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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!