Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Provincial Transit Plan and Mexico City's case

There are lots of people raving (and some ranting) about the recently unveiled Provincial Transit Plan, with ambitious goals of a Skytrain to UBC, amongst others. Since there are other bloggers who have covered the issue much better than me (like Stephen Rees, Gordon Price and Paul Hillsdon), I figured that I should examine the issue from a different perspective, so here it is. I'm not a transportation policy expert, but I do know a few things about urban planning and sustainability.

One of the things that surprises me (to this day) is the size of the Metro Vancouver region (formerly the Greater Vancouver Regional District) and it poorly designed transit system. Compared to Mexico City, Metro Vancouver has roughly one-tenth of the population, and a GDP per capita about ten times higher. However, if you look at the Metro system in Mexico City, the latter is so much better and so much more used than the Skytrain, that it does beg the question - why is it that a city in a third-world, relatively poorer country can have such a stellar transportation system as compared to Vancouver (which is supposed to be a world-class, affluent, wealthy, first-world kind of city).

The Metro system in Mexico City [Photo credit: Wikipedia's entry on Mexico City Metro]

Don't get me wrong. There IS a reason why I live in this city. But it's not its transportation system, for sure. I am well aware of the air pollution problems in Mexico City, and I also know the argument that these problems are in large measure due to the excessive number of cars (here is a link to a study that looked interesting). However, it is indeed true that the Metro system in Mexico City kicks ass. You can get pretty much anywhere within the urban core. So much that, when having conversations with residents of Mexico City, they make geographical references to specific Metro stations. For example, one of my very best friends used to live a block away from Metro Mixcoac. The bus station is at Metro Autobuses del Norte. The Benito Juarez International Airport has a station at Metro Terminal Aérea. The Zócalo has a Metro station, so does the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and the Plaza de las Tres Culturas is pretty much within five blocks of Metro Tlatelolco.

Having enjoyed the Metro system (and the peseras) in Mexico City less than two weeks ago (accompanied by a Canadian, indeed), I can't help but laugh at the irony that Mexico City's transportation system can be so much better than that of the whole province of British Columbia (in my opinion, of course ... if you have enough data and a good solid argument to defeat my proposition, I'm happy to discuss it).

Viewing this issue from another angle, if you think about it, unless Metro Vancouver creates a smart growth/smart transportation strategy, its air quality going to end up much worse than Mexico City. Just think about it for a second... if it is true (I still have my doubts) that Mexico City's air pollution is due to the excessive number of polluting cars and other vehicles, even with a kick-ass, world-class Metro system like the one it has, can you imagine what will happen to Metro Vancouver a few years down the road?

Sometimes, when analyzing policy (and creating new policies), it's useful to look at how other cities/regions/countries are doing things, and first-world countries can learn from third-world countries too, just as much. It would be good for Metro Vancouver to look at Mexico City as an example of a solid transportation system that moves millions of people around. Thoughts anyone?


Paul Hillsdon said...

Weird, eh? I'm interested to find out some history MCity's system now and how they funded it. That's always been our biggest problem - something that the Province is somewhat fixing for the time being.

But you bring up another good point: It's nice and all to have the "carrot" of an awesome transit system, but there needs to be "sticks" to discourage car usage as well. Although, in my mind, if we plan complete walkable communities, we ensure that long distance travel isn't even really needed, and can thus solve social, health, and transportation problems all in one fell swoop. But trying telling council chambers that!

Raul said...

I'll dig up some historical stuff for you, Paul. I'm pretty sure the vast majority of the funding came from a combination of the Mexican federal and provincial governments. Since most of the Federal government offices are in Mexico City, and a lot of things are very centralized, a good transportation system is really important.

Budd Campbell said...

Do you have any information on mileages and speeds on these rail lines? In Vancouver, Skytrain and the RAV line use rolling stock with and 80kmh top speed. The WCExpress trains could operate up to 130 kmh, but rarely reach those speeds because of track restrictions.

Raul said...

Hi Budd and thanks for dropping by my blog. I am not sure, to be quite honest, but more than happy to find out some info for you.

Stephen Rees said...

The really significant differences between Mexico City and Vancouver are the size of population and its density. The standard work of reference on these stats is Newman and Kenworthy. The transit mode share (all trips) in Vancouver is around 11%. I suspect that Mexico City would be much higher - and porbably becuase much more has been invested in metro and bus service there.

Andrew said...

Another major difference, I would assume, is wealth. Since many Mexico City residents cannot afford a car, I would expect that many would have no choice but to take transit. That is, if they can afford even that.

Mexico City is truly awe inspiring. It has both the worst and the best to offer in terms of urban landscapes.

Raul said...

Everybody can afford transit in Mexico City, Andrew. Even with a super low minimum wage (1/10th of that of Vancouver), everyone can afford a monthly bus pass, or a daily metro pass.

However, if you look at the fare hike, can you say the same about Vancouver? If I want to travel in Mexico City, the trip will be at the very most, 40 cents of a Canadian dollar (compare that with $ 5 dollars in some cases for a trip across the three zones in the GVRD). Talk about lessons that Mexico City can give!