Authorities are trying to reduce pollution in the capital but confused policy-making and rising car ownership are reducing the city to poisonous gridlock
Every morning, Adriana Carlos leaves her home on the southern fringes of Mexico City at 7am for what should be a manageable journey to her office job. Instead, her commute from the southern borough of Xochimilco takes two hours and involves three separate transfers before she reaches her office on the south-west edge of the city.
“You spend a lot of your day stuck in traffic,” says Carlos, 32, who works as a sales representative. On the bright side, she says, the traffic jams give her plenty of time to catch up on her sleep.
Severe traffic congestion has long tormented Mexico City’s 21 million inhabitants, but in recent months it has also turned the air toxic.
So far this year, Mexico’s capital has had just 26 days with acceptable air quality levels, causing authorities to take drastic action, declaring environmental emergencies and ordering a million cars off the road.
Authorities recently changed its rules for determining which cars can travel on a given days – a programme known as Hoy no Circula, or Don’t Drive Today – and overhauled its emissions-testing system to root out corruption.
The traffic controls oblige drivers whose vehicles don’t meet emissions standards – around 20% of vehicles – to keep their cars off the road one day a week. (A more restrictive version ended on 1 July, allowing an estimated 600,000 vehicles back on the streets.)
But the soupy haze of pollution has not dispersed and solutions appear to be in short order.
Carlos says she would like to live closer to work, but rents in Mexico City are more expensive than in the outlying boroughs and dormitory suburbs in the state of Mexico – the sprawling conurbation that wraps around three sides of the capital.
“There’s a structural problem,” says Father Raúl Martínez, a Catholic priest who has a degree in urban studies. Martínez points out that the capital’s fast-growing outskirts are home to newcomers from many of Mexico’s more impoverished states, who arrive seeking economic opportunities in the capital of a heavily centralised country – and often end up working as maids, gardeners and construction workers far across the city.
Mexico’s topography contributes to the problem: Mexico City lies in a high-altitude lakebed and is surrounded by mountains – keeping pollution trapped overhead.
The current rainy season has helped somewhat, but Martínez and many others are sceptical that the government’s anti-pollution measures have made any difference.
The federal government has introduced plans allowing 2016 or newer model cars to circulate without restrictions. Critics contend the plan will only promote new car sales – something that’s allegedly already happening as residents buy extra vehicles to be able to drive every day.
Air quality in Mexico City had been improving over the past two decades, but no longer. A raft of public policy choices has made owning a car cheaper, easier and more necessary, according to analysts.
Subdivisions of tax-subsidised housing have been constructed long distances from workplaces. Petrol is subsidised too – to the tune of $20bn (£15.4bn) in 2008. And elevated freeways have been built – an idea replicated in other parts of the country.
“Saying that Mexico City is now a motorised city is not inappropriate,” urban planner Rodrigo Díaz wrote in the newspaper Reforma. Census statistics, he added, showed 39% of households in Mexico City owned a car in 2000. Ten years later 46.5% of households had cars.
Public transport also has been neglected as the often-saturated subway system ages and fleets of uncomfortable microbuses and combis ply the streets. Incidents of sexual assault are staggeringly high on subway lines and buses, while the middle and upper classes – and anyone able to own a car – mostly stay away.
In the entire system, “the least-important person is the passenger”, says Enrique Soto, an urban studies professor at Nation Autonomous University of Mexico.
Mexico City has pushed cycling as an option over the past decade and a bike-sharing service known as Ecobici has attracted some 120,000 users. Cycling, though, isn’t for the faint of heart.
“It’s great for short trips around the neighbourhood,” says David Alvarez, a dentist who barely drives any more. “It’s like Mad Max out there,” he says.