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Mexico City is making progress on cleaning up dirty transportation - now the whole country needs to follow suit

Amanda Maxwell

Posted February 15, 2013

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Mexico City’s reputation for traffic congestion and air pollution is, unfortunately, less than positive: sounds of angry car horns, images of gridlock and the smell of exhaust all come to mind. Yet when I visited the city last week, efforts to clean up the city’s transportation sector were evident everywhere I looked, from buses and bicycles to parking meters and pedestrians. As I talked to Mexican colleagues, I learned that other cities are also making similar progress. Now it’s time for the federal government to follow their lead by adopting regulations to make all of Mexico’s fuels and vehicles cleaner and more efficient.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by the urban mobility improvements in Mexico City, as in January the city won the Sustainable Transport Award from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) and the World Resources Institute Center for Sustainable Transport (CTS EMBARQ). The city’s new bus rapid transit (BRT) system called Metrobús complements the underground Metro to carry thousands of people around the city every day. The public bike sharing program “Ecobici” has been a major success so far, and it plans to expand significantly over the coming year. New parking meters in the Polanco neighborhood are reducing local traffic back-ups, increasing the flow of customers to nearby businesses and raising capital for the neighborhood to reinvest in its streets and sidewalks. And crosswalks are becoming the official domain of pedestrians (see photo below).

DF - EcoBici.JPG                                           Ecobici station in the neighborhood of Condesa

                                                 DF - Parking Meter.JPG

New parking meters in Polanco are raising money for the neighborhood to reinvest in its streets and sidewalks

DF - Pedestrians Rule.JPG                                                                    Pedestrians rule.

I was in Mexico City to meet with other international and Mexican organizations, new members of the environmental ministry, and private industry representatives, who had come together to help identify key strategies for addressing the country’s transportation-related problems. The variety of people in the room was matched by the diversity of topics we discussed, which ranged from health impacts of black carbon emitted by burning dirty diesel fuels to socio-economic equitability in public transportation. During the two-day meeting, it became evident that the government needs to take action in the short term to help its citizens avoid health and climate impacts in the long term, and its engagement in the meeting was an encouraging sign that this will be a priority area for environment ministry.

While advances in Mexico’s public transportation sector are critical, it is clear that not everyone will be willing or able to give up their cars. Consequently, vehicles need to become more efficient at using fuels and less polluting by using low-sulfur fuels and better pollution filters. Doing both together will bring the best vehicle technologies to Mexico, creating a modern and world class fleet.

To create more efficient vehicles:

  • The government should adopt pass the newly-revised standard regulating fuel efficiency in new light duty vehicles through 2016, called NOM-163. This would harmonize the Mexican fleet with that of the U.S., benefitting auto manufacturers by ensuring they only have to produce one version of each model, instead of separate ones for the two countries’ different markets. Plus, it would save fuel costs for consumers, cut greenhouse gases, and create new jobs. Then, the government can quickly begin working on phase two of these standards to extend to 2025.
  • New fuel efficiency standards for trucks and buses should also be harmonized with the U.S. Just as with cars, harmonizing these standards would save money for consumers and businesses, cut greenhouse gases, and create new jobs, while also helping harmonize manufacturers’ production.

To make Mexico’s vehicles less polluting:

  • Mexico needs to clean up its dirty fuels, specifically by reducing the sulfur content of diesel fuels to 10 parts per million (ppm) nationwide. Taking this step to so-called “ultra-low sulfur diesel” fuel (“ULSD”) will reduce particulate soot emissions that trigger asthma emergencies; will cut black carbon emissions, which a new study shows are the second most powerful contributor to climate change; and enable the use of highly effective particulate filters on new diesel trucks, buses, and engines. These ultra-low sulfur diesel fuels need to be available throughout the country, not just in a few major cities.
  • Along with ULSD fuel, Mexico should adopt new vehicle emission standards for particulate and smog-forming pollution that are harmonized with the U.S. Up until now, Mexico’s high-sulfur fuels precluded the use of the highly-effective catalysts and pollution filters that are standards on all new vehicles in the U.S. But with ULSD in place, Mexico could see emissions from new vehicles drop by more than 90 percent.

Adopting these regulations would be a win-win for everyone. They would help make Mexico’s vehicles cleaner and more efficient, on par the best cars and trucks in the world. They would help Mexico meet its air quality and climate goals. They help prevent unnecessary public health impacts, including the 14,700 deaths that the World Health Organization attributed to air pollution in Mexico in 2010. And they would be the perfect complement to the successful public transportation initiatives already under way in Mexico City and other metropolitan areas.

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Cindy FowlerFeb 15 2013 07:45 PM

It's great to see all the progress in Mexico City. I definitely noticed a difference last year when I was there. Also, Querétaro installed a new cleaner bus system that is very impressive. The air seemed very clean there. Great to see leadership by Mexico in this area. Still work to do, but progress none the less. Thanks for your excellent blog.

C. G. HeinsFeb 16 2013 02:18 PM

I have lived in Mexico City for 25 years and yes, great strides have been made in cleaning up air quality and trasportation. Some things will never change, though. I live in the col. Cuauhtemoc , a small colonia in the center of the city, now becoming quite fashionable for it's ideal location . We've had parking meters for years here but the earnings have mysteriously disappeared - earnings are for improvements in the colonia. More cars are parked on the sidewalks than paying the meters. Crosswalks are blocked by street vendors and parked cars ( only transit police can issue tickets and they never enter the colonia!) New restaurants open like wildfire with no parking but offer valet parking - the sidewalk! Eco-bicis are all over but instead of riding on the street or bicycle lanes, sidewalks are used - ever been hit by a bicycle -it hurts! Despite my complaints , I love living here and it's a great city!!

Archibaldo HopeFeb 20 2013 08:33 PM

Mexico City and the conurbated municipalities need to form a single and unique TransportAuthority to plan, organize, program and coordinate all transportation media -form subway to vans, to operate as an integrated system, forming a grid of lines reachable by walking no more than 50meters from any point in the city; Service should permit free transfers between modes to improve efficiency and reduce travel times, integrated fare collection system by means af touchless electronic card; pre boarding payment or by touchless card; standarized latest model rolling equipment, adequate to meet the demand of each route; designed with two/three wide doors to resemble metro fasta boarding-unboarding operation through any door; with GPS and WiFi, real time information systems in all bus stops.
This means scraping the actual model with one man operator-owner concessionary.
The other side of the coin is to internalize the costs of all externalities that are caused by the use of the car, and eliminate all subsidies, direct or indirect that today favor the manufactre, sale and use of cars as a preferred means of mobility. And to modify all the public policies to grant a prefered status to walking and bycicling in the city, and to put roads and streets on diet, reducin the surface dedicated to car movement or parking. Eliminate the regulations that require minimum parking spaces in buildings and commercial activities, changing it to a regulation for Maximun parking spaces in any kind of building and tax all spaces beyond the limit.

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