The transport sector in Mexico contributes 18 percent of national CO2 emissions. According to estimations by EMBARQ, transport emissions (other than CO2) are responsible for 4,000 premature deaths and 2.5 million lost work days per year in Mexico City. In other words, transport should be and is a high priority for policy makers of Mexico’s cities – let’s take a look at where it is and where it should be going, at the example of Mexico City:
Who are the culprits?
The Microbuses substitute for the insufficient public transport system are in public opinion often the scapegoats for everything: congestion, risks to safety (due to reckless driving) and air pollution. Leaving particles and other contaminants dangerous to human health aside and focusing just on GHGs, a single Microbus indeed emits almost five times more than a passenger car. BUT we have to consider that a Microbus transports on average about 15 times more people! Thus considering the efficiency of transporting people (or per capita emissions) even the older and more inefficient Microbuses are more efficient than passenger cars.
Congruently, according to a report of Mexico City’s local Ministry of Transport (SETRAVI), private vehicles are responsible for about 50% of GHG emissions while only transporting 20% of the population. And their numbers are growing steadily replacing higher capacity (and thus more efficient) transport options.
What is being done?
It is not that the Government of Mexico City is turning a blind eye on this: a number of projects are being pursued such as the Metrobús, Mexico City’s Bus Rapid Transit System that opened its first line in 2005 the second in 2008, and is planning to install another eight lines covering 243 kilometres by 2012; the extension of the Metro; the Suburban Train; and a zero emissions corridor. These projects are all valuable but as they currently stand a drop in the ocean if they are not pursued more holistically not only through technological fixes but creating the economic incentives to leave the car at home.
In this respect, it is important to note that SETRAVI although recognizing the problem that the growth in private cars poses, discursively places the main focus on replacing obsolete, dangerous and badly managed Microbuses to provide an equitable transport system for those who cannot afford cars. This of course is laudable and has to be pursued, but even that will not work if the growing congestion and contamination from private cars is not solved.
Significantly, the above mentioned efforts are undermined by a number of contradicting policy ideas and lost opportunities: first of all, Mexico City’s (in)famous project “Hoy no Circula” that prohibits cars to circulate on specified days according to license plate endings has failed in that it addresses the symptom not the actual root problem and with increasing incomes people have bought and registered additional cars that allow them to drive continuously.
Second, government is currently considering to abolishing the vehicle tax (most likely to boost the crisis shaken car industry) which will facilitate the entry of even more cars.
Third, due to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)
, Mexico is about to open its borders for the import of used cars from the United States, which is expected to increase the average age (and thus decrease fuel efficiency) of cars in circulation (currently about ten years) by another five to ten years.
Fourth, although transport systems like the Metrobús do create incentives to leave the car at home and switch to the public transport, ultimately, it is geared towards providing a better public transport system to previous Microbus passengers: due to the absence of parking facilities at Metrobús stations, getting to the nearest Metrobús station requires taking a Microbus, a taxi or walk potentially a long distance, – unthinkable for a car owner.
To do Mexico’s efforts justice: Mexico’s air pollution has supposedly improved but the current motorization rates are creating new problems that need to be addressed comprehensively.
What could be done better?
Just to give an indication of some basic things that could be done better:
First, develop not just public transport facilities but consider the preference of vehicle owners to arrive comfortably and safely at the nearest station by for example providing parking facilities (e.g. a Park and Ride System).
Second, charge those who pollute: in other words, those who can afford to drive big and less efficient cars (a quick and dirty regression of price range of new cars bought and their fuel efficiency based on data from INEGI shows that fuel efficiency decreases with increasing vehicle prices). Rather than abolishing the vehicle tax, introduce a charge according to fuel efficiency, and number of vehicles a person or household owns. The tax receipts should be clearly destined to support public transport projects.
Third, apart from taxes, create additional incentives: from lanes reserved for vehicles with more than two passengers to congestion charges, a range of innovative ideas have been applied around the world that could and should be tried and tested in the case of Mexico City. It will be only a matter of time until drastic action is necessary to prevent the city from choking – starting now to introduce these drastic measures step-by-step might be politically more feasible.