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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Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.