In the heart of Mexico City, off Paseo de la Reforma, stands El Ángel – the city’s monument of independence commemorating Mexico’s war for independence from Spain. Renowned for being the capital of the country that brought the world lucha libre, Telemundo’s to-die-for telenovelas and tamales, Ciudad de México, otherwise known as Mexico City, is Mexico’s most populated city. But in being home to such a large number of residents, Mexico City’s people are finding it increasingly difficult to navigate the city, even as peseros or informal microbuses abound.

With a territory spanning over 1,485 square kilometers (922.7 square miles), Mexico City is part of a ‘conurbation’ that is comprised of roughly 60 municipalities. According to the United Nations, the Mexican capital boasts an urban population of 21 million people and is projected to near 24 million people by 2030. Like Lagos, Tokyo, Delhi and many other conurbations, Mexico City boasts an expansive transportation system: a combination of light rails, a metro system, buses, and even a téléphérique (cable car). 

And while the country has allocated $39.2 billion to transportation, the majority of infrastructure expansion has focused on formal transportation. For Mexico City, informal transport is personified in the city’s notorious microbuses, common to many megacities. What are known as matatus in Nairobi are known to Mexicano’s in the capital as peseros, making up close to 60% of all transport in Mexico City.

Mapatón CDMX is just one of a handful of attempts to map the 29,000 buses and their 1,500 routes, which approximately 14 million citizens of Greater Mexico City take on a daily basis. More recently, however, MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), in collaboration with municipal authorities and stakeholders from the private sector, have ascended to a scheme to formalize informal transport in the Mexican capital by incorporating peseros into the city’s extensive transport network.

Jumping the Hurdle: Informal Urban Transport

Mexico City’s informal transport, which primarily consists of peseros, lays bare the gaps left by the city’s formal transportation network. The majority of Mexico City’s population uses peseros to get in and out of the city, congregating at Modal Transfer Stations, also known as CETRAM in Spanish. Although it boasts an impressive 12 lined-metro system, the majority of lines serve the center of the city, leaving the periphery with insufficient transport coverage. As essential as the microbuses are to urban mobility, there lie multiple challenges to making peseros a safe and reliable mode of transport.

Although there are few statistics on safety and informal transit in Mexico City, on average, 300-500 women in Mexico City are sexually harassed on public transport everyday; this prompted transit authorities to roll out the “pink carriage on the city’s metro lines in 2000 in an attempt to provide a safe space for women. But for pesero-riders, who often need to take more than one mode of transit to go about their day, as they migrate further away from crowded areas, they become more vulnerable to danger in and around transit nodes as wellt.

When it comes to informal transit, one of the primary challenges is that CETRAMs are on poorly-lit, sparsely populated streets. MIT’s City Science Group’s Markus Elkatsha tells progrss that populating and creating activity around CETRAMs will help people feel safer, as “eyes on the street create safety.” He adds that formalizing peseros and CETRAMs will help to improve their efficiency as well. 

The City authorities’ response to these transit-related challenges reflects a government that is disposed to listening to its people’s concerns. This reflects a political will on both the civilian level to demand change and on the governmental level to respond to these demands. By taking on this project, the government has taken on the responsibility to provide a more dignified livelihood for those living in Mexico City; in the meantime, the government is still to be held accountable to ensure that most if not everyone affected by the project has a seat at the table.

Mexico City's peseros

A mini-bus or pesero in Mexico City. CC via Javisbg618.

The project to formalize the city’s informal transit network has its roots in a 2016 graduate course taught by head of DUSP Assistant Professor Christopher Zegras titled “Transit-Oriented Development in a Mega-City” at MIT, which looked at how transit-oriented development (TOD) can be applied to Mexico City. As part of the class, Zegras accompanied a student delegation to Mexico City to survey, examine and interview individuals in the city to better understand problems on the ground; the trip was funded by Grupo Prodi, a private developer and operator of multi-model transit hubs in Mexico City. At the time, the project was little more than a class that would end with the closing of the semester.

In December 2016, the group’s findings were presented to a room of Mexican officials, urban planners, and other stakeholders in an attempt to create a dialogue about how to incorporate TOD in the city’s policies. Grupo Prodi’’s CEO, José Miguel Bejos, believes the findings are key to improving the quality of urban life in Mexico City. Laura Ballesteros, Mexico City’s Undersecretary of Planning at the Ministry of Mobility, who was present at the meeting, claimed that their findings “align perfectly with the public policies and actions that the city government is promoting now.”

Based on the class’ findings, Grupo Prodi proposed a solution to the problem: retail-based transit nodes. The idea is to create organized transit hubs, which is are also called “Mexipuertos,” (link in Spanish) to remedy some of the challenges of Mexico City’s transit system. These nodes would double as retail centers, decentralizing the network of goods and services that currently exists in Mexico City, while providing a place for peseros to transit. They would also provide a safe place for women to transit and ride other buses while formalizing the routes of peseros.

pesaros

A sketch of the planned transit node model. (CC: Obras Web)

As feasible as this solution may sound, there lie many challenges to its execution. Grupo Prodi, the private developer group that proposed the plan to government, has been delegated with designing the transit nodes. The organization’s participation in the project, however, is subject to governmental regulation. Also within this cycle is MIT, which functions as a consultant, advising both Grupo Prodi and the government on how to maximize the nodes’ efficiency.

 

Data-Enabled Processes And Informed Decision-Making

Elkatsha explains that the project is being facilitated through data-enabled processes, a methodology that uses a combination of big and small data to find well-versed solutions to challenges – in this case, the choke points and the informality of the microbuses that constrict traffic or hinder mobility in the city. Previously, policy-makers may have used satellite imaging to gather data and inform decision-making, similar to what Google used when it first released Google Earth.

In the case of the transit node project, the City Science Group is helping collect and manage satellite imagery and data relayed on the ground to aid government officials in making decisions about the positioning of the retail-based transit nodes around Mexico City. This kind of research does not require trial and error or elongated observation on the aggregate level, but, rather, depends on smaller scale data collection, allowing for faster data collection.

Elkatsha insists that, since the data they are collecting incorporates small data, the community will be able to vet the measures being taken to formalize transport. The City Science Group is also in the process of establishing on-the-ground initiatives in Guadalajara and Cairo that will utilize similar data-enabled processes. 

For the transit node project, the City Science Group used data on peseros that was obtained by incentivizing drivers to provide free WiFi to riders, in turn allowing a software company to collect data on the movement of the microbuses throughout the city. This data was later provided to the team working on the project. Through this process, the Group was granted access to the location, timings and routes of the peserosThese data-based methods allow researchers to observe trends and patterns without necessarily resorting to data visualization software.

Disrupting The Urban Fabric

The areas where the transit nodes lie at the moment are, according to MIT, historically dangerous, rendering transportation in and between them less reliable for riders. Elkatsha admits that, since the project has only reached the 50 percent benchmark, the criteria needed to determine what kind of nodes and their positioning depends on further data collection. Following the City Science Group’s recommendations and government approval, the transit node project will enter the funding phase. 

Elkatsha expresses to progrss that, while informal transit and commerce facilitate mobility in the city, they often “interrupt” Mexico City’s urban fabric. These “interruptions,” albeit disorganized, are part and parcel of Mexico City’s ecosystem. Aspects such as the city’s micro-economies that have sprung up in and around transportation enable the exchange of goods and services in more informal or unorganized areas that may not necessarily be compatible with the retail-based transit nodes once they’re completed.

During the DUSP’s research in Mexico City, Zegras’ students spoke to 60 out of some 20,000 street vendors in the city. The idea behind speaking to the vendors was to understand how best to reduce the size of certain “choke points” in the city while including the vendors in the process. Through these interviews, the students collected information on the current role that street vendors play in the city’s micro-economies.

When asked about this data, Elkatsha tells progrss that, pragmatically speaking, he does not know how the vendors will be integrated into the transit nodes – if at all. “Not everybody is going to be happy,” he says. Whether this is an inevitable outcome of the formalization process or an intentional omission is still not clear since the project is only halfway through. Since the underlying framework of the project is one that sees the nodes as places for retail, what is clear is that some informal areas in Mexico City may begin to see certain socio-economic transformations. DUSP’s research also spoke about developing affordable housing in and around the proposed transit nodes, raising questions about whether individuals will see a hike in rent prices or need to seek alternative housing to live near these nodes.

Elkatsha asserts the importance of these retail-transit nodes on the premise of “economies of scale,” which is a measure that encourages focusing resources on what an economy (micro or macro) can produce most efficiently. Accordingly, if informal areas are to stop offering goods and services in the face of these retail-transit nodes, what kind of economic changes are going to happen in these areas? While data has facilitated a robust process of research for this project in Mexico City, criteria like age-based and location-based positioning still remain unknown. 

pesaros

A food vendor stands on a street corner in Mexico City (CC: Mandy Goldberg)

A Work in Progress

The collaborative effort between the multiple stakeholders commissioning the project has produced an ambitious plan. However, Elkatsha tells progrss that the project faces two main challenges: garnering support from the public and ensuring that municipal authorities make room for the physical and political changes expected to arise from the project. He notes that encouraging the public to support such an initiative requires the government to admit its failure to provide adequate transport infrastructure, which is reflective of the government’s responsibility to remedy urban problems in general. It also requires the municipality to make room for changes to the city’s transit, which will require a stretch of resources as well as physical land.

In terms of the data-enabled processes used for the project, Mexico City’s challenges with informal transit are hardly exceptional, meaning that the methodology that is currently being developed to deal with informality in the city can potentially be applied elsewhere. The projected plan also speaks to how successful data-enabled processes can be within the context of transit-oriented development in and beyond Mexico City. 

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