Little more than a year after making it to the top of IBM's list of worst commuter cities, Mexico City has returned to the urban transit spotlight -- this time at the receiving end of international praise.
During 2012, the city underwent major changes directed at developing a more sustainable transportation system, earning this year's Sustainable Transport Award from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP).
"Mexico City was like a patient sick with heart disease, its streets were some of the most congested in the world," Walter Hook, CEO of ITDP, said in a statement announcing the prize. ITDP is a nonprofit organization based in New York City with offices around the world.
Mexico's capital expanded its rapid transit bus system, Metrobus, with a new corridor connecting the city's historic center to the airport; opened a 9-mile subway line called Linea 12, or the "Golden Line"; piloted an on-street parking meter reform called ecoParq; expanded its successful public bike system, Ecobici; and spruced up public spaces.
These improvements have helped unclog some of Mexico City's main traffic hot spots, making them more bike- and pedestrian-friendly, but the question remains whether they will be enough to overturn Mexico's long-standing propensities toward gridlock and urban sprawl.
From bridges and overpasses to expressways and "urban highways," for many generations the federal government has carried on with policies that favor the use of motor vehicles. These policies have pushed the city to expand to its peripheries, to escape from its jammed and polluted core. Mexico City's rush hour, for example, seems to last all day.
"It's a tendency that will prove difficult to reverse, but it can be done," said Bernardo Baranda, director of ITDP Latin America.
'Shocking' drop in emissions
In the meantime, Mexico City is already seeing a drop in emissions, said Federal District Minister of Environment Tanya Müller.
"There is an impact on CO2 emissions," Müller said about the ministry's Ecobici program. "The number is quite shocking."
Taking the number of trips made with the bikes, the ministry was able to calculate the amount of CO2 that would have been emitted if the same distance had been covered by car. According to calculations by EMBARQ, an organization that focuses on improving transportation, from the start of the program in February 2010 to 2011, Ecobici avoided up to 105 tons of CO2 emissions.
"It's a very conservative estimate, because we don't take into account the use of older, more polluting vehicles," Müller added. Emission cuts were calculated based on potential gases produced by medium-size vehicles with new, more efficient technology.
The parking meter pilot program, ecoParq, also paid off.
Preliminary estimates by ITDP showed a drop in CO2 emissions of 18,079 tons since January 2012. According to the report, the average "cruising" time in Polanco -- the average time spent driving around looking for parking -- fell from 13 to three minutes, cutting back emissions.
The potential decrease in the use of vehicles because of new, higher parking charges was not taken into consideration, the report said.
Leave your car at home
"Things we didn't think were possible 15 years ago are being done in the city," said the Federal District minister of transport, Rufino Leon. The change was made possible by many factors, starting with political will.
During his six-year term, former Mayor Marcelo Ebrard took the city's transit and environmental issues seriously and was open to trying out ideas that had succeeded in other countries, Baranda of ITDP said. With the technical support of organizations such as ITDP and EMBARQ, the city began to implement programs that focused on the concept of "sustainable mobility."
"What's interesting about these policies is doing them in an integral manner," Baranda said. If people are to be encouraged to leave their cars at home, they need to be offered a solution in terms of public transportation, including the bike system, while increasing the costs of using their vehicles through parking meters, he added.
These changes seem to be part of a bigger movement taking place all over the Mexican nation. The country became 2012's "standout country" in terms of climate change legislation, after it enacted a climate law targeting a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020, according to a report by GLOBE International.
Moreover, in the past decade, Mexico's cumulative electricity production from wind, solar, biogas and biomass increased from 199 megawatts in 2001 to 2,523 MW in 2011, a study by GBI Research showed. The government hopes 35 percent of the country's electricity will come from renewable sources by 2024.
The road ahead
The traditions of Mexico will not make this easy. In 2012, 84 percent of total federal expenditures in urban mobility in major metropolitan areas -- including Mexico City -- focused on road work favoring motor vehicle transportation.
In fact, in an open letter to the directors of ITDP Latin America and CTS-EMBARQ Mexico, several citizens expressed their disagreement with the nomination of Mexico City to the Sustainable Transit Award. While they recognized the merits of the new transport programs in the city, they called the government out on its apparent "political inconsistency" for carrying on with other auto-intensive projects, too.
Changes are hard and require a lot of collaboration between the government and citizens, said Leon, the minister of transport. "The challenge now is to consolidate these programs, expand them, during the next six years, so they can replicate in other cities across the country."
As has been the case with other countries, the federal government is counting on the spillover effects of the programs implemented in Mexico City, Leon said. And it seems to be under way.
According to ITDP Latin America, Puebla, Oaxaca, Monterrey and Guadalajara have already started to look into bike-sharing programs and Metrobus projects. Additionally, the parking meter system has taken off in downtown Mexico City, its popularity spreading to other neighborhoods, including Lomas, Roma and Hipodromo.
"Obviously, there are benefits, but we are not even close to being done," Baranda said. Given the size of the city, there is still a lot of work to do, he said. (Mexico City's population was estimated at 8.84 million in 2009.)
"It's quite a challenge, but that's also what makes it so interesting," he added.