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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Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.