Will Mexico City's careering, polluting, dinosaur microbuses finally go extinct?

Decrepit green coating? Check. Loud ’80s music? Check. Doors wide open so you can say hi to the driver from the sidewalk? Check. The driver also happens to be on the phone? Check.

You have successfully ticked all the boxes of an authentic microbús in Mexico City.

For “Latin America’s smartest city”, the small, overcrowded buses are dinosaurs of sorts. Usually, Mexico City likes to brag about its transportation system, which is made up of 195 metro stations, 6,000 shared public bikes and fast-lane bus system. But the microbús stands out for its looks, pollution levels and unruliness. So politicians are looking for ways to get rid of them.

The system of microbuses was developed organically and under limited governmental supervision. To hop on one of these vehicles, all you need to do is stand by a street corner and wave. But to get somewhere specific – like, home – it’s best to pray to God (or Google Maps), because the bus won’t follow the same route back and forth. Official maps do not exist and different lines sometimes share the same route number.

But the greatest charge against them is pollution.

Mexico City is not exactly known for its pure air, and all 35,000 microbuses roaming around the metropolis emit more than 1.5m tons of CO2 per year, as well as particulates and Nitrogen Oxides. This is mainly due to the vehicles’ age: most of them are more than 20 years old (think Spice Girls era).

But not only do they pollute, microbuses have a knack of rebelling against traffic rules.

Mexico City's infamous traffic. Image: Carlos Van Vegas.

When they’re not driving through red lights, they drive sluggishly to make sure no potential passenger is missed.

The habit of speeding, changing lanes and abruptly breaking is driven by a fierce competition between microbús drivers. Because they evolved from collective taxis back in the 1960s, microbuses are privately owned. Drivers buy their own buses (or “rent” them from small companies), get a license from the city’s Secretary of Transportation and work on a route which is often already occupied by other drivers. And since their pay is correlated to the number of passengers they pick up, it is not uncommon to see them race each other down the streets of Mexico City.

The government’s initial and rather ambitious goal was to get rid of 20,000 microbuses by 2018. The local authorities encourage drivers to buy greener vehicles by simply not renewing their licenses and by launching a campaign to collect the rolling carcasses for scrap metal. In June 2017, only 30 per cent of the objective was achieved – leaving 14,000 microbuses to eradicate by the deadline next year.

A microbus in action. Image: Fabz.

Raising the fee of microbuses would perhaps work better. On April 27, 2017, a ride on a microbús went from four to five pesos, with the official reason being that higher gasoline prices demanded higher fares. The very next day, there were 200,000 more people choosing to get around town via the metro. But that option is available only to the 13 per cent of residents living near a metro stop.

When the iconic microbús goes extinct, what will people use? Both politicians and city dwellers may deride microbuses for the reckless driving habits of the drivers and the foul and toxic stench of their diesel engines, but the truth is – they’re indispensable.

With more than 21m people living in Mexico City and the urban surroundings, the sprawling “Valley of Mexico” is twice the size of London.

Mexico City's colonial core. Image: Jeff Kramer.

For the 13m who live on the outskirts, public transportation is practically nonexistent, except for the few bus and fast train lines – meanwhile, current governmental plans to develop transport capacity seem inconclusive.

All in all, a timid eight per cent of the capital’s population opt for government-controlled metros and buses while more than 50 per cent hop on licensed microbuses daily. So, as battered and unglamorous the microbús may be, it fulfills the transportation needs of the majority of the capital’s residents.

For the time being, the four-wheel dinosaur reigns supreme in Mexico City’s transport landscape. With no viable alternatives, the extinction of microbuses can wait.

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Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.