National Geographic News
A bus in Mexico City with the Monumento a la Revolucion.

New bus corridors such as the line seen here running through the city center have helped Mexico City clearits traffic-clogged streets and earn the Sustainable Transport Award.

Photograph courtesy Adam Wiseman

Josie Garthwaite

For National Geographic News

Published January 16, 2013

Bicycles, pedestrian-friendly plazas and walkways, new bus lines, and parking meters are combining to transform parts of Mexico City from a traffic nightmare to a commuter's paradise. The Mexican capital, one of the world's most populated urban areas, has captured this year's Sustainable Transport Award, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) announced Tuesday.

As recently as late 2011, Mexico City commuters reported enduring the most painful commute among respondents to an IBM survey. Based on factors such as roadway traffic, stress levels, and commute times, the city scored worse than 19 cities, including Beijing, China, and Nairobi, Kenya. Mexico City has seen its roadways swell beyond capacity to more than four million vehicles, which are owned, increasingly, by a growing middle class.  (See related photos: "Twelve Car-Free City Zones")

But the city has also made strides to reorient itself around public spaces and people, rather than cars and driving. "They really changed quite fundamentally the direction and vision of the city, and a lot of it was in 2012," said Walter Hook, chief executive of ITDP, an international nonprofit that works with cities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve quality of urban life.

Change at the Heart of the City

Throughout history, the heart of this metropolis has been a place of reinvention. After initial construction of the great Templo Mayor in 14th-century Tenochtitlan, each successive Aztec ruler added a new layer to the monumental complex. And in the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors built Mexico City on (and from) the ruins of the old Aztec capital.

Since 2011, Mexico City has added two new bus corridors to its Metrobus system, connecting the narrow streets in the historic center to the airport and making it the longest bus rapid transit (BRT) system in Latin America. The city also added nearly 90 stations and 1,200 new bicycles to the Ecobici bike-sharing program, began to reform on-street parking, improved sidewalks, and established new walkways. Cars were removed entirely from some narrow streets to make room for free flow of buses and pedestrians, and marketplaces were established for street vendors to help unclog the corridors. "If you want to walk to the Zócalo now, you can walk directly on the pedestrian promenade," Hook said. "It used to be that that street was just choked with traffic." (See related story: "To Curb Driving, Cities Cut Down on Car Parking.")

The day-to-day experience of getting around the city center has changed dramatically. Two years ago, Hook said in an interview, "If you tried to get across the historical core of Mexico City, you couldn't take a bus or a taxi or anything that would travel more than three miles [five kilometers] an hour. It was virtually at a standstill." Most likely, he said, you would ride in an old minibus run by an unregulated operator, or drive a car. And the narrow streets of the historic city center—a UNESCO World Heritage site—would be crowded with street vendors, trash, and illegally parked vehicles, he said. "Now you'd be on a beautiful street, in an ultramodern bus—very clean, absolutely safe."

ITDP's Sustainable Transport Award positions Mexico City among an elite group of cities honored over the past nine years, including Guangzhou, China; Medellín, Colombia; and San Francisco, California, in the United States. (See related stories: "Green Moves: Medellín Cable Cars, San Francisco Parking Reform" and "Guangzhou, China, Wins Sustainable Transport Prize.")

A committee of experts from organizations that include the United Nations Center for Regional Development, the EMBARQ program in the World Resources Institute for Sustainable Transport, and the German Society for International Cooperation (known as GIZ) was tasked with judging the vision and accomplishments of cities over the preceding year.

"We are looking for things that are new and innovative," Hook explained. Referring to Mexico City's expanded BRT system, he added, "There has been a lot of nervousness about putting in a BRT in a dense historic core," so the fact that Mexico City's bus project has been "used to sort of revitalize the historic core was really liked."

Turning the Tide

The judging committee selected Mexico City from just a handful of finalists, including Bremen, Germany; Lviv, Ukraine; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Rosario, Argentina. According to ITDP, Bremen made the cut based on its car-sharing programs and efforts to encourage nonmotorized transport in a city where as many as 60 percent of trips are now made by cycling or walking. (See related story: "Car Sharing Widens the Lanes of Access for City Drivers.") Rosario stood out for its adoption of a mobility plan in 2012 that calls for development of a new bike-path network, bike-share program, and public transport in central areas.

Sporting events were important catalysts for change in the remaining two finalist cities. Lviv made it to the final round based on improvements to public transport, walking, and cycling in preparation for the EURO2012 soccer championship. Rio won recognition for an expanded bike-sharing program and the creation of what ITDP calls the city's "first world-class BRT corridor." After the build-out of transportation infrastructure for the 2016 Olympics, Hook said, the former Brazilian capital may have a better shot at winning next year's award. (See related story: "Bike-Share Schemes Shift Into High Gear.")

Not all of the changes in Mexico City have received a universally warm welcome. The new parking system, called ecoParq, introduced multispace meters to thousands of parking spots on streets where parking previously had been free—officially free, anyway. In reality, much on-street parking was controlled by unregulated valets or attendants known as franeleros, who would stake out territories and charge drivers small fees to park and receive protection in their spaces. When the city hired a contractor to take over parking management, starting in the upscale Polanco district, franeleros protested. They reportedly marched through the neighborhood carrying signs bearing messages such as, "The streets are not for sale," and "A parking meter doesn't take care of your car."

However, ecoParq has proven to be popular among many residents. Former mayor Marcelo Ebrard, previously a police commissioner "known for being fairly tough on the informal sector," Hook commented, was instrumental in launching ecoParq in Polanco, as well as Ecobici and other sustainable transport projects. "He convinced the district government of Polanco. When they did it, it worked really well, and surrounding neighborhoods wanted it. It created a chain reaction."

According to Hook, committee members took note of the hurdles. "We try to recognize political courage and guts." The mayor's office had to spend political capital taking on the franeleros, he said. "If they do that, we feel we ought to reward them with a little bit of political payback."

This is only the second year that the Sustainable Transport Award has recognized a city's parking program. Last year it was San Francisco that made its mark with parking reform, introducing pricing schemes that vary based on time of day and real-time availability, while also trading some parking spots for public space as part of its "Pavement to Parks" program. (See related story: "With a Deep Dig Into Its Past, Perugia Built an Energy-Saving Future.")

Mexico City's efforts are part of much larger shifts taking place internationally. "Sustainable transport systems go hand in hand with low emissions development and livable cities," remarked Sophie Punte, executive director of Clear Air Asia, in a statement. "Mexico City's success has proven that developing cities can achieve this, and we expect many Asian cities to follow suit."

The pool of cities moving toward more sustainable transport systems is only growing, said Hook. "Each year we're finding more and more cities that have made fairly dramatic changes to really retake the city," Hook said. "Cities are looking at their mass transit investments now not only as a way of getting people from point A to point B, but also as a way of revitalizing strategic locations and bringing parts of the city back to life."

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

David Wright
David Wright

I am here in Mexico City now, I think they have done an excellent job of making dynamic advances in greening and cleaning the city. I used the Eco-Bici system, the buses and the subway. I am a professional environmentalist and see what they have done over the years. Its fabulous and now these systems are finally being appreciated and fully utilized by the residents. Mexico is a big city but not so big that it takes an hour and a half to get anywhere, I never even heard of anyone using 2 taxis for anything, I bicycled from one side of the city to the other through its heart in 55 minutes.

I don't know what's up with this girl @Roberta Garcia maybe she just needs some goodwill lessons about environmentalism, sounds like she lives near Guanacuato or well outside the city in the suburbs in a mansion. She seems pretty pessimistic about the changes or just might not be old enough to realize what great advances her city has made, I'll take Mexico City over Miami anyday...

Roberta Garcia
Roberta Garcia

I'm a resident of Mexico City, and it took me 1.5 hours to get to work (subway, bus, and 2 taxis) and I must say: although the recent changes in transportation have brought an improvement to our daily commutes, the reality is still that although it is cheap, public transportation in Mexico City is not comfortable, practical, efficient, nor safe (talk about kidnappers in the subway hubs).

I had to laugh at "Now you'd be on a beautiful street, in an ultramodern bus—very clean, absolutely safe". The streets, whether beautiful or not, and the "ultramodern bus" are crowded BEYOND their capacity. The whole city is crowded, wherever you may go, and public transportation is not upgraded to meet the new demands. Honestly the "eco-bikes" can be used on certain touristy neighborhoods, where I can assure most of us do not live, nor we can take them to work. Oh, and the streets are still filled with street vendors, trash, and illegally parked vehicles.

Ruben Perez
Ruben Perez

Felicidades Mexico. Los esfuerzos y metas cumplidas deben reconocerse. Son ejemplo de progreso ambiental en el resto de America. 

Observe de primera mano la Iniciativa de las bicicletas, es perfecta y signo de gran madurez ciudadana.

Saludos desde Venezuela

Zachary Howard
Zachary Howard

Why are there no responses in this article from any resident or official of Mexico City? In fact, the only quotes in the article are from Mr. Hook, making this little more than a press release for ITDP and its awards program.

What do the people who live and work in Mexico City think of these changes?

SARAH Weldon
SARAH Weldon

A very interesting article, I hope that more countries follow Mexico's example. 

Clayton Watercott
Clayton Watercott

¡Felicitaciones México! I hope we see the development of those train lines that have been stuck in the planning stages now. 

Btw; Is there a Spanish version of this article?

Roberta Garcia
Roberta Garcia

@David Wright Ahhh no, I said there are improvements but the situation is far from being what the article states. Public transportation is cheap, yes, but quite far from being totally safe and comfortable, much less clean. 

I lived in Escandon, which is near the city center. My work places would usually be 8 min away on car without traffic. I don't drive and I totally support the use of public transportation, which is why in 5 years of living in Mexico City I never bothered to buy a car. I don't bike, but I prefer walking. I'm 30 years old. Don't live in a mansion. It's GuanaJuato, by the way. I don't live there either, but are you implying something negative from such a beautiful province?

Getting to work for me and other residents on public transportation would be really a challenge on some days. Even if my office was a bus ride and 4 subway stations away, it would take me 1.5 - 2 hrs to get to work. Why? because in rush hours: 1) Subway would be so full that you would have to wait until 15 min to get inside a wagon 2) The subway would just randomly stop between stations and not move for a long while. 3) In some big subway hubs, the stations would be packed with informal commerce, as well as  impromptu bus stops full also with passengers. Co-workers of mine would be assaulted.  On rainy days, the subway stations would be flooded and service suspended. Metrobus is sometimes too packed to even let people in. 

The Eco-bici system unfortunately doesn't cover all of the city's areas. Not everyone lives in hipster Condesa, Roma, or near Reforma. Not everyone can go to work on a bike. 

Ask other people who aren't environmentalists, and who necessarily aren't bad people because of it. People in office buildings are part of the City's fluent economy. Ask them if they think that the public transportation is as wonderful as this article describes. Sure, there's a LOT of positive things going on, but, "fabulous"?

Sareen Rosales
Sareen Rosales

@Roberta GarciaYou are just another mexican complaining about Mexico like always. You posted like multiple times on here, just complaining. You live in the third biggest city of the world what did you expect??? 22 million people, if you dont like it move! Have you ever been to New York? London? Hong Kong? or any major city in China? Mexico is moving forward in the midst of complainers like you. 

Roberta Garcia
Roberta Garcia

I did write a response to this article. Yeah, those changes are cool and fancy, and they do improve public transportation, but the day-to-day truth is that daily commutes are CHAOTIC in Mexico City, whether you own a car or use public transportation means.  The article doesn't mention that.

The fancy bikes and buses are nice to look at, but they are not enough to meet the demands. If you also sum up the fact that due to insecurity reasons people are fleeing the province and coming to Mexico City, you can only sense this could get worse. I can only hope that the government invests effectively on public transportation, and wake up even earlier.  

Roberta Garcia
Roberta Garcia

The new train line (which was supposed to open on 2010 for the bicentenary and has been on construction since 2009) opened somewhere around October-November 2012. Magnificent line, polished-new, shiny new trains, but unfortunately, this morning precisely I had to take the subway 3 stations behind my usual station so I could GET IN, let alone sit. There is a huuuge demand because it is a practical route for those living south of the city, but there are not enough trains to meet that demand.

Roberta Garcia
Roberta Garcia

@Sareen Rosales @Roberta Garcia 
I have lived and travelled abroad extensively. Yes, I've also been to Asia -several times (including Beijing), and not only as a tourist. I do know what I'm talking about. I've been blessed to go abroad but I am VERY proud of being a Mexican and of living in my country. But just because DF is a beautiful city it doesn't mean I don't have a right to complain about public transportation. Why?  because just like the rest of the millions living in DF, I need it everyday to go to work, and no one CAN'T deny it's uncomfortable and inefficient. It's really cheap, I'll give you that (compared to the 1.5 CH I had to pay for each tram ride in Geneva). Even if your income is really low, yes, you can move from one point of the city to the other for 3 pesos. 

However, what good does it do when even with 2 hrs of anticipation you can't guarantee you'll get to work on time? I work and pay taxes: I contribute to the city's income and improvement. When people glorify out of nationalism, or choose to ignore flaws, there is no room for improvement. You're the kind of people who criticize people who want their country to improve, and therefore, part of those reactonary individuals who deterr the country from progressing. 


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