Mexico City is living a serious environmental crisis. It has been living a serious environmental crisis for years, but some wrong political decisions and “unfavorable” climatic conditions have turned it into a crisis that no one can pretend anymore is not happening.
In mid-March, this city of 8 million inhabitants and supposedly 5 million cars driving on its streets each day, had its first environmental alert in 14 years. Ozone levels went up to 200 parts on the local Imeca scale – a situation when people are recommended to abstain from any physical exercise outside, to stay inside, and close all windows, etc. Kids did not have sports lessons in school during that week (hardly any school here has a gymnasium), and football or baseball games were cancelled.
Because of that experience and of air quality predictions for the upcoming weeks and months of typical Mexico City spring weather – intense sunshine, high temperatures and no rain at all – the Environmental Commission of the Megalopolis, short CAMe, decided last week that from today onwards, 20 percent of the whole car park of this huge metropolitan area should stay off the streets. Each weekday, a different kind of license plate end number cannot circulate; or a different color of license plate sticker (they have five colors here: yellow, pink, red, green and blue). It is a new-old variant of the “Hoy No Circula”-program that goes back to the late 1980s when air pollution in Mexico City was even much worse.
Today again, authorities had to declare environmental alert; again, ozone levels rose to a bit above 150 parts, the threshold that triggers the alert, phase I. So what does CAMe decide? They double the number of cars that cannot circulate tomorrow, grounding then altogether 40 percent of registered private vehicles.
40 percent of cars not circulating – that means, that the people who usually use these 2 million cars to drive to work, to bring their kids to school, or buy food at the supermarket have to use alternative means. There is public transport in Mexico City – which already positively distinguishes it from some other North American cities – but at rush hour, people squeeze like sardines in a can in metro trains and metro busses, and the tens of thousands of mini-busses, the “peseros”, are jam-packed. The system has not held up with the crazy growth of this huge metropolitan area that houses 28 million people. And being able to afford one’s own car, to drive a car, is still something of status thing here; lots of upper-middle class people would not use the metro, as they consider it for “poor people”.
There have been a lot of wrong political decisions in the past; mainly the decisions that have not been taken. Such as the severely delayed approval of a heavy-transport regulation: Norm44 would cut particle pollution responsible for black carbon by 98 percent. One sees these trucks all the time – huge engines, the length of three or four cars, and thick, black exhaust coming out when they start and accelerate. The same applies to city garbage trucks, and thousands of mini-busses. Residents here argue, rightly so, that those vehicles should be as strictly regulated as private cars. Politicians shy away from it as they fear the economic repercussions.
What is most striking to me, personally, is that I am experiencing here what a lot of developing country cities are experiencing today or will experience tomorrow. Air quality in Mexico City is actually not as bad, if you compare it to Delhi, Karachi or Dakar. But it is bad enough for my kids not being able to play sports outside, or me going for a run in the park. I live in this mega-urban place – lots of concrete, lots of asphalt, hardly any green areas left – with more and more cars each year, and the air I am breathing in and out is actually damaging to my health. This is what development looks like – first there are the cars, the streets, the factories, supermarkets and shopping centers, and then we think about the environment. It was like this in Europe 200 years ago, and it is like this in Mexico, South Africa and China now. The problem is just that, at least in Mexico City, we are far too many people. And this density of people relates in a whole range of environmental problems.
Hopefully, this current crisis makes people here to change their life styles to a more sustainable manner, and politicians to take better decisions.