For decades, Mexico City's 18 million people choked in the fumes of thousands of "peseros," the privately owned minibuses that clogged the avenues criss-crossing the capital city.
Harvard's Kennedy School of Government today is honoring the creators of an innovative bus system that has dramatically reduced traffic congestion and pollution in the city -- and that could be a model for similar innovation elsewhere in the world.
At a ceremony this evening, the 2009 Roy Family Award will be presented to the Mexico City Metrobus project, and to its major partners who made it a reality through an unusual collaboration:
EMBARQ - The World Resources Institute Center for Sustainable Transport, and a major Mexican environmental non-profit group called CEIBA worked with the Mexico City government to help plan and build the express bus line right through the heart of the city.
The dedicated Metrobus route opened in 2005 along a 12-mile stretch of the massive Insurgentes Avenue, a principal north-south boulevard that is often called the longest urban avenue in the world. In 2008, the route grew by about 20 more miles, including a new southern corridor. Together, the lines have more than 80 stations.
I lived in Mexico City from 1997 to 2002, and I can attest to the nightmarish traffic conditions fueled by the peseros (named for their ancestors, smaller private taxis that charged one peso for a ride). But already by the late 1990s, Mexico City was making steady progress in reducing pollution, through a relentless focus on reducing vehicle emissions. It helped that as the economy improved, more people were able to replace polluting ancient gas guzzlers.
The new Metrobus is a quantum leap toward better quality of air and life.
The Harvard announcement of the award in September noted: "Metrobus has reduced carbon dioxide emissions from Mexico City traffic by an estimated 80,000 tons a year. The new buses, which operate on clean-burning ultra low sulfur diesel fuel, make more than 450,000 trips per day.
Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard has applauded the Metrobus system, saying he wants to extend the system to 10 bus lines."
Ebrard came to Cambridge for the ceremony tonight and for a Harvard seminar on how Mexico City managed to pull its notoriously fractious political players together to make the bus system happen.
Harvard noted that the groups set up the Center for Sustainable Transport in Mexico, a not-for-profit providing technical support for the Metrobus system from day one. The World Bank, Global Environment Facility and the Shell, Caterpillar and Hewlett Foundations offered financial support.
To make it work, the Metrobus leaders partnered with the owners of the polluting minibuses. After a year of talks, a consortium was set up including about 350 bus owners and drivers. In all, the award notes, "a total of 839 polluting mini-buses have been permanently removed from the roads."
Nancy Kete, director of EMBARQ, said in a statement, “We always knew that creating a public-private partnership model was necessary to overcome the political challenges that often impede sustainable transportation.” She added: “Our goal was to pull the disparate groups together and help them find compromises. We wanted to show that cooperation was a better strategy than competition.”
The Harvard University Mexican Association today kicks off its Mexico Week with the first of an impressive list of Mexican speakers from the worlds of politics, culture and business.
The events are open to the public, and a full program is available at the association's web site. Most events are at the TSAI Auditorium or the Belfer Case Study Room, at 1730 Cambridge Street, in Cambridge.
The week begins and ends with addresses by governors of two important states. At 6 p.m. today, Emilio González Márquez, governor of Jalisco state and former mayor of Guadalajara, will offer "a federalist perspective on Mexico." He is a member of the National Action Party, which has held the presidency since Vicente Fox's victory in 2000.
There's a different event at 6 p.m. each evening. On Tuesday, Rodrigo Sigal Sefchovich, general director of the Mexican Center for Music and Sonic Arts, will offer a cultural perspective. On Wednesday, Mexico's consul general in Boston, Fernando Estrada, and Jaime Bueno, Director of the Office of International Affairs of the State of Coahuila will speak on cross-border challenges. On Thursday, a business perspective comes from Claudio X. González, chairman of Kimberly-Clark Mexico and a nationally respected business executive.
And on Friday, the governor of the southernmost state of Chiapas, Juan Sabines, will round out the week. Sabines is from the Party of the Democratic Revolution and a former mayor of the state capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez.
Dr. Julio Frenk, the former Mexican health minister who is the new dean of Harvard's School of Public Health, happened to be home in Mexico City over the weekend as the swine flu outbreak worsened. He spent Monday meeting with Mexican health officials, and offering whatever help the Mexicans might need from Harvard's epidemiological experts.
I wrote an article in today's Globe about Frenk's sense of the crisis, and his view that Mexico's elaborate national health surveillance system had helped identify the new swine flu virus relatively quickly. Frenk also noted that the entrenched Mexican tradition of self-medicating to treat symptoms of illnesses may have played a role in delaying more effective treatment for some victims. The flu responds well to anti-viral medication, but only if administered quickly.
You can listen to an audio clip from the interview here. And here's a direct link to the audio player:
About this blog
About James F. SmithJim Smith came home to his native Boston in 2002 to become the Boston Globe's foreign editor after spending 22 years abroad. He was previously based in Buenos Aires and Mexico City for the LA Times, and in Johannesburg, Tokyo and The Hague for the AP. In 2007 he became the Globe's national political editor, coordinating presidential campaign coverage. He is a Yale graduate, and has an MBA. He is married to Maxine Hart and has two sons, Matthew and Daniel.
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