I’ve had the pleasure of spending the last week in the bustling and incomparable city of Mexico D.F, and thought I’d share a few musings on urbanism and transport from the great metropole of Mesoamerica.

A little historical context to start. The origins of Mexico City stretch back through three great epochs to the time of nomadic hunter-gatherers. A couple of thousand years ago the site of modern day Mexico City was a vast basin of lakes, islands and swamps. Legend has it the first settlers migrating through the valley chanced upon an extraordonary sight, a sacred eagle perched on a cactus tree devouring an equally sacred snake. The nomads took this as an omen to settle and found a permanent village, a act commemorated to this day in the emblem and flag of Mexico.

Revelations aside, a more prosaic interpretation is that these villagers flourished as their chosen site afforded two valuable resources: plenty of fresh water, and abundant alluvial soils for agriculture. Indeed in short order an alliance of thriving agricultural villages developed across the basin and created the fundamental requirement for the emergence of advanced urban culture, a surplus of agricultural production. Anthropology tells us that having more food that you need does two great things for society, for a start not everyone has to labor all day just to survive. This allows for more complex social structures where thinkers, teachers, artists, clergy and indeed aristocrats can exist. Secondly, with the ability to store excess food comes the requirement to count, organise, manage and defend stockpiles. The early Mexicans working out how to dry their corn harvest effectively led to the development of advanced mathematics, political structures, taxation, law and an organised professional military. A millenium of agricultural surpluses turned wandering tribes into those great pyramid builders, the teotihuacans, who morphed over time into the Mexica, or Aztecs as we more commonly know them.

Getting back to the city, the precolumbian Mexica developed a very efficient system of urban planning. They laid their city out in a rectangular grid, with a regular system of orthogonal streets laid about an axis of two broad avenues intersecting in the centre of town. These streets and avenues served not only as the trunk and feeder of the transport network, but also the same for the drainage system. At the intersection of the main thoroughfares they located a market square around a great temple, the seat of both the religious hierarchy and the secular administration.

If any of this sounds familiar to you, it’s because it is indeed incredibly similar to the standard Roman urban plan, one which persists right across the Mediterranean basin and indeed the western world. It’s quite amazing to think that when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico City in the early 1500s they found an urban form uncannily similar to their cities and towns back home! Needless to say the invaders changed very little to the form of the city. In typical conquistador fashion they tore down the central temple complex and build a cathedral and town hall it its place (using masonry from the Mexica temple no less), and kept the plaza, avenues and streets as they were. As I walk down the street to the plaza to marvel at the grand religious buildings and browse through the market, it’s uncanny to realise that a thousand years ago an Aztec burgher would have done the exact same thing, in the exact same places, an age before New Spain was twinkle in a European monarch’s eye.

Mexico City 1

So, to the city today. It’s fair to say that Mexico City didn’t cope well with the transition to motorisation in the 20th century. The places is soaked with traffic day and night, and the basin form holds in a lot of pollution in a great inversion layer of smog. Anyone who claims Auckland has bad traffic needs to spend ten minutes trying to drive across central Mexico City! Having said that there isn’t a lot of private traffic in the central city, like most mature mega cities traffic is mostly taxis, trucks, service vehicles and the odd VIP. Even where private vehicles are used they are full of families or groups. Perhaps the single occupant commuter exists in the outer boroughs, but they are a scarce breed in town. No, instead the people are on foot, anywhere and everywhere, but usually crammed onto narrow lumpy sidewalks as vehicles fill most of the street.

Mexico City 6

I get the feeling that the city is just waking up to a pedestrian revolution. While I believe they have always had a couple of main pedestrian streets, there is evidence of a current and wide reaching programme to repurpose roadspace away from the vehicular minority and provide more room for the vast majority of pedestrians. You can see evidence of temporary “paint and planter” type interventions, and of more comprehensive rebuilds. It seems the model of choice is a flush paved surface from building to building, with a single one-way traffic lane in the centre controlled by bollards and footpath spaces twice as wide either side. While it takes a huge amount of bollards to stop a Chilango taxi driver from parking on the footpath, it’s a great improvement over the status quo of three one way lanes and metre wide sidewalks.

Mexico City 2

Cycling is noticeably absent for such a flat and gridded city, except for the ubiquitous old school cargo trikes, no doubt due to the traffic and the almost complete lack of infrastructure. Still I did see one new separated cycleway and a few hardy vanguards. I get the feeling personal cycling is about to take off in the Distrito Federale: their appears to be a small but flourishing indicator species of tricked out hipster fixies. Time will tell whether than blossoms into mass cycling, and whether the city copes.

Mexico City 3

Another clear observation Mexico City has a new and advanced bus rapid transit system, of the type becoming increasing common in Latin America. This is characterised by median running physically separated bus lanes in the middle of huge avenues, with enclosed stations with high level platforms, and special double-articulated jumbo buses running metro style trunk service. In Mexico they have put the doors on the ‘wrong’ side of the bus, allowing them to run on opposite sides to traffic and stop facing the island platforms. The MetroBus name is apt, it really is a metro line run with buses. Watching one of the stations for a few minutes show they must be hugely efficient, with long buses moving through every minute or two without delay. Alas I don’t think the model translates to Auckland at all as we just don’t have the room. In Mexico these busways sit in the middle of very long eight or ten lane avenues, with the bus lanes and stations taking up the equivalent of four or five lanes of width.

Mexico City 4

Speaking of Metro, Mexico D.F does have an extensive metro system. In fact it is huge and shifts almost three million trips per day, second only to New York in the Americas. The ticket price is absurdly low, a journey between any stations on the network costs five pesos, or about 40c. As such the metro is one of Mexico’s great equalisers, sharp suited business types sit shoulder to shoulder with school kids and beggars. They do have a smart card ticketing system but they appear to be chronically short on the cards, instead people buy long rolls of single use paper stubs to feed into the turnstiles. Curiously the system isn’t air conditioned despite the heat, and the connections between lines require horrendously long walks through narrow connecting passages. The transfers are so bad I wonder if it does actually function as a network, or if it’s more just a collection of separate lines. Another curiosity are the vehicles, the entire metro system run on rubber tyres for reasons that aren’t immediately apparent. Rather than steel wheels on steel rails, the trains have big rubber wheels like a truck that run along slightly concave broad metal tracks. This is supplemented by a second set of horizontal wheels that act against another set of perpendicular tracks to keep the drive wheels aligned around corners. This is all supplemented by a set of guide wheels and tracks that look like conventional rail tracks in between the tyre plates to steer the vehicle through curves. Furthermore they have two power rails to supply electricity to the motors… all up they have an eight-rail solution! I can’t see how that’s affordable to build or maintain and for the life of me can’t work out the benefit of it all.

Mexico City 5

So there we go, a quick view of urbanism and transport in Mexico City. If you’ve been there or know more about the city or history please share your thoughts in the comments! Hasta luego!

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14 comments

  1. The traffic situation I’d say is similar in the Philippines where most of the traffic is a result of Public Utility Vehicles (PUV) some who usually lack the discipline and basic road etiquette

  2. I spent a handful of days in DF a couple of years ago. I took the metro everywhere and noticed that traffic was as it one might expect for one of the megalopolises of the world. My best memory is of a Torta or nine. Howow is not everywhere making these here, they are like nuclear hamburgers, tasty magnificence. I was there on a public holiday and the they had blocked one of the big avenidas to allow cyclists free roam, and there were plenty of people taking advantage. Like anywhere, if you make something easy, people will give it a go. The art in the metro stations is cool also, as art at metro stations always is. Damn I miss those tortas! Viva Mexico Cabrones!!!

  3. Very interesting. I do not know why they went with such a complex rail solution. However, in the confines of an underground metro rubber tyres are a lot quieter than metal tyres. From memory Montreal chose rubber tyres for this reason. I don’t remember it being this complex, 8-), but worked well in Montreal.

    1. I’ve heard that before but I have to disagree from my experience, the rubber tyres seem noiser if anything. You get quite a roar of ‘road noise’ and a rubbery squelch.

  4. I had heard when I was there the rubber tyres were due to the soft sediments as a result of being on an old lake bed, with the idea being they both soften the impact and spread the load. I can’t find anything online to confirm this though.

    They also have the benefit of giving better traction, both for steeper grades (I don’t think an issue in Mexico DF) and better braking, which allows closer running, but they are more expensive to maintain.

    1. These rubber-tyred metros are not that common. The same system is to be found in Santiago de Chile (CAF/Bombardier rubber-tyred EMUs), Paris and other French cities, Montreal, and Lausanne (Switz) where gradient was obviously a factor in fitting one line with this system but not another. A few Asian cities have similar systems, but otherwise they are limited to shortish shuttle-services.

      They certainly give stronger acceleration than we are used to in NZ, but I suspect this is more to do with not having “experts” like we do, who insist that trains must be limited to 1.0m/s² for “passenger comfort”!

      I experienced the one in Santiago recently and it certainly runs smoothly with an absence of the usual “clickety-clack” from rail-joints. But what it takes to maintain its smoothness I wouldn’t know.

      There has to be a reason why they are not more widely-found.

  5. love the rubber wheels and
    doors, window, doors, window, doors, window, doors :
    doors, window, doors, window, doors, window, doors : etc..
    Did they ever open both sides’ doors at the same time?

    1. Ddg, yes at a couple of busy stations they do the ‘Spanish solution’ and open the alighting side doors a few seconds before the boarding side. I still think they missed a trick not doing this at aotea.

      There is something to be said for a regular spacing of doors all along the train

  6. Great post Nick. Interesting stuff. You should ask Brisbane Lord Mayor Graham Quirk about the merits of rubber tyre metros. He’s decided that that’s the way forward for the conversion of Brisbane’s inner northern and inner south-eastern busways for reasons apparent only to him as far as I can tell. Enjoy the holiday!

    1. I heard the whole Brisbane rubber metro thing was simply because his competitor had been talking about a conventional train tunnel, so he couldn’t be seen supporting the same thing so had to chose something unusual.

  7. Great post Nick. Speaking of cycling, I remember from when I visited in 2012 that DF has set days (usually Sunday) when major streets are closed to cars and people can run, cycle or do organised exercise.

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