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Mexico City's Smog Problem Isn't Getting Better Because People Hate Public Transit

Status concerns and an overblown terror of crime, as well as the limitations of the service, mean many of the city's residents refuse to abandon their cars despite continued air pollution and ever-increasing congestion.

by Gabriela Gorbea
Mar 25 2016, 3:42pm

Photo by Jorge Nuñez/EPA

As he tapped away on his laptop and sipped his coffee in a wealthy Mexico City neighborhood, Celso Moreno seemed initially stumped for an answer when asked for his opinion about the capital's public transportion system.

"The truth is I don't use it," the cinema student shrugged. "I don't know how to move in it."

The public transportation system in Mexico City includes a subway network, or metro, a bus network with dedicated lanes known as the metrobus, and legions of smaller pesero busses that chug around the metropolitan area. But while the system accounts for about 75 percent of journeys, a significant sector of the middle class and above simply don't consider it an option.

Their reluctance has a direct impact on the city's long-standing air pollution problem, which last week led to a three-day environmental emergency after ozone levels reached their highest level in 14 years.

'It's very different for people to be seen arriving in their own car than having to say that they use the subway.'

Sociologist and political analyst Ivonne Acuña Murillo, says status concerns lie behind the resistance many have to leaving their cars at home despite ever-worsening traffic jams, and regardless of the quality of the air in the city.

"It's very different for people to be seen arriving in their own car than having to say that they use the subway or a pesero," she says. Acuña also points to a "deep selfishness" among the middle and upper classes that translates into an "I don't care" attitude to environmental and social issues.

Related: These Mexico City Drivers Are Pretty Pissed Off Over Some New Road Safety Rules

In the wealthier parts of the Mexican capital it is certainly easy to find people who dismiss the idea of getting on a bus — usually by citing intolerable discomfort or danger — even though they have little or no personal experience on which to base their aversion.

College student Daneila Lobato readily admits she has only used public transport a couple of times in her life, while also appearing to have a very clear idea of what it's like.

"It frightens me, and not only because you might get mugged, but also because of the people who use it," she told VICE News. "I also think public transit is dirty, poorly organized and, overall, a service which you cannot trust."

Some underline their rejection of public transportation in Mexico by contrasting it with the systems in other, wealthier, parts of the world.

"In places like London or Paris you can see people with designer purses on the subway, completely unafraid of being mugged," 23-year-old fashion student Lucía Márquez said as she clutched an enormous Louis Vuitton bag against her tiny frame. "That's something that could never happen here in Mexico."

The figures do not bear out the prejudice.

This year has seen crimes on the New York subway rise to around 7 per day, out of 6 million riders. The London Underground reported around 7 crimes per million passengers last year.

'I think people can tell if you never use the subway or the bus... They can tell that you are an easy target.'

Meanwhile, Mexico City's metro, that is used by around 5.3 million people every day, reported a daily average of 2 robberies during December 2015. Robberies from cars in the capital in the same month topped 32 per day. Both figures are almost certainly dramatically underreported, but the data does suggest commuters in Mexico City are much more likely to be robbed in their cars than underground.

Armando Fernández, however, suggests that the data on public transit crime would not apply to people like him — were he to drop his "no way" response to the question of whether he might take the metro.

"I think that people can tell if you never use the subway or the bus, and you can attract negative attention," the 28-year-old digital designer said, just before entering a computer store. "They can sort of tell that you are an easy target."

Sexual harassment is another commonly mentioned concern, and a very real one for many women who do use the system. It is so common that both the metro and the metrobus include exclusive carriages for women and children.

But as with the fear of being robbed, those who shy away from public transit in Mexico City suggest they would be particularly vulnerable to it happening to them. Tall, green-eyed and blond, Lobato, the 20-year-old student, said she relies almost exclusively on Ubers to move around the city in part because she feels her appearance would make her a magnet for unwanted attention if she travelled with the hoi polloi.

It adds up to a collection of attitudes that have helped fuel the growth of private car ownership, which is one of the main phenomena militating against a solution to the capital's chronic air pollution problem and its periodic bouts of vicious smog, like the one last week.

The number of cars in Mexico City's metropolitan area almost doubled between 2005 and 2013, going from 3.5 million to 6.8 million vehicles and, judging by the traffic jams, the numbers are still rising.

According to an annual analysis of figures from 295 major cities around the world, Mexico City replaced Istanbul as the most congested city on the planet in 2015. The report, released this week by the company TomTom, says that commuting time in the Mexican capital is 59 percent longer than it should be because of traffic, ensuring that commuters waste an average of 219 hours a year. The study singles out Los Angeles as the most congested US city, with the index of lost time put at 41 percent.

Related: Millions of Taps Run Dry as Mexico City Fixes Some Decrepit Water Pipes

Acuña, the sociologist, says that all this should not be laid at the door of the relatively wealthy, and the aspirational, who insist on facing the bottlenecks in the relative luxury, and comforting isolation, of their cars. She also highlights the limitations of the public transport system that is already chronically overcrowded, as well as spotty in many parts of the city.

"We have to reeducate people so they can see there are more options to move around," she says. "But authorities also have to make sure those alternatives are suitable and efficient."

The problem was underlined during last week's environmental emergency when the city immediately ordered cars with certain license plates off the road, at the same time as it eliminated fares on the metro and the metrobus. The sudden influx of more passengers (about 20 percent on the metro) almost brought the service grinding to a halt.

At the same time, infrastructure projects in the city have tended to encourage the use of private cars, with major highways sprouting second tiers all over the metropolitan area. A new subway line, which was built at enormous cost and is allegedly mired in corruption, was shut down for over a year due to safety concerns. These primarily stemmed from the fact that the wheels did not properly fit the track.

'The politicians are a bunch of clowns who think that using the subway for one day is a big deal.'

Meanwhile, the most dynamic residential developments on the outskirts of the city are located in areas that are almost impossible to reach by bus or subway. And for all the talk of public transit as the solution to pollution, it is common to see old busses belching out black smoke as they crawl along congested roads.

"What the government is saying is bullshit. I mean, look at all the buses, they are in terrible shape and they surely pollute more than cars," 31-year-old accountant Diego Velásquez said, as he left a Japanese restaurant in an upscale shopping mall. "Why should I stop using my car when the alternatives are so bad."

Velásquez also added his voice to the widespread ridicule that greeted a group of local deputies from Mexico City who took the metro during last week's environmental emergency and posted multiple selfies online of their adventure.

But as a confirmed non-user of the metro himself, Velásquez saw the display of political hypocrisy as an opportunity to throw down a gauntlet he can be pretty sure will not be retrieved — at least not any time soon.

"They're a bunch of clowns who think that using the subway for one day is some big deal," he said. "The day when they get out of their luxury cars and start caring about the city is the day that I'll begin using public transport."

Related: Alert Fatigue? Mexico City Residents Bombarded with Earthquake Warnings

Additional reporting by Jo Tuckman

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