Michael K. Bess, Assistant Professor at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas
As one descends by plane into the valley of Anáhuac three details catch the eye: mountains, smog, and concrete. Mexico City sprawls across the land like an asphalt behemoth; two of the sixteen boroughs (locally called delegaciones) that comprise the city count populations greater than one million, another four easily surpass 500,000. Block after block of metal and brick buildings pass underneath as the plane makes its approach. For a moment, it flies over the grand Chapultepec park, developed in the 19th century to create a space for cyclists and pedestrians. If one is lucky, she may catch a glimpse of Paseo de la Reforma, the grand boulevard that cuts through the heart of the financial district. It was commissioned by Emperor Maximilian when the country was briefly an empire, and later expanded and adorned following the restauration of the republic. Today, motor vehicles are everywhere. It’s a noisy, fast-paced city.
For much of its history Mexico City has been outsized. During the colonial period, it already counted more than one hundred thousand residents long before other communities in the “new world” could boast similar numbers. By the end of the nineteenth century, as the president and dictator, Porfirio Díaz, carried out an ambitious modernization campaign across the nation, the city’s population neared 500,000. In 1930, it reached 1.23 million. Today, the metropolitan area of Greater Mexico City, which includes parts of Mexico state, counts more than 21 million people (Population data, INEGI).
Needless to say, transportation and mobility have been chief issues that dominated the concerns of local urban planners and have been the source of innumerous complaints by residents. During the late nineteenth century, city leaders and citizens began concerted efforts to make improvements to transportation infrastructure. William Beezeley finds that initially, in 1891, the bicycle was viewed as a threat to public safety and banned from parts of downtown. Moreover, at the time, it had not been uncommon for cyclists to face jeers and even rocks thrown for riding down Mexico City’s avenues on their imported contraptions. Soon after, however, bicycle enthusiasts appealed to President Díaz who agreed to rescind the ban. Bicycle enthusiasts championed street paving and the construction of sidewalks. An early victory came in 1892 when city leaders created an ordinance outlining safety requirements for cyclists, while also ordering police to protect riders from harassment. The rule was renewed three years later. In 1895, another victory, which has had a lasting effect on the layout of the city, was the decision to purchase Chapultepec Forest and transform it into an expansive public park for cyclists and other visitors (Beezley, Judas at the Jockey Club, 1987).
If one were to have visited Mexico City in 1899, she would have encountered a bustling morning commute. Hurried government bureaucrats arrived to their offices at the Zócalo, the city’s historic center square, which included the grand federal and municipal palaces, as well as the centuries-old metropolitan cathedral. Not far away, on Plateros Street (today, Madero Avenue), businessmen and stock traders arrived to the city’s newly-opened, first stock exchange. Elsewhere, considerable numbers of laborers, most of them women, came from neighboring towns and villages to work in the growing textile industry in Tlalpan, to the southwest of downtown. The principal means of collective transport, used by all sectors of society, were the animal-powered trams, which had been in service since mid-century. In addition, horse-drawn carriages and carts carried passengers, advertising their service level according to colored flags: blue for first class, red for second, and yellow for third. The first electric tram went into service on 15 January 1900 to considerable public excitement. Each day, it began receiving passengers at six in the morning, with a line that extended from the Zócalo to what was then the western outskirts of the city, Tacubaya. Gradually, the network expanded, adding more stops and installing new lines to reach other boroughs. For wealthy and working-class capitalinos (residents of Mexico City), the electric trams were a powerful symbol of “progress” in the city, despite growing criticism over accidents (de la Torre Rendón, “La ciudad de México en los albores del siglo XX,” in Historia de la Vida cotidiana en México, 2006).
During the early 1900s, the municipal government, with support from federal authorities, also began to recover and renovate the grand road Maxilimian had commissioned during his short reign. Originally called Paseo de la Emperatriz, it was designed to reduce travel time between the national palace and the city core; after the restauration of the republic in 1867, it fell into disuse and was largely abandoned. The Díaz regime decided to rebuild and expand the avenue into one of the city’s greatest boulevards to celebrate the country’s centenary of independence. By 1910, on the eve of the revolution, what had been a little used route to the south of downtown, overgrown with weeds and trees, was cleared of brush, widened, paved, and adorned. Grand new buildings lined the revived avenue that included broad sidewalks and electric light (“Contexto histórico de Paseo de la Reforma,” Reforma 10, online). Renamed Paseo de la Reforma, in honor of President Benito Juárez’s republican reforms from the mid-nineteenth century, it became a new urban showpiece. Today, the boulevard is part of Mexico City’s financial district, lined with banking headquarters, the stock exchange, important governmental buildings, including the Attorney General’s office, and also the U.S. embassy. Its leafy sidewalks, numerous cafes, and monuments, like the Angel of Independence, make it a competitor to many of the grand boulevards of other capital cities.
A view of present-day Paseo de la Reforma (Credit: Berenice Hernández)
In 1902, the first modern automobile arrived on Mexico City’s streets. As J. Brian Freeman has noted, the reaction to this new form of transport, like the bicycle before it, was at times ambiguous, but also hostile by some sectors of the population. Newspapers and intellectuals decried the growing number of motor vehicle accidents. Nevertheless, many elites and foreigners ignored these concerns, embracing the automobile, while years of declining prices and the development of a market for used vehicles gradually made ownership a little more accessible to more people. One can imagine the cacophony of noises as motor engines and horns increasingly became common. By 1910 and 1911, as the Díaz regime faltered amid the revolutionary campaigns that spread across the nation, urban mobility in Mexico City continued to adapt to the new motor technologies. During this decade, the first taxi and bus services appeared. They competed with the trams, which experienced disruptions in service due to labor strikes, creating an alternative mobility for navigating the city. Commercial drivers drove adapted, low-cost Ford models and charged ten cents per ride. By the 1920s, company owners and workers formed trade associations and unions to defend their interests and negotiate labor agreements. In doing so, they created a new industrial sector of the economy in the city that spread to other parts of Mexico (Freeman, “Los Hijos de Ford: Mexico in the Automobile Age, 1900-1930,” in Technology and Culture in Twentieth-Century Mexico, 2013). For example, in my own work on urban mobility, in Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz state, four hours east of Mexico City, the first transport cooperatives that developed in the 1930s began as largely family endeavors. Fathers, mothers, and sisters purchased shares in the company where brothers, sons or husbands served as the drivers and mechanics. A charter governed everything from management votes to the good behavior of members and on what grounds could someone be expelled from the association (Bess, Building a Revolutionary State through Roads, forthcoming, 2017).
In the 1920s, under the new state that emerged from the violence of the revolution’s armed phase, Mexico City grew amid a political and economic environment of considerable optimism about the future. For middle-class and wealthy women living in the capital, it was a time of growing social freedom. Joanne Hershfield describes the importance of automobiles and women’s magazines that contributed to an incipient driving culture. Sisters and friends, perhaps dressed in the latest fashions recently arrived from Paris or New York, organized weekend driving tours or planned visits to evening cultural events. These “chicas modernas,” as they were called, embodied this aspirational optimism, taking an active role in their own mobility and lives. It represented a mild thawing of the country’s predominantly patriarchal, conservative society. No longer simply passengers to be transported, they entered a growing consumer market oriented towards women as drivers (Hershfield, Imagining la Chica Moderna, 2008). For many others, transportation options were also growing. By the 1930s, thousands of motor vehicles circulated on the city’s streets. Likewise, collective transport was growing: in 1936, the city had 1,856 motor buses in service, carrying thousands of working-class and middle-class passengers, daily. To put this figure into regional perspective, in that same year, populous states, like Veracruz, Puebla, or Mexico state, with well over one million inhabitants each, counted only 309, 637, and 548 motor buses, respectively (Statistical data, INEGI).
By the end of the 1930s, as the political fight over political control of the petroleum industry became more serious, new challenges threatened everyday mobility. Gasoline shortages sidelined bus service and forced drivers to leave cars at home. In 1937, the year before President Lázaro Cárdenas nationalized the industry, during one particularly acute strike by oil workers, half of all buses in Mexico City were forced to suspend operations, hundreds of motorists were left stranded, and desperate American tourists contacted the embassy for help to return north (New York Times, multiple articles). Moreover, during the Second World War, as the Mexican government supplied Allied forces with substantial amounts of gasoline, rubber, and other resources, these problems worsened. A black market quickly developed, charging exorbitant prices for tires and spare parts few people could afford. Transport cooperatives fought with municipal authorities over the need to raise fares to cover rising costs, while may bus operators were again forced to halt service across much of their fleet (Bess, forthcoming).
When the global war ended, the late 1940s ushered in a period of considerable economic development and rapid industrialization that scholars have labeled the “Mexican Miracle.” Across the nation, federal and state governments carried out ambitious road-building programs that added thousands of new kilometers of motor routes to the national transportation network. Likewise, in Mexico City, president Miguel Alemán (1946-1952) supported municipal efforts that widened avenues and cleared space through the polis for modern urban highways. In 1950, he inaugurated a new cross-town corridor, running alongside the Tacubaya and Becerra rivers encased in concrete, not dissimilar to flood control plans in Los Angeles and other big cities that had converted themselves into spaces friendly to the automobile (“El viaducto Miguel Alemán,” El Universal). Two years later, the New York Times correspondent Roland Goodman described the ambitious infrastructure projects reshaping mobility across Mexico. In the dispatch, he wrote about “the country’s first air-conditioned buses,” “a reconstructed Mexico City airport,” and “the thirty-seven-mile, four land superhighway to Cuernavaca [that] crosses a 10,000-foot-high mountain range with grades and curves designed for safe high speeds.” He also described the government’s broader ambitions with the construction of “gigantic stadium in Mexico City” in the new campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, which might one day host the Olympic Games (Goodman, “New Developments in Mexico,” New York Times).
During the 1960s, these large-scale aspirations included a major innovation to the city’s transportation infrastructure. In 1967, the national government launched its initiative to begin construction of a metro system. It was a massive and complicated undertaking that required parts of the city’s network of surface roads to be shut down in order to build sections of the tunnels from ground level. In some places, early construction of the metro snaked through Mexico City, like deep canals, with earth piled up on each side as workers installed rebar and concrete. In other places, large excavating machines tunneled underground. At one point, this labor consumed a vast amount of the Zócalo, where one of the first stations was placed. Archaeologists were assigned to the project as excavations, on occasion, uncovered pre-Columbian artifacts. Two years later, President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz inaugurated the first phase of the project; the Pink and Blue lines included stops at Chapultepec Park and Tlalpan, among other destinations in the city core. Over the next forty years, the system expanded service coverage, ultimately growing to include 12 lines, 195 stations, transporting four million passengers daily (Sistema Colectivo de Transporte, El metro es de todos, 2014).
Inside the metro (Credit: Berenice Hernández)
Nevertheless, today, one of the main problems facing the metro, like much of the rest of the city’s transportation infrastructure, is congestion. At peak times, in some of the most heavily-used stations, waiting travelers can line the boarding platform five or six rows deep, while trains fill to a capacity that permits little movement once inside. To address some of the social concerns that overcrowding has generated, the metro authority has reserved some train cars at busy times for only female passengers. Likewise, with over three million automobiles in circulation, motor traffic congestion has become a pressing concern with very long commutes. In some ways, for a visitor to Mexico City, it might be better to imagine the city’s boroughs as a series of islands separated by a sea of automobiles and other motor traffic. This heavy congestion includes a serious environmental concern; heavy smog has increasingly seen an unwelcome return (Kahn, “In Mexico City, The Return of Terrible Smog,” National Public Radio).
Traffic near the Palacio de Bellas Artes cultural center (Credit: Berenice Hernández)
In the face of these challenges, city planners have developed new public transportation options, like the MetroBus. Opened in 2005, it is a BRT (Bus rapid transit) network; the largest vehicles in operation, measuring 24 meters, have three joined cabins; doors open and close similar to a metro train. All of the vehicles are painted a distinctive red color and run in a special lane inaccessible to regular motor traffic. In a fleet of more than 400, the authority has also debuted 54 hybrid diesel vehicles, the first of its kind in Latin America. Since its inauguration, Mexico City’s BRT has grown to include five lines, stretching 105 kilometers, serving 900,000 passengers daily (Data, muncipal government of Mexico City). This system stands in stark contrast with the iconic green and grey “pesero” or microbus, which debuted in the 1970s, operating as a type of “collective taxi” that has evolved into an informal network of more than a thousand different routes, carrying up to 14 million passengers a day across a decentralized fleet of 29,000 vehicles (Mendelson, “Mapping Mexico City’s Vast, Informal Transit System,” Fast Company).
MetroBus at a boarding station (Credit: Berenice Hernández)
Despite the diversity of public transportation, issues of class play an important role in how people move about Mexico City. Although the metro and bus networks account for close to 75 percent of all daily trips, there is one sector of society that resists collective transport: the middle class. Gabriella Gorbea found that perceptions related to the metro and bus services affected the willingness of individuals to use them. For middle and upper-middle class residents, concerns about status have them opting to use a ride-sharing app or drive their own vehicles (Gorbeo, “Mexico City’s Smog Problem Isn’t Getting Better Because People Hate Public Transit,” Vice News). These class and social distinctions can be seen other ways, too. There have been altercations between cyclists and wealthy drivers attempting to illegally use the dedicated bike lane in upscale parts of the city (“Juez prohíbe a ‘Lord Audi’ acercarse a civlovías,” Milenio). Social tensions have also erupted over Uber’s presence in the city as the local taxi fleet, which is estimated to be more than 140,000 vehicles, saw cab drivers march with a heavy police presence, especially after some gatherings had turned violent with attacks against Uber drivers. These issues are additional reminders of the complex history that different forms of transportation have experienced as they are deployed and utilized in compact and culturally diverse urban spaces (“Uber drivers attacked outside Mexico City airport as taxi drivers demonstrate,” The Guardian).
Bicentennial Inner Loop on a Rainy Day (Credit: Berenice Hernández)
From the expansive, overlapping network of buses and metro systems to the city’s bike lanes and ride-sharing services, myriad transportation options are interwoven throughout the modern city. Amid this grid, however, millions of automobiles add another layer of complexity and threaten air quality and living conditions. In one of the fastest moving places in the Americas, heavy traffic congestion teaches a lesson in patience. As the city has grown, urban planners have looked to technology and creative solutions to address challenges to mobility. It is a project that extends back well over a century to the first animal-powered trams that arrived in the nineteenth century. Today, given Mexico City’s population growth and economic importance, alongside deep concerns about pollution and the environmental sustainability of urban transportation, it is also a project that remains very much a work in progress.