the satellite dishes. The city,  a steady hum in the background. I imagined myself through the eyes of a satellite: first my body and the limits of the building colliding with the street and the city block… zooming out, I became a minuscule dot in a grey ocean. I surrendered to Mexico City before having the chance to negotiate the terms: the city was a mythic force, one that imposed its demands on its inhabitants. An endless amoeba, this godlike creature was continuously spreading out. I knew this an accepted it with fatalism: the grey mass would eventually overtake the mountains–the thick liquid will devour everything in its path. I remember that school was sometimes canceled due to toxic chemicals floating in the atmosphere. During this macabre snow-day-off we would stay inside, playing near an air-filtering machine. I seldom saw the Popocatepetl or the Iztacihuatl during those days, even though I should have been able to. The sight of these volcanoes was a freak occurrence–they where ghosts behind a smoggy curtain–and one forgot that they were there until they appear on a clear day, as if pulled out of a magic hat. Pollution is no longer a main issue of Mexico City but that doesn’t mean the quality of life is getting better. Traffic, for example, has gotten worse as the city expands. A recent study by the Institute of Transportation and developmentt Policy ranks Mexico City as the city with the worst car traffic in the world. Mexico City won this heavily contested “prize” while running against some world-class contenders, like Los Angeles or Johannesburg. Defeños–one of the names for Mexico City dwellers–have adapted to the hours spent in car traffic (as if they had a choice). They spend so much time inside cars that they call them offices, or second homes. The car’s interior is an atomized atmosphere–an intimate setting –a “third space” that becomes part of one’s biography. Radio and mobile phones, when used in cars, provide a sense of community–they satiate the desire to feel part of the same city. Instead of imposing taxes on cars or charging for car usage during rush hours the government has reduced car taxes, promoted the usage of cars by individuals and designed infrastructure to cater to this medium. This is despite the fact that a small percentage of the population actually owns a vehicle. But the growth of the Mexican middle class is increasing the demands for car ( the ultimate middle class dream object). And, even before the NAFTA agreements, and certainly after, car factories have become an important source of employment nationwide. The car industry is so powerful that they put strong pressure on the government to further their interests, threatening to move their factories to other countries if the government doesn’t comply.

As a result massive construction is being done to cater to the car owners. During the last decades there has been an ongoing construction of a monumental elevated highway connecting the northern part of the city to the south. This second floor runs above the Periferico. The original beltway had been originally designed to circumvent the city’s limits in the 1960s, but the city has grown so rapidly that the “beltway” now runs through the heart of the city itself, and is so congested that it is called by Mexicans the “world’s biggest parking lot”. Now, the parking lot is two stories high. Many parts of Mexico City, however, remain pedestrian friendly. The city’s most vibrant public spaces are remnants of spanish colonial urbanism, squares like the Zocalo–once the administrative, political and religious center of the colony–remain important as meeting and coordination points amongst the amongst the urbanites. Upper and middle class neighborhoods–designed during the last part of the 20th century–also incorporated the wisdom of colonial urbanism by having a central square or a central park and plenty of open spaces. The case of Lincoln Park, in the Polanco Neighborhood, is exemplary. This space has everything that the Project for Public Spaces recommends to create a vibrant public space: plenty of seating and shade, meeting points evenly distributed across the space, a wide variety of activities, etc. Yet the traffic that forms around the space greatly diminishes the quality of the experience: the park is constantly bombarded by the sounds of engines and honks.

The micro level pedestrian interactions are disturbed by the unbalanced nature of cars passing by. Mexico City has taken important steps towards sustainability, despite (or precisely because of) its issues with car traffic. The same institute that rated Mexico City as the worst place for car traffic gave the city government the Sustainable Transport award in 2013. By doing this, the institute is implicitly recognizing the bipolar tendencies that are pulling on Mexico City. The Sustainable Transport award is well deserved: the city has encouraged the pedestrian policies, it has installed many lines of Bus Rapid Transit, and has a superb bike-sharing program. On Sundays the city center’s main avenues shut off to traffic and open up for all forms of recreational activities–it is impressive and exciting to see this pilgrimage of urbanites.

The bike-sharing program, Ecobici, is one of the most innovative systems in the city. It has transformed everyday life for many workers in the downtown areas; one can see diplomats, bankers and executives use them as a convenient way to get around. The system works perfectly and the experience of getting your card is quite rewarding.

The problem is that Ecobici is still very much catered to a middle and high-class: one needs a credit or a debit card in order to do be registered and many low-income mexicans do not have bank accounts. Also, the system is only developing in areas of extreme visibility, as it often used as part of the city branding campaigns. But the coverage of the Ecobici is just not enough: the are is a fraction of a megalopolis that spreads out for miles and miles.

Mexico City imposes multiple degrees of urgency on its inhabitants. These are contained momentarily through government policies–but the city never seizes to expand. The government acts across many poles and at the same time: developing transportation alternatives while catering to the car, reinvigorating its pedestrian history while creating two level highway.

The zoom-in zoom-out exercise performed from the rooftop of my apartment in Mexico City was in many ways an escape mechanism, something that allowed me to gain perspective over forces that were dictating my daily life. It also sprung from an unconscious sense of interconnection: a sense of wonder at how the city imposed its local needs while connected to a global demands.

The developments happening in Mexico City are fascinating because they reflect the inevitability of context and the aspirations of a city that–like Mumbai, Johannesburg, Lagos–is spearheading global urbanizing trends.

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