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.”
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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