Bikes and Buses Propel Mexico City to Prize in Sustainable Transport

Transforming its traffic-clogged corridors by expanding alternatives for commuters, Mexico's capital wins notice for its success in reducing vehicle congestion.

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.

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.