Mexico City was long ago written off as among the most polluted places on earth, a metropolis where the act of breathing is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day and the World Health Association recently attributed 4,000 deaths a year to pollution.

But today, city leaders have taken the first steps to improve its infamous air with 128 sleek, clean, buses that use cleaner diesel technology and move 310,000 people daily along a dedicated traffic lane. The buses are the beginning of a grand urban project that Mayor Marcelo Ebrard hopes will transform his city into a model of metropolitan eco-consciousness-reducing greenhouse gases, lowering asthma rates, even cutting the number of traffic accidents.

Mexico Bus Rapid Transit

One of Mexico City’s new buses glides down a dedicated bus lane. These buses help reduce pollution, as well as lower traffic congestion.

With the support of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which has contributed $6 million over the past three years, Mexico City has initiated an envisioned system of 700 of the new buses that by 2012 will carry 1.5 million passengers on ten major lines throughout the city every day.

The Foundation’s investment is part of a larger strategy to curb global warming and improve the quality of life in some of the world’s fastest-growing cities. Research has shown that a reduction in vehicle emissions also saves billions of dollars annually in reduced health care costs around the world.

A More Economical Approach to ‘Green’

The Mexico City buses are part of a new generation of mass transit called Bus Rapid Transit systems. The systems, which are being adopted from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh, can be built more quickly and in greater quantities than rail systems, cost a fraction of the price, and offer a competitive alternative to cars because they travel in exclusive bus lanes, allowing for increased speed and reduced travel time.

Mexico bus station entrance

A Bus Rapid Transit station in Mexico City.

A recent analysis in the Journal of Public Transportation identified Bus Rapid Transit as the best way for U.S. cities to reduce transportation-related CO2 emissions. Cost is the reason why. A subway typically costs $100 million a mile, whereas a world-class bus rapid transit system costs $10 million a mile.

In addition to the one in Mexico City, the Foundation has invested in Bus Rapid Transit projects in a dozen cities across China and in São Paulo, Brazil, the largest, most congested city in South America. Since its inception three years ago, the system in Mexico, Metrobús, has become one of the most popular of all.

“The same trip that once took two hours by car can now be made in fifty minutes,” notes Alejandro Villegas, Consulting Program Officer for the Hewlett Foundation in Mexico City. “According to some surveys, 5 percent of the ridership used to drive. That’s good news in terms of pollution.”

Now the project is poised to move beyond its first two phases-a 28 km corridor along Mexico City’s famed Insurgentes Avenue-with a second line of 18 km planned for this summer and a promise of eight more by 2012.

“The main impetus was to improve mobility of the citizens of the city, but with a very important environmental component,” says Guillermo Calderon, director of Metrobús. “The Metrobús has reduced more than 70,000 tons of greenhouse gases, which means we’re contributing to reducing climate change.”

A Herculean Undertaking

It’s taken a huge and united effort involving the city, some World Bank assistance, the World Resources Institute, and support from the Hewlett Foundation. In fact, the project represents the first time Mexico City has obtained philanthropic support for a sustainable transportation system. While the World Bank covered the cost of construction, Hewlett grantees working directly with the city government staff  conducted the technical work of determining where the line should go, structuring the business and operations models, and even the laying out of the stations.

Among the biggest hurdles was the challenge of replacing 467 unsafe, polluting microbuses with 128 clean-diesel buses. Clean-diesel buses use cutting edge technology to drastically reduce emissions over their much dirtier predecessors. 

Operators of the microbuses, jerry-rigged to seat twenty passengers (and routinely carrying many more), were initially hostile to the idea of giving up their long-standing way of doing business. Since ousting them would have meant a major fight, the city chose to integrate them into the system. It created a consortium of two entities that actually own Metrobús: one, a city-owned company; the other, a private company made of up former microbus owners.

Objections also came from ecologists and neighborhood activists, who protested the removal of 1,000 trees, required in order to create a designated bus line and erect thirty-four stations. In some cases, the city had to promise to replant the trees elsewhere.

“The institutional coordination was a huge challenge,” admits Adriana Lobo, director of the nonprofit Sustainable Transportation Center, a Hewlett grantee that provides technical advice to the project. “The way the city is designed, every time you draw a Metrobús line, you’re changing the (urban planning) priorities and the ways that the city is used.”

Hewlett Foundation grants allowed consultants, government officials, transport operators, and journalists to travel to Curitiba, Brazil, and Bogotá, Colombia, to learn from two of the world’s best bus rapid transit systems. Grants paid for media training to help consultants promote public communication and work closely with journalists, and they were critical in providing education for the owners of the old, microbuses.

An integrated transportation network throughout the metropolitan area is just part of a larger “green” plan that Mayor Ebrard has rolled out. The plan involves nineteen different ministries and requires all city employees to ride their bikes to work once a month.

“It’s a huge commitment financially,” says Martha Delgado, Mexico City’s environmental secretary. “We’re trying to change the culture of mobility and the habits of our citizens.”

Taking the Next Step

Over the next two years, she says, the Bus Rapid Transit plan includes the replacement of yet another 4,000 microbuses (there are currently more than 26,000 of them, accounting for more than 65 percent of all travel within the city) with 700 articulated buses—carrying 1.5 million passengers every day.

Bernardo Baranda, senior program director at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and a key figure in the bus plan, is helping officials make sure the lines respect the needs of pedestrians and cyclists. He says that the ultimate success of the system lies in how people use it.

Baranda is also at the center of a proposal, still in the planning stage, to create a biking network of 643 km throughout the city.  Bicycle use in Mexico City is already growing. A recent survey found that residents made 400,000 trips by bike each day, as compared with 160,000 trips ten years ago.

Hewlett Foundation money has been used to send Baranda to California for workshops on media strategy and communications and to gather information on other cities’ systems. The Foundation has “helped by seeing that this is not only about transportation and reducing emissions,” he says. “It’s about making the city understand that the best way to impact the environment is having people use other modes of transportation.”

The impact is starting to be felt. In 2000, Mexico City generated 51 million tons of CO2, making it one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in all of Latin America. Transportation alone accounted for 37 percent of it.

With the eventual introduction of the ten new BRT corridors, the city expects to reduce carbon emissions by 100,000 tons a year. It’s already begun calculating the dividends, with the sale of its first carbon offset emissions this year.

True, it was a modest $232,000. But with statistics suggesting that 14 percent of passengers no longer use their cars in the metropolitan area, officials are already rubbing their hands together in expectation.

“It’s a major, major project,” says Lobo of the BRT system. “The people who are riding the Metrobús are breathing better air today.”