I returned yesterday from a whirlwind weekend trip to Mexico City. My head is still buzzing, perhaps due to the overwhelming amount of smog, but more likely because the sheer amount of kinetic energy inherent to the world’s seventh largest city is still pulsing through my veins. I will post more complete and complementary thoughts over at Planetizen later this week. For now, I will keep this post as short as possible and transit-oriented.

In less than three days time my girlfriend and I were able to see a fair amount of the city, including Zocalo Square (one of the three largest in the world) in the Centro historico, the neighborhood extant of Roma, Condesa, Zona Rosa and Coyoacan, and the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which translates to ‘birthplace of the gods,’ by one account, or ‘place of those who have the road of the gods,’ by another. After walking the Avenue of the Dead at Teotihuacan, which stretches for two miles, one would feel like they were in the presence of gods if it were not for the hundred or so schlock-hawkers peddling everything from cheap rain sticks to fake bow and arrow sets. I digress.

Although we walked a good 6-7 miles each day, as that is always the best way to understand urbanism, the city;s breadth required us to intermittently relyheavily on the Subway, taxi service and a very comfortable bus that got us all the way out to Teotihuacan and back. Thus, all of our explorations would not have been possible if it were not for Mexico City’s robust, multi-layered transit system.

Let me take a step back. Mexico City is literally choking on automobile traffic. Many of its avenues and thoroughfares operate as auto-sewers broken only by the occasional monument. Such streets are incredibly wide and often have a street section comprised of wide sidewalks – three to four lanes in one direction – median – then three of four more lanes… in the same direction – wide sidewalks. Seriously, one must always look when crossing the streets. Think Biscayne Boulevard in front of American Airlines Arena as a one-way street. Hellacious.

Public transportation in Mexico City includes jitneys, buses, electrified bus lines, bus rapid transit lines, light rail and the 201km Metro subway system, which is set to expand another 24km by 2010. The subway in particular is thought of as the transit mode of choice for the middle to lower classes, which is probably because it costs only two pesos (20 cents) per ride! Nonetheless, one gets the sense that no matter how extensive the public transit, it will never keep up with the city’s ever-growing demand.

The Subway system is clean, highly efficient and very easy to use. We hopped on three blocks from our hotel and didn’t think twice about taking it to Chapultec, the city’s central park, south to the Coayacan neighborhood or all the way out to the city’s northern bus terminal for our trip to Teotihuacan.

Although I wonder how much subsidy the system receives, I also dream of the day American cities might democratize transit in such a dignified way.

A few nerdy facts about Mexico City’s Metro:

  1. It began operation in 1969
  2. It was the first system to be color coded and it features unique logos for every stop. This is because at the time of its construction so few Mexicans were able to read.
  3. In 2006 the system garnered 1.417 billion passengers
  4. It is the cheapest metro system in the world

Now, what about bicycling you ask?! Unfortunately, Mexico city is not nearly as friendly to the two-wheeler as it is to the metro rider. Actually, it’s terrible. There are no bicycle racks to be found. Bicycles are generally not allowed on the Metro system and the traffic is so deadly that unless one is very experienced, bicycling anywhere but the quietest of streets would be utterly hair-raising. Sound familiar?

Despite its current ways, Mexico city is starting to push the bicycle as clean, fast and dignified mode of transport. In 2007, the local advocacy group Bicitekas and an international NGO, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, created a blueprint for bicycle infrastructure expansion. At present the government is making good on the plan, which will eventually add 300km of bicycle routes, paths, and lanes.

In addition, the government instituted “Muevete en Bici” every Sunday from 8am-2pm. This weekly event, similar to Bogota’s Ciclovia, bans traffic on some of the city’s major avenues and connects residents and visitors to the city’s most vibrant public parks and squares. What is more, on the last Sunday of every month the city expands and renames the “Muevete” to the “Cicloton Familiar,” which closes 32km of the city’s streets and features hundreds of loaned bicycles, hydration stations and doctors to deal with any physical-related injuries.

As we left out hotel room on Sunday morning we witnessed just how successful this program has become. Hundreds of bicylists, walkers, joggers, and skaters were out enjoying their city. It was a beautiful site, one that would give anyone hope that the city of cars is changing its way. It made me salivate for my own bicycle.

If all goes well, Miami may soon be experience its own bicycle awakening. As for the transit, just hope our commissioners don’t hike the fares.

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2 Responses to Mexico City: Mega-City, Mega-Smog, Mega-transit

  1. JM Palacios says:

    Mexico as a nation has often longed to follow in the footsteps of their neighbor to el Norte, and unfortunately they have followed the U.S. all too closely in the goal of middle class people owning automobiles. That is one of the main reasons, I believe, why the city with the world’s fourth-largest subway system also suffers from such ridiculous congestion. People there go so far as to buy two vehicles to get around the restrictions on driving vehicles on certain days of the week! It’s good to see them following in the footsteps of progressive Latin American neighbors for a change.

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  2. Jmac says:

    I agree. I’ve seen it change for the worse overtime, having gone there every year since I was in kindergarden. Sadly SUV’s are becoming increasingly popular too. My uncle has an expedition outside of the city which is completely unnecesary. SUV’s don’t really fit in most parking spaces in the city and they aren’t practical. I see a lot of city buses there that are usually full of people packed like sardines. One thing I can say is that because drivers are so cautious there, I hardly ever see car accidents there like I do in south Florida.

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