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Originally published Sunday, June 19, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Mayor seeks a way to ease traffic

Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador has launched programs to tackle crime, poverty and disease in his tuneup to run for this nation's...

Los Angeles Times

MEXICO CITY — Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador has launched programs to tackle crime, poverty and disease in his tuneup to run for this nation's presidency.

Now comes the hard part: traffic.

Today, the presidential front-runner is slated to inaugurate the most important public transit project this gridlocked metropolis has seen in more than 30 years. If all goes as planned, low-pollution, jumbo buses will soon whisk passengers from specially built platforms onto a dedicated bus lane that will speed them along one of Mexico City's most congested commuter routes.

Known as Metrobus, the project is modeled after similar systems working well in Brazil and Colombia. At present, the mobility of the Western Hemisphere's largest city — with 20 million residents — rests largely with private jitney operators whose smoke-spewing jalopies and kamikaze drivers make riders long for their own set of wheels.

If Metrobus is a flop, it could paralyze traffic along one of the capital's principal thoroughfares and derail expansion of the project to other corridors. Worst of all, it would encourage Mexico City's love affair with the cars that are choking its roads, poisoning its air and suffocating urban life.

Metrobus will operate along a 12.5-mile stretch of Insurgentes, the capital's main north-south thoroughfare. Mostly three lanes wide in each direction, separated by a tree-lined median, the street is being re-engineered to give priority to the quarter-million bus passengers that are the majority of its above-ground daily commuters.

It also has a Metro subway system, which carries 4.7 million people a day across the capital for less than 20 cents a ride.

The northbound and southbound lanes next to the median will be reserved for a fleet of 80 new Volvo buses capable of holding 160 passengers each. Commuters will board from the median, where 36 large, modern stations have been constructed.

Transportation planners say that the dedicated bus lanes will shave at least 50 minutes off the nearly two hours it takes riders to travel the length of the route. The fare is 3.5 pesos, less than 35 cents, slightly cheaper than the typical microbus.

Around 350 aging municipal and private buses will also be yanked from Insurgentes. Proponents say that should benefit drivers in the remaining lanes because they will no longer have to dodge buses loading passengers at the curb.

At about $30 million, Metrobus' cost is spare change in Mexico City's budget compared with the mayor's other showcase transit project, a short stretch of double-decker highway opened in January that cost $185 million. Experts say that's precisely what makes Metrobus so appealing.

Mexico City has around 3.5 million registered vehicles, a figure that has been growing by an average of almost 8 percent a year for a decade.

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Enter bus rapid transit, or BRT as it is known to transit wonks. Pioneered in Curitiba, Brazil, and replicated in other Latin American cities including Bogota, Colombia, BRT aims to get more out of existing roadways by making buses work more like subways.

"If you do it right, you get subway efficiency and subway speed for 5 percent to 10 percent of the cost," said Hal Harvey, environment program director at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which is supporting sustainable transport projects in Latin America.

But skeptics say transit theory and Mexico City reality are on a collision course on Insurgentes.

Environmentalists are furious that the city cut thousands of mature trees in the median to build the passenger platforms. Citizens groups are petrified that those stations will attract hoards of sidewalk vendors, and that traffic snarls on Insurgentes will send frustrated motorists barreling through their neighborhoods seeking shortcuts.

Business owners fear scarce parking will become even scarcer. Drivers are confounded by the notion that ceding a lane of precious pavement to buses might speed traffic circulation.

"I've been driving here for 22 years and I'm telling you it won't work," said cabdriver Enrique Mercado Ortiz. He said such a change requires meticulous planning, but "it's our manner to be disorderly."

Experts say he has a point. Successful BRT systems require more than big buses and fancy stations. In Curitiba, authorities restricted car traffic in the city center, changed zoning laws and exercised other sophisticated land-use techniques to keep things rolling.

The opening has been delayed several times, and bus drivers are complaining that they haven't had time to train.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the management of Metrobus. Much of the system will be operated by a consortium of private jitney owners whose buses currently carry most riders on Insurgentes.

These transit groups are a powerful force in Mexico City, capable of shutting down traffic on a whim. But whether the very entrepreneurs who made bus transit here synonymous with cramped, dirty and dangerous can lead a transit revolution in Mexico City remains to be seen.

Information on Mexico City's subway system was from Seattle Times archives.

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