City and Candidate Have a Lot Riding on the Buses

Times Staff Writer

Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has launched programs to tackle crime, poverty and disease in his tuneup to run for this nation’s presidency.

Now comes the hard part: traffic.

On Sunday, the front-runner is slated to inaugurate the most important public transit project this gridlocked metropolis has seen in more than 30 years. If all goes as planned, low-pollution jumbo buses will soon whisk passengers from specially built platforms onto a dedicated bus lane that will speed them along one of Mexico City’s most congested commuter routes.

Known as Metrobus, the project is modeled after similar systems that are working well in Brazil and Colombia. The idea is to build some of the best qualities of a subway line into a much less costly bus system.


If successful, it could be a step in reorganizing the chaotic bus service that moves most of the metro area’s 20 million residents. At present, the mobility of the Western Hemisphere’s largest city rests largely with private jitney operators whose smoke-spewing jalopies and kamikaze drivers make riders long for their own set of wheels.

If Metrobus is a flop -- and there are plenty of naysayers -- it could paralyze traffic along one of the capital’s principal thoroughfares and derail expansion of the project to other corridors. Worst of all, it would encourage Mexico City’s abusive love affair with the cars that are choking its roads, poisoning its air and suffocating urban life.

“We need a new model for public transit here,” said Adriana Lobo, director of the nonprofit Center for Sustainable Transport in Mexico City. “It’s critical that this succeed.”

Metrobus will operate along a 12 1/2 -mile stretch of Insurgentes, the city’s main north-south thoroughfare. Mostly three lanes wide in each direction, divided by a tree-lined median, the street is being re-engineered to give priority to the quarter-million bus passengers that are the majority of its daily commuters.


The lanes next to the median will be reserved for a fleet of 80 new Volvo buses, each capable of holding 160 passengers. Commuters will board from the median, where 36 large, modern stations have been constructed.

Transportation planners say that the dedicated bus lanes will shave at least 50 minutes off the nearly two hours it takes riders to travel the length of the route at rush hour. The fare is 3 1/2 pesos, or about 40 cents, slightly cheaper than the typical microbus.

Around 350 aging municipal and private buses will also be yanked from Insurgentes. Proponents say that should benefit drivers in the remaining lanes because they will no longer have to dodge buses loading passengers at the curb.

At about $30 million, Metrobus’ cost is spare change in Mexico City’s budget compared with the mayor’s other showcase transit project, a short stretch of double-decker highway opened in January that cost $185 million. Experts say that’s precisely what makes Metrobus so appealing.


Burgeoning Third World cities lack the money to build their way out of their transportation problems. Subways and light rail are cost-prohibitive, and the growth of private car ownership is far outpacing the public funding needed to construct roads to accommodate them.

Mexico City, for example, has around 3,500,000 registered vehicles, a category that has been growing by an average of almost 8% a year for a decade. Trucks and cars are the largest source of contaminants fouling this city’s notoriously bad air, to say nothing of the noise pollution from honking horns, screeching alarms and booming stereos.

“We’re killing this city,” said Adrian Fernandez Bremauntz, president of Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology. “This isn’t sustainable.”

Enter bus rapid transit, or BRT as it is known to transit wonks. Pioneered in Curitiba, Brazil, and replicated in other Latin American cities, including Bogota, Colombia, BRT aims to get more out of existing roadways by making buses work more like subways.


Common features include bus lanes unimpeded by other traffic, as well as spacious passenger loading areas, prepaid electronic ticketing and high-capacity buses with plenty of doors to get riders on and off quickly.

“If you do it right, you get subway efficiency and subway speed for 5% to 10% of the cost,” said Hal Harvey, environment program director at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which is supporting sustainable transportation projects in Latin America.

But skeptics say transit theory and Mexico City reality are on a collision course on Insurgentes. One would think gridlock-weary denizens would be thrilled about Metrobus. Instead, almost everyone has a gripe.

Environmentalists are furious that the city cut thousands of mature trees in the median to build the passenger platforms. Citizen groups are petrified that those stations will attract hoards of sidewalk vendors and that traffic snarls on Insurgentes will send frustrated motorists barreling through their neighborhoods seeking shortcuts. Drivers of private vehicles are confounded by the notion that ceding a lane of precious asphalt to buses might speed traffic.


“I’ve been driving here for 22 years, and I’m telling you it won’t work,” said cabdriver Enrique Mercado Ortiz. He said such a change requires meticulous planning, but “it’s our manner to be disorderly.”

Successful BRT systems require more than big buses and fancy stations. In Curitiba, authorities restricted car traffic in the city center, changed zoning laws and used other land-use techniques to keep things rolling. Nothing comparable has been done in Mexico City, where construction workers are toiling around the clock to finish the bus shelters in time.

Metrobus will likewise require a behavioral shift for motorists and pedestrians. Riders long accustomed to hailing buses at the curb will have to cross busy Insurgentes to board the platforms. The city is installing pedestrian signals at most intersections. But getting people to obey them is another matter.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is management. Much of the system will be operated by a consortium of private jitney owners whose buses now carry most riders on Insurgentes. These transit groups are a powerful force in Mexico City, capable of shutting down traffic on a whim.


But whether the entrepreneurs who made bus transit here synonymous with cramped, dirty and dangerous can lead a transit revolution in Mexico City remains to be seen.

“A lot of people are looking at Mexico City as a laboratory,” said Alejandro Villegas Lopez, who teaches transportation policy at the National Polytechnic Institute. “If it fails, they’ll be looking for some other solution.”