Photo essay: Dealing with urban growth in Mexico City
Mexico’s high-altitude, densely populated capital, Mexico City, doesn’t do things by halves. It’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited urban areas in the Western Hemisphere, once the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, and it’s built on a lake. It’s one of the few major international cities not built on a river, but its elevated location made for a historically logical crossroads for trade.
Mexico City’s lakebed foundations make for a precarious existence. The city is sinking — over the past century, some parts have sunk by more than nine metres, and earthquakes are all the more devastating when they hit. The 1985 earthquake with a magnitude of 8.0 killed at least 5,000 people. Against this fragile backdrop, one of the big challenges of megacities the world over — rapid urbanisation — is amplified in Mexico City. The city has a population of 8.9 million, with Greater Mexico City home to 21.2 million people. This growing population requires adequate housing, basic services, and improved infrastructure to ensure resilience for the future.
Beating congestion but dealing with danger
For an emerging city, Mexico City’s formal transport system is reasonably extensive, accessible, and affordable. Alas, the biggest problem when taking public transport in Mexico City is the danger posed on board: theft is considered normal when taking public transport. This can range from pickpocketing, typical on the metro, to robberies on buses, as well as sexual harassment and physical violence. As a result, travellers often ride with the exact amount of cash they need for tickets, use a second phone, and have developed creative ways of hiding valuables during a robbery. In addition, route planning happens at home, because a) checking phones during travel is not safe b) few people have enough mobile data to do so and c) the WiFi doesn’t work on the metro and signal drops out from time to time.
Despite the issue of danger, congestion means that many people choose to use public transport instead of taking private vehicles. Often, there are punctuality bonuses and penalties at Mexican workplaces — if you’re late more than five times a month, wages will be reduced. Social listening suggests that public transport challenges are most common between the hours of 7am-10am and 4pm-7pm, when people are typically heading to and from work.
55% of the population uses formal public transport, compared to 16% opting for private cars, and 28% using informal public transport modes. There are a mix of formal modes available. There’s the RTP bus, the metrobus, the mexibus, and the Puma bus. There’s the metro, and suburban and light rail options, as well as the Mexicable, an aerial lift that was launched in 2016 that transports almost 30,000 passengers a day.
The metrobus runs on five routes in Mexico City, and as with every other mode of transport, can get crowded during rush hour. The RTP system covers a broader area of the city to the Metrobus network, and routes start at metro stations. There are also bright pink Atenea buses, only available for women, children, and people with disabilities — a government reaction to threats on public transport.
The one suburban railway line is the Ferrocarril Suburbano de la Zona Metropolitana del Valle de México, which runs north for almost 30 km to Cuautitlan. Tickets are inexpensive, with fares increasing for those travelling further than 12.8 km. The light rail service runs south, starting in Tasqueña and ending up in Xochimilco, passing by the Estadio Azteca stadium on the way.
A flagship metro system
Mexico City’s metro is the largest in Latin America, with up to six million daily users. It’s 226 km long, with 195 stations and 12 lines, and at just 3 pesos per journey ($0.23 USD or EUR 0.18), it’s the cheapest metro system in the world. The city has worked to meet growing demand — the first phase was completed in 1969, and the most recent phase was in 2014. Accessibility was considered from day one — back when the metro opened, a third of the country were unable to read or write, and the city helped guide passengers with a system based on colours and visuals.
Some studies suggest that the metro is a victim of its own success, as the second most congested metro system in the world. Despite extensions, it is still something of a legacy system, and simply does not have the capacity to transport Mexico’s burgeoning population.
An alternative to the formal options, colectivos, also known as peseros, are flexible minibus shuttles operating in Mexico City and are relied upon by a great number of people. Their network is over ten times the size of the formal system, with over 102,000 vehicles in operation. Cash only, tickets cost 30–50 pesos per trip, and they stop sporadically along the way. As with other transport modes in the city, theft is not uncommon.
While 16% of Mexico City opting to use cars instead of public transport might not sound a great deal, it still means that 5 million cars and almost 350,000 motorcycles are registered in Mexico City. In 2021, an increase in congestion was seen, with average travel times 38% longer than baseline times. While congestion is the first and most direct negative consequence, air pollution is right behind. Measures have been taken to improve air quality, with air pollution reaching a peak in the 80s and 90s, but work remains to be done. Nonetheless, Mexico City is addressing its urban mobility challenges, and in 2019, announced plans to invest almost $1.6 billion in public transport, including new metro carriages.