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Where the air is clear

15 March 2009

It’s always been considered more than ironic that the most important novel about Mexico City takes its title from an 18th century poem celebrating the intellectual and artistic freedom to be found in the city… specifically THE City.

Certainly, since Carlos Fuentes’ 1954 novel was first published, The air has NOT been particularly clear in Mexico City.  At one time, the city on a normal day was as polluted as Los Angeles or Houston on a bad one (though not nearly the urban dystopia some would have you believe… I remember one tour book claiming that “half the trees in Mexico City died from air pollution.”  No… half the Australian Eucalypti planted in Chapultepec Park died prematurely, both because they had a shorter life span at the altitude and climate found in Mexico City… and, because the air pollution probably stressed them out — however it is that plants are stressed).

Mexico City’s unique geography, combined with the concentration of heavy industry around the city, did create special problems, which called for special solutions.  Mexico was extremely fortunate that Mario Molino — who discovered the ozone hole (and received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1995) has been a particularly civic-minded, and creative, native son.

It was Molino and his researchers who realized that Mexico City’s air quality problems are a combination of circumstances… and by changing the combination, one could break the chain, and clear the air — at least partially.  One geographic factor in Mexico City is that the city is surrounded by mountains, and a stew of different pollutants sit in the atmosphere, combining in ways that make what would be a serious, but manageable problem, into a potential disaster.  Recognizing that a bit of wind in the upper atmosphere would create a huge difference, at one point Molino proposed (and the Federal District actually considered) drilling big holes in the mountain-tops and installing fans.

How seriously the administration considered the idea is questionable.  My feeling (and I have no proof for this) is that Molino and associates proposed the giant fan approach only to make their other suggestions more reasonable.  Certainly they were radical, and certainly, they have worked.

Almost alone among American cities, the Federal District has fostered public transportation over the private automobile.  That’s quite a feat in a major auto-producing country.  The Metro (still only two pesos a ticket!), the Metrobus, the three suburban trains are continually expanding.  Through a “carrot and stick” policy (inefficient engines pay higher user fees, and the city tunderwrites the down paymenfinances replacement vehicles) private buses and taxis are more energy efficient and lower-polluting every year (one reason the VW sedan stayed in production in Mexico much later than anywhere else was their use for Mexico City taxis guaranteed an acceptable sales level, until larger Tsuru and Chevrolet four-door cars could be built to match the “bug’s” efficiency).

AND… “HOY NO CIRCULA” … is the first thing any Mexico City driver learns.  Based on your plate number, you can’t drive your private auto one week day, and one Saturday a month.   Limiting private auto traffic (try THAT in the U.S.) has worked so well, the Federal District has been able to relax the rules. But, only because other steps have also been taken.

The incentive to find energy-efficient cars (and, for those who insist on driving every day, the cost of maintaining two cars) and — a rather perverse (for Socialists), but effective, policy makes owning a big car somewhat un-hip:  parking spaces are a limited commodity, and the free market sets the rates.  A friend of mine who had an old Cadillac stopped showing the thing off, when he discovered he spent more on gas driving around looking for a lot that would let him park… and charged him at least double for taking up too much space.

This was brought home to me when I saw the new ads for the Workers’ Party, which shows a Hummer driving by a taco stand.   While obviously a dig at Esther Elba Gordilla, who bought Hummers for her union’s top people, it plays on the popular perception of oversized vehicles being the property of gangsters and other unsavory types.  You don’t see an SUV and think “suburban housewife” here.  You think “narco”.

The rich and hip drive Mini-Coopers. The rest of take the Metro, or a taxi, or… now, the newest short-run transit system:  the cyclotaxi:

Replacing Centro Historico bicycle-taxis, the more stable, safer cyclotaxi's muscle-powered electic engine gives it a larger range and will eliminate more traffic within the area.

Replacing bicycle-taxis, the more stable, safer cyclotaxi's muscle-powered electic engine increases the service area beyond the bici-taxi's Centro Historico

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