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About Transportation in Mexico City

By Odon de Buen

copyright 1993.

Mexico City is a large city which requires transportation for
work, school, and social life. What mode of transportation one
chooses to use depends on many variables that can include income,
availability of mode of transportation, time of day, time
available, comfort standards, or just who you are with at the
moment.
I personally prefer to walk, but walking is not always possible
when time and having my wife and children with me are important
constraints. I then have to make choices, which I may like or
dislike. I tend to dislike having to drive the most and enjoy
empty "peseros" in a clear afternoon the most (especially when
the driver has some nice music on). Riding the Metro is not bad,
but not at 6 in the afternoon (when all of those that are not
driving gather in it). Sometimes, particularly when I am in a
learning mood, hopping on a taxi and having a one-to-one
conversation with the driver may be a pleasant and unique
experience.
What follows are my notes about the different modes of
transportation in Mexico City. My intention is not to give advise
to those who come to visit the city, but just to reflect on the
joy and pain of moving from place to place in this, many times,
overwhelming city.
The Great Enemy: the Automobile
I would like to start with the automobile because it is the most
obvious one: Mexico City's landscape is dressed with moving and
parked cars and the automobile, like in many other places in the
world, is an important social obsession and this is, basically,
social commentary.
It is curious that one of the metaphors I started using about
living in Mexico was precisely driving in Mexico City. The most
obvious thing about this was that driving in Mexico City (as well
as living in Mexico) is a process of constant negotiation: when
driving (be it a 10 mph or at a 100 mph) one has to negotiate
one's position, even the one that represents staying in the same
line at the speed that is allowed. 
When driving in Mexico City one has to negotiate (at the same
time) with the drivers of the cars in front of you, with those on
the sides, and with those behind you. You have to negotiate your
need to change lane or your right to stay on your lane. Sometimes
there is no negotiation and they just impose on you, which is
very common. The imposition, however, may not be done on an
individual but on the collectivity: a driver (generally a
"pesero") will stop all of a sudden to pick up a passenger, which
gives place to the driver behind it (and in front of you to the
left) to change lanes all of a sudden too. To avoid crashing one
slows down, which gives place to the driver behind you to either
honk at you or start maneuvering to pass (which will result in a
chain of stop-pass-honk events). This, of course, happens several
times in a trip, which requires a thick shell of patience.
Another metaphor that has occurred to me while driving in Mexico
City is that driving in the city is just like life, particularly
when one chooses to attempt new (and sometimes unknown) ways to
get to places: it can happen that one finds an easy way out and
gets ahead of everybody. It may also happen that, trying to avoid
a situation where motion is slow, one may end up stalled in the
middle of a larger mess that doesn't even compare with the one
one was avoiding (no intention to be metaphoric about my move to
Mexico!!).
Always be ready for the unexpected when driving in the capital
city of Mexico. By this I am mainly refering to the way the
streets are marked. One of the most terrifying experiences that I
have found is when two lanes turn into one without any previous
notice: this generally happens in streets where cars move fast or
in bridges that have turns. Another surprise comes when one finds
that the obstacles that are set to control traffic during peak
hours (when cars go slow and drivers identify them) are still
there at night, when they are hard to see and one is driving
fast. The problem is that these obstacles are generally just
large pieces of metal (probably a leftover from a car crash) that
don't have any kind of reflective paint.
The place I avoid the most when I'm driving is "El Periferico",
which is the freeway that is supposed to go around Mexico City (I
say supposed because it doesn't). The road, a three lane freeway
with no place to park if you need to stop, is a shooting range
where the bullets weigh at least a ton (and one is the sitting
duck). This, of course, when it doesn't play its role of parking
place for everybody. 
The Periferico is also where the rich ride their cars. Through
the years I have even developed the notion that, for those that
have a big houses on the hills, that go to Colorado for the
weekends, or send their kids to Stanford for undergraduate
studies, the Periferico is the only place where they become one
of a thousand, the only place where they have to share something
with someone with incomes a thousand times less (like myself).
The Periferico is one of the few places that the car of the poor
(beaten-up, 1965 Renaults) share spaces with the brand new
Mercedes-Benz that cost as much as what a hundred workers earn in
a year. I don't get in the Periferico much, but I cannot deny
the pleasure that I get when, by chance, one of those fancy cars
get a flat tire and their owners have to stand there getting the
"madre" reminders that are common when someone gets on people's way.
But moving is just one of the problems one faces going places in
Mexico City: parking is just as complicated. In Mexico City
(like, I suppose, many other cities in the developing world)
there are streets where parking on the street is "assisted" by an
army of individuals who liberally have made the area adjacent to
the walkways their territory. In these cases, besides the service
they provide by being a "third eye" while you maneuver to park,
they provide a protection service which basically consists in
keeping their friends away from your vehicle. There are places
where these individuals have become so established that you give
them the keys to your car, mainly because that is the only way
room can be made available for the cars to park; this is a
situation that is very common around government offices located
in the downtown areas of the city (and, it must be said, its
pretty safe).
But not everywhere "protection" is available, or it is not for 24
hours a day. That is where another business comes in: the one
that sells and installs auto-protection devices and systems.
These enterprises have filled Mexico City with the sounds
associated with these systems, which vary from the short "beeps"
of the alarm system being turned on or off in a parking lot to
the loud honking at all hours of the day (which generally comes
from the vehicles of people that forget to turn off the alarm
system before opening the door).
Besides what one has to spend buying and financing the car,
paying for the insurance, for the gasoline, for parking, and for
security, there are other "charges" for driving around the city
which I can call "social charges". By these social charges I mean
the petty cash that one spreads out in intersections when one
gets a stop light. Those pesos go to people that either entertain
you while you are a prisoner of the car (there are many dressed
like clowns nowadays), or clean you windshield while you wait, or
sell you gum so you can freshen your breath (and spoil your teeth
and your digestion too), that commit slow suicide by putting
gasoline in their mouths and throwing fire from their mouths in
front of you, or that just plainly ask you (with the deepest
expression of poverty and sadness) for those few coins located
where you are supposed to put the ashes of the cigarettes that
you don't smoke.
In those intersections there is another phenomena: drive-through
malls with personalized service. At some intersections the cars
stop for ten to twenty minutes, which is enough time to get
yourself Mennonite cheese (there are actual Mennonites, with their
blond hair, overalls, and hats, walking by the cars); you can
also buy lamps, imported toys, dark glasses, American chocolate,
canned sodas, umbrellas, flowers, and even bookshelves. This, of
course, may represent a problem when traffic is moving a little
faster than usual, mainly because the transaction may get
complicated by the very typical lack of change of the walking
entrepreneurs, who then have to run through cars while their
client has to stand in the middle of the street in front of a
large crowd of honking cars.
There are, of course, charges that one has to pay to the bank, to
the city, to the federal government, and/or to that person or
company that sold you the car. I won't include those because they
are typical, but I'll add those that one has to pay to avoid
larger charges. By these I mean the charges one has to pay when
commuting the error of breaking the law and being caught. I must
admit that having options when having to pay for an error is an
advantage, particularly when the option to "contribute" with a 
certain amount of money to a police officer is to pay twice or
more to either/and/or the government and the officials you will
have to face if you don't go for the first option. In this case,
what happens is that when, let's say, your car ran over a small
tree on the walkway (without damage to your car or anything else)
and a police officer catches you at the spot? The police officer
will, very politely, enumerate (with costs) what it means to
commit the crime of "dan~o a la nacio'n" (damage to the nation),
which is the category under which damaging a tree on a walkway
falls: the fine runs around $US 300 (plus associated
"transaction" costs"). You may yell, cry, and/or try to escape,
but these options will only increase the damage (particularly the
one that involves trying to run away). That is when, like with
the other drivers around while you are moving, or with the
individual that controls a certain street-parking area, or with
the guy that wants to "clean" the windshield of your recently
washed car, you will have to negotiate to get out of there with
the least costly option, which will probably fall into the
economic category of "income redistribution".
The Great Pest: Peseros
Even though they are one of the greatest pests in Mexico City
(particularly for those who drive their cars on the same road as
them), even though they are driven by non-unionized workers, and
even though they may be very uncomfortable, the "peseros" (that
comes from the fact that they appeared when price of the ride was
one old peso) are one of the most reliable ways of transportation
around Mexico City: they are frequent, they go everywhere, and
they are not expensive.
     
The peseros that ride on Mexico City's streets today are far
apart from those that were present when this type of service
appeared about fifteen years ago. At that time the peseros were
just large (mainly American) used cars being operated for
collective rides; because of that they were also named
"collective taxis". The difference between these taxis and the
standard ones was that the collective ones would stop anywhere
and load passengers in a permanent route. Later, once the market
for this type of transportation was established, the old cars
started to be replaced by new VW buses, which could take more
passenger with less gasoline. This was (I imagine) a great source
of happiness for the VW executives, whom found themselves with a
sudden jump in sales of their vehicles. But those who, at the
time, were buying VW buses for private uses were those who found
out that not all of those VW-bus peseros were bought from the VW
dealer: many of the VW-bus peseros were stolen vehicles.
Later on, around 1982, a new generation of peseros began to
appear: the "mini-buses". First authorized to run for seated-only
passengers, when the debt crisis hit Mexico and the government
could (and would) not expand the public transportation fleet, the
population of these vehicles (mostly GM and Ford) began to boom.
Later on, with the appearance of the "day-without-a-car" program
(to limit vehicle-emissions) the regulators allowed the operators
of the mini-buses to have stand-up passengers. I guess that, to
reflect the complications that that meant for those passengers--
like me, a little taller that the average Mexico City population-
-it would be enough to say that those first mini-buses, being
only authorized for seated-only passengers, had ceilings that
were about 5.5 feet high. Just imagine riding on one these buses
on one of those times when they are very crowded and you have to
have your neck bent because there is no more room for your head,
and its raining, and you are carrying three big bags, and you
have your two young kids with you, and you have to get off, and
its late...well, I guess that is enough to get the idea.
Another characteristic of the peseros is that many have music
which, for a music lover like myself, it is an added attraction.
Mostly popular music by contemporary Mexican singers, the music
in the peseros creates a particular atmosphere. Sometimes, at
night, when the pesero is not crowded and the lights are dim, and
the vehicle carries two couples that are talking quietly to each
other, and the cool wind blows through the cabin, and the music
is a favorite romantic song, and the pesero just moves without
the hurry of earlier hours, and outside people stand in corners
eating tacos or tamales or tortas, and there is no particular
hurry for anybody, well...the magic of a city like Mexico appears
and one would like to ride there for hours but no, its time to
get off and let that machine take its magic into the night.
As a final comment on the peseros I should add that, given the
limited amount of people they carry, one of the feelings one gets
riding them--as it relates to the human interaction--is a mixture
of shared intimacy but with the possibility of anonymity. It can,
however, happen that the ride becomes a social event in  which
one can get involved naturally: you can find yourself in the
middle of a "happening". As an example, a week ago, when I was
riding back from school with my daughter Rebeca, a group of about
six quite pretty female teenagers decided to sing with the music
coming from driver's radio. Loud but not rowdy, the group of
middle class girls asked the driver to turn up the volume and
started singing along music that is identified with working class
citizens. The music was mostly a "cumbia" (a rhythm from Colombia)
and, interestingly enough, most of the girls knew the words to
the songs and sang with great emotion and intensity (I was going
to sign too, but Rebeca wouldn't allow me!). The party lasted
about eight minutes and ended because the girls left the "mini-
bus".
El Metro: the great social equalizer
I like the Metro. I like it because it takes me on long rides for
very little, because I like the music played in its stations,
because I can read while I go places, because it is the live
museum of anthropology, and because it is a place where social
classes mix.
I'll start with the music. The music that is generally played at
the Metro is old, mostly from the times when Mexico starts
industrializing (the late forties, early fifties). This is the
music of the boleros, of the Cuban rhythms before the Cuban
Revolution. That music takes me back to my childhood, to the
childhood when the city still had clear limits and clear sky,
when my mother's neighborhood was surrounded by cornfields, when my parent's
parties had that music, those songs. What I find
revealing is that, even though the music relates to a time when
things were different, not much has changed since in the way of
social structure or the way people look: many things, places, and
people look as if they had been kept in a time capsule: in Mexico
City one can walk on the street and walk through time by finding
environments that reflect different stages of the city's (and the
country's) life in the past hundred years.
Well, I guess I got carried away about the city when I'm supposed
to be talking about the Metro, the great social equalizer; I
should get back to the Metro. And why the "social equalizer"?
Well, because almost everybody in the city has, at some point, to
ride it and people of all walks of life ride it everyday and they
have to share the space and, sometimes, be face to face because
there is no place to turn to. In some Metro lines, particularly
those that connect with the poorest neighborhoods where the
recent migrants from rural Mexico live, one can find families in
which the females wear colorful clothes and they all speak in
languages that I don't understand. Next to them you may see a
very well dressed gentleman that may be some mid-level burocrat
having to take the Metro because it is the day of the week when
his car has to rest (under the "day-without-a-car" program).
I also like to ride the Metro because I can read while I go
places. What I read, however, depends on the time of the day. If
it is at rush hour I generally take a small book that I can hold
in one hand while I use the other hand to hold on to something
(the Metro has plenty of holders). If it is not rush hour I can
read my favorite newspaper, which I do standing up and leaning on
the holders by the doors with my body towards the back of the
train (so it takes a very fast stop to get me off balance).
The metro cars sometimes turn into improvised stages where
musicians, actors, stand-up comedians, and poets bring their act.
Very common are the blind singers for whom I have had, as a music
critic, mixed reviews: some of them just make me feel petty for
them but many times they sing from the hart and the metro car
gets filled with the intensity of a blind man (or woman) singing
his pain with a guitar. I give them all small change. Not too
long ago, riding in the morning towards downtown, an actor came
in a, with a very dominating voice and attitude, did a solo act
from a classical author that lasted for about four stops (eight
minutes). A typical act consists of having two kids, both with
their face painted as clowns, that walk into each end of the cars
and exchange, generally very mechanically, messages that have
double meaning and are supposed (sometimes they do) to make you
laugh.
Taxis: a place for meaningful conversations about meaningless
things.
For those that like to keep quiet the taxis are not the best
place: having to ride with another person for a while and not
talking may be too cold, too un-human. To me, being so
communicative (they also call it gossip), I just can't avoid
talking with the drivers.
My conversation invariably starts with the weather. "It's a
pretty morning" or "it's nice it rained last night" usually
starts a conversation that leads into the unknown. Sometimes,
like a few days ago, I end up talking about global climate change
and how the ozone layer is being depleted. But other times I end
up listening to some amazing life stories. One time a driver told
me of his life as a cross country truck driver; another time
another told me of how people that had good jobs ended up losing
them and having to drive a cab; another one told me the story of
how a female doctor cheated him when she crashed his car and
asked him to go to her house just to have her brothers around her
and deny everything.
Riding taxis is a good way to get the opinion of the working
class about the state of things. Sometimes critical of the
government, sometimes supportive of some of the measures the
government takes, taxi drivers are a good thermometer of how
things look in Mexico from those that are near the bottom.
One of the common themes is (of course) traffic in Mexico City
and how it should be solved. One driver once blamed the problem
on trucks which, he said, "take a lot of room"; another one told
me, with very good common sense, that there shouldn't be
promotions to sell cars in Mexico City because that just
increases the amount of cars in circulation ("I bought two", he
admitted).
What I don't like about riding in taxis in Mexico City is riding
in the morning when traffic is not as intense: it seems that is
the time when the have the greatest demand and they hurry from
place to place. Unfortunately, and as a result of being without
a car for three weeks, I had to take the kids to school early in
the mornings and, to get to the school, we have to go on a street
that doesn't have too much traffic at that hour. I just hate to
be riding in the back of a VW, with my two kids, no seat belts,
and a driver that just steps on the accelerator and passes cars
as if at Daytona Beach. Fortunately we bought a second car and
our first car came out of the shop.
A final comment.
One final comment about public transportation in Mexico City:
public transportation seems to create a great romantic
atmosphere. I say this because be it at the Metro, the peseros,
the buses, the trolleys, and/or the taxis, one always finds a
couple kissing, no matter how crowded, no matter how visible. The
image that comes to mind is one that ocurred one early evening
when we were driving to my mother's with the kids. The traffic
was moving very slowly, there were cars all over and we were
riding behind a pesero. In the back of that (very crowded)
pesero, sitting on the seats on one of the corners and
illuminated by the lights of the cars behind the pesero, there
was this couple that, with obvious passion, just kept kissing.
With their mouths as the center of gravity, they just moved their
heads to one side, to the other side: in the five minutes that we
rode behind that pesero, they took about three or four short
breaths of air to immediately put their mouths back together
into this long, wet, passionate kiss that, who knows, may still
be going on.