Mexico City chokes on its congestion problem

Authorities are trying to reduce pollution in the capital but confused policy-making and rising car ownership are reducing the city to poisonous gridlock

Every morning, Adriana Carlos leaves her home on the southern fringes of Mexico City at 7am for what should be a manageable journey to her office undertaking. Instead, her commute from the southern borough of Xochimilco takes two hours and involves three separate transfers before she reaches her office on the south-west edge of the city.

You spend a lot of your day stuck in traffic, tells Carlos, 32, who works as a sales representative. On the bright side, she tells, the traffic jams give her plenty of time to catch up on her sleep.

Severe traffic congestion have all along tormented Mexico Citys 21 million inhabitants, but in recent months it has also turned the air toxic.

So far this year, Mexicos capital has had just 26 days with acceptable air quality levels, causing authorities to take drastic action, proclaiming environmental emergencies and ordering a million cars off the road.

Authorities recently changed its rules for determining which cars can travel on a devoted days a programme known as Hoy no Circula, or Dont Drive Today and overhauled its emissions-testing system to root out corruption.

Car ownership is growing steadily in Mexico City. Photo: Miguel Tovar/ STF/ LatinContent/ Getty Images

The traffic controls oblige drivers whose vehicles dont meet emissions standards around 20% of vehicles to keep their autoes off the road one day a week.( A more restrictive version ended on 1 July, permitting an estimated 600,000 vehicles back on the streets .)

But the soupy haze of pollution has not scattered and solutions appear to be in short order.

Carlos tells she would like to live closer to work, but rents in Mexico City are more expensive than in the outlying boroughs and dormitory suburbs in the state of Mexico the sprawling conurbation that wraps around three sides of the capital.

Theres a structural problem, says Father Ral Martnez, a Catholic priest who has a degree in urban analyses. Martnez points out that the capitals fast-growing outskirts are home to newcomers from many of Mexicos more impoverished countries, who arrive attempting economic opportunities in the capital of a heavily centralised country and often end up running as maids, gardeners and construction workers far across the city.

Mexicos topography contributes to the problem: Mexico City lies in a high-altitude lakebed and is surrounded by mountains keeping pollution trapped overhead.

The current rainy season has helped somewhat, but Martnez and many others are sceptical that the governmental forces anti-pollution measures have made any difference.

The federal government has introduced schemes letting 2016 or newer model autoes to circulate without restrictions. Critics contend the plan will merely promote new auto marketings something thats allegedly already happening as residents buy extra vehicles to be able to drive every day.

Air quality in Mexico City had been improving over the past two decades, but no longer. A raft of public policy choices has induced owning a car cheaper, easier and more necessary, according to analysts.

Subdivisions of tax-subsidised housing have been constructed long distances from workplaces. Petrol is subsidised too to the tune of $20 bn( 15.4 bn) in 2008. And elevated superhighways have been built an idea replicated in other parts of the country.

Saying that Mexico City is now a motorised city is not inappropriate, urban planner Rodrigo Daz wrote in the newspaper Reforma. Census statistics, he added, depicted 39% of households in Mexico City owned a automobile in 2000. Ten years later 46.5% of households had cars.

Public transport also has been forgotten as the often-saturated subway system ages and fleets of uncomfortable microbuses and combis ply the streets. Incidents of sexual assault are staggeringly high on metro lines and buses, while the middle and upper classes and anyone able to own a vehicle mostly stay away.

Bike-sharing service Ecobici has 85 docking stations in four downtown Mexico City districts. Photograph: Tim Johnson/ MCT/ Getty Images

In the entire system, the least-important person is the passenger, says Enrique Soto, an urban analyses professor at Nation Autonomous University of Mexico.

Mexico City has pushed cycling as an option over the past decade and a bike-sharing service known as Ecobici has attracted some 120,000 users. Cycling, though, isnt for the swoon of heart.

Its great for short trip-ups around the neighbourhood, tells David Alvarez, a dentist who scarcely drives any more. Its like Mad Max out there, he says.

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