THE BLOG
09/28/2015 05:31 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2016

Mexico City's Lessons for Los Angeles

With Los Angeles in the midst of a major public transportation expansion and real estate boom, it is constructive to look at what other large cities are doing to meet their mass transit needs. A few years ago in Istanbul I witnessed that city's significant investment in bus rapid transit (BRT) lines out to new and rapidly growing parts of the city. Like Istanbul, BRTs are in our transportation present as well as future. Closer to home, Mexico City with an estimated 20 to 25 million residents, is arguably an even better example of a sister city with lessons for L.A.

Here's why. Both regions have millions of people, great economic disparities, countless cultural treasures, a vibrant business environment and large and growing Latino populations. This last point is critical because of the way Latinos have shaped and are shaping placemaking and streetlife including business and culture in both cities. Experiencing the vibrant street scene all over Mexico City left me wondering whether we are fostering or hindering economic development and cultural expression with our own approach to street vending on our sidewalks and in our parks.

Los Angeles and Mexico City are also blessed and plagued with a geography that includes unstable ground and mountains that trap polluted air in the bowl where most Angelenos and Chilangos live and work. Both L.A. and Mexico City are in active fault zones and have suffered and survived severe earthquakes. This month for example Mexico City is "celebrating" the 30th anniversary of the devastating 1985 quake that to this day has left scars on large swatches of the city.

Significant investment in Mexico City's public transit system began with the opening of the city's first rail line in 1969. Since then the system has grown to become the Americas' second largest public transportation system after New York. Annual ridership is estimated to be north of 1.6 billion passengers and today the system boasts twelve rail lines serving 195 stations. Most of the system's trains use quiet rubber-tired wheels, a welcome approach for a city filled with the constant din of urban life.

Another feature of the system that I was immediately struck by is the use of graphics as well as place names on signage to illustrate each station. Apparently this is because of the high rate of illiteracy in the city at the time of the first line's opening. Things have improved, but many residents no doubt still rely on the graphics to ID their stop.

While Mexico City rail construction has proceeded in fits and starts since the first line was built, new fixed rail lines and bus rapid transit investment in Mexico City has been considerable and continuous to keep up with the region's rapid population growth.

During a recent visit, I rode on countless Mexican buses and trains, in private colectivos and on a light rail line (Ligero) that runs from the Tasqueña metro station to Xochimilco, an ecological reserve and the remnant of traditional Pre-Hispanic land-use in the lagoons of the Mexico City basin.

The current Metro fare is MXN $5.00 or about 33 U.S. cents. The elderly, handicapped and children under the age of five ride free.

While in Mexico I also rode a private bus out to the Aztec pyramids at Teotihuacán, one of the gazillion privately operated coaches that serve the Terminal Central de Autobuses del Norte. From the window of the bus, one sees thousands of colorfully painted houses rising up the side of the mountains that ring the city. The haphazard construction reminded me of Rio's favelas and left me skeptical they will fare too well in the next major earthquake.

In spite of its sullied reputation among North Americans as a dirty, dangerous place, I found Mexico City friendly, easy to navigate, safe and fascinating with many advantages over Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. Though taxis and Uber are plentiful, I had no need for them and got where I was going faster on the train and bus.

Culturally the city is on par if not kilometers ahead of most of the world's great cities, boasting more museums on more subjects that many countries. Many of these museums are housed in colonial palaces or Art Deco, Bauhaus or modern treasures that would form the anchor of a celebrated neighborhood if they were located in a city less full of so much architectural and artistic booty. Mexico City is also dotted with large and small parks, squares and monuments that rival the best of the great cities of Europe and South America.

Some of my favorite sites in Mexico City include the Aztec pyramids at Teotihuacán, the Diego Rivera murals at Palacio Nacional, the countless Spanish colonial buildings and the exceptional examples of colonial, mid century and modern architecture one finds in El Centro, La Merced, Condesa, Roma, Coyoacán, San Ángel, along Reforma and in other areas like Santa Maria la Ribera which are receiving more attention lately from preservationists and developers. The kiosk in the Alameda de Santa Maria la Ribera is exquisite.

Unfortunately, as in Los Angeles, some treasures like the Bauhaus masterpiece Cine Opera sit in decrepit ruin waiting for their Tony Goldman, the patron saint of South Beach and Wynwood, to breathe life back into them.

Few cities rival Mexico City in terms of public and private transit access to much of the city and region. Mexico City's workhorse is its fixed rail network, a utilitarian system of underground and aboveground trains that crisscross the city. The system is clean and safe and wayfaring is excellent. The trains are quiet, fast and frequent, unlike service in many North American cities. Of course some will say it has to be given the demand. Yet, there is the same demand/need here in Los Angeles and we are clearly not there yet.

The practice of reserved cars during rush hour for women, children and the elderly is another lesson for Los Angeles. Additionally, having passengers at busy stations exit one side of the train and board from the other side, was impressive. Until Angelenos learn to step to the side as passengers exit the trains we are screwed.

What Mexico City's rail system is not, is terribly handicapped accessible, with long walks up and down staircases between lines at some stations. Things are far better at the BRTs that operate along Insurgentes and several other major thoroughfares. Clearly Mexico's disabled are not as organized as their cousins to the north and lack a law with the teeth provided by the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Riding Mexico's excellent, utilitarian rail system I couldn't help feeling that we are sometimes over-engineering and prettifying our expanding system at the expense of potential future growth and a faster construction schedule. My preference is for less marble and more portals paired with seating configurations to serve the anticipated volume of riders on a line that will extend to the Westwood/Brentwood VA. We seem to have concluded that Angelenos, particularly so-called discretionary riders (e.g., Westsiders) require certain amenities. Maybe, but maybe we would grow ridership faster and make more Angelenos happy transit riders if we built a less fanciful system faster and for less money than the subway extension and other programs are estimated to cost.

In addition to loving Mexico City's trains and buses and endless network of colectivos, I have bikeshare envy for Ecobici, Mexico City's massive and growing bikeshare program. As of April, Ecobici had 444 stations with 6,000 bicycles. For the week I was there, I relied daily on the excellent network that covers an ever-expanding footprint of the city. And like CicLAvia and our own embrace of complete streets, Ecobici is transforming the way a city with traffic that is worse that Los Angeles will ever see, views mobility. Anyone who still has his or her head in the sand and thinks L.A.'s Mobility Plan goes too far has got to experience Ecobici and the dedicated bike infrastructure including protected bike lanes Mexico City has created on streets and boulevards far more crowded with commuters than we see in L.A. Mexico City gets it. How come some Angelenos still don't?

The weekly Sunday closing of Reforma, a major Mexico City thoroughfare like Wilshire Blvd to traffic, was another inspiring vision for Los Angeles.

Metro CEO Phil Washington is promising to leave no stone unturned in the quest to find innovations large and small, to improve the construction and delivery of transportation service to the public. Mexico City and other mega cities are surely on the CEO's list as transit systems to study for lessons for Los Angeles. My advice to Metro: start with Mexico City.

Yours in transit,
Joel