Skyscrapers along Paseo de la Reforma, Chapultepec Park behind, and the high-rise suburban Santa Fe District in the far background.
Skyscrapers along Paseo de la Reforma, Chapultepec Park behind, and the high-rise suburban Santa Fe District in the far background.

Last week I spent a few days in the largest city in the Western Hemisphere, Mexico City. While walking its colonial streets and riding its expansive Metro, I was reminded of something I wrote shortly after ULink opened:

Done well, transit is is a public utility that improves life for the many but excites the passions of the few (sorry, fellow nerds). Good transit readjusts our baseline expectations onward and upward […] Transit’s highest compliment is when the magical becomes ordinary. Far better to be necessity than novelty.

Ordinary magic is indeed a good way to describe how it felt to move around Mexico City. On the one hand, the city has everything going against it. The compact colonial core is choked by endless sprawl on the periphery, with 8 million city residents surrounded by 16 million more in the suburban State of Mexico.  The city’s anti-urban boulevards – such as the 14-lane Paseo de la Reforma – rival in their hostile sterility the worst of the Champs Élysées. Cars also drive fast and with little regard for Vision Zero type sensibilities.

But in the context of the chaos on the surface, the Metro is a priceless gift to Chilangos, 140 miles of fully grade separated transit, with 195 stations on 12 lines. It is the 2nd largest Metro in the Western Hemisphere, behind only NYC. But though 2nd largest, it is the most densely ridden. Despite having only 60% as many track miles as NYC, the Mexico City Metro has 90% of NYC’s  ridership, nearly 5 million riders per day. I found it to be an effortless, cheap, fast, and reliable way to see the city, and I can’t imagine my trip without it. Here’s my report card.

Lines Ridden: 

  • Metro Lines 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and 8
  • MetroBus Lines 1 and 4
  • Xochimilco Light Rail

Fare Structure and Payment: B

The Metro has a flat fare of 5 pesos per ride – roughly $.25 at the current exchange rate – one of the lowest fares in the world. As Mexico City is a wealthy city with very high inequality, the low fare provides broad access to the masses who commute to the core from the periphery every day.

So why a B instead of an A? Because most stations lacked Ticket Vending Machines, and buying boletos required an in-person stop at a staffed taquilla. Furthermore, the excellent Tarjeta de CDMX costs only 10 pesos and provides seamless electronic transfers between Metro, MetroBus, all electric trolleybuses, Xochimilco Light Rail, and the 6,000 bikes of EcoBici. But the cards are apparently scarce. I couldn’t find a card until day 3, as every taquilla staffer gave me the same reply: “No hay tarjetas.”

screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-11-10-50-pm

Speed: A

As a predominantly rubber-tired Metro, the top speed of 50mph may be a bit underwhelming, but operators tend to floor it in between stations, dwell times are little as 10 seconds, and dense station spacing reduces the importance of top speed. The lines using traditional rail technology (Line 12 and Line A) have a top speed of 62mph. It’s by far the fastest game in town.

Wikimedia
Wikimedia

Reliability: A+

I never waited more than 3 minutes for a train the entire week, and only once did a train stop between stations as a result of bunching. The system was effortlessly reliable.

Frequency and Capacity: A+

10-car trains every 3 minutes, all day long. Truly liberating frequency. MetroBus BRT also came every 2-3 minutes, and had its own center-running right-of-way. I barely had the sensation of waiting at all.

screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-10-25-40-pm

Scope: B+

A Metro system can’t hope to accommodate the sort of massive unplanned sprawl that enveloped Mexico City over the last few decades. Despite Mexico City having the same land area as NYC, the Mexico City Metro would mostly fit within Central Seattle. The Tren Suburbano would barely reach Edmonds, the furthest reaches of Lines A and B would reach Newcastle or Kirkland, and Xochimilco Light Rail would get you to Tukwila. The non-radial grid of lines also maximizes the usefulness of transfers, and minimizes out of direction travel. It’s awesome.

mexico-city-metro-seattle-overlay-01-01

However, passenger loads are badly unbalanced during peak periods. The masses from Mexico State all funnel into the nearest Metro station, leaving the terminal stations with the highest ridership, such as Indios Verdes, Tasqueña, and Pantitlán. This occasionally leads to Tokyo-level crushloads during the peak, and in 5 days I only got a seat once. In fact, once I was in the middle of the car trying to deboard and it took me two additional stations to force my way off.

Clearly the city needs to build even more lines, especially those capable of a peak overlay or express trains. It currently only offers a single commuter rail line, the Tren Suburbano, though a high-speed rail link to Toluca, 35 miles away, is also under construction. And the Xochimilco Light Rail (Tren Ligero), though it pushes fairly far south, is hobbled by the limitation of 1-car trains, at-grade crossings, and badly maintained tracks run by a separate company.

Span of Service: B-

Service generally runs from 5am-midnight, which shortchanges a 24-hour, world-class city.

Wayfinding: A+

Lest you think we’d ever run out of pictogram ideas for Link stations, Mexico City has pictograms for all 195 Metro stations and hundreds of MetroBus BRT stations. The distinctive logos and peculiar typography made for very easy wayfinding. All stations have clear signage at every major entrance and exit point with Andenes (platforms), Correspondencia (transfers), and Salida (exit). All lines are listed by their terminal station (Dirección), so you just need to work out which direction you are traveling. And The Transit App worked as effortlessly in CDMX as it does in Seattle.

The strip maps in the subway cars also had a nice touch, with the line direcciones reversed on the opposite map, so that the map always points the direction the train is moving. So if you were heading toward Pantitlán, for instance, if you looked to a map on the left of the subway car, Pantitlán would be on the right/forward side of the map, whereas if you looked to the map on the right side of the subway car, the station would appear on the left/forward side.

Line 3 Strip Map
Line 3 Strip Map

Accessibility: D

Herein lies the worst part of the system. It’s almost completely inaccessible to people with disabilities. Escalators are rare, and elevators nearly non-existent. I saw hundreds of aged and/or infirm passengers struggling on the (countless) staircases. Walking distances can be up to half mile to transfer between some stations, though 1,000′ seemed to be the average. However, all such transfers are fully grade separated with underground walkways.

Safety: B

Stories abound of pickpockets or low-level assaults, but the city is far safer now than in years past, with violent crime rates far lower than U.S. cities such as New Orleans, Baltimore, or St. Louis. Basic precautions usually ensure a safe ride. Never during the week did I feel any more at risk than I would on the El in Chicago or the subway in NYC. The first two cars of most trains are reserved for women and children during rush hours, and guards strictly enforce the limits.

Stations: A

Stations are cleaner than most U.S. systems I’ve been on, and certainly better maintained than New York. But the most strikingly positive thing about the stations comes down to one word: commerce.  Every single station had at least a dozen official vendors and another dozen informal ones. Stations have farmacías, Dominoes, McDonalds ice cream stands, internet cafes, panaderías, you name it. The buzz of commerce is unrelenting but also enlivening. Upon returning to Seattle, Westlake just looked dead and stale by comparison.

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In summary, the Metro was the way to move about the city. Whenever I took Uber it took up to half an hour longer than the Metro, and I chose it only because it offered the scarcest commodity in Mexico City: a few minutes to sit in silence.

Do yourself a favor and visit one of the greatest cities in the world.

33 Replies to “Transit Report Card: Mexico City”

  1. I visited CDMX this most recent July and had the opportunity to ride the Metro and the Xochimilco Light Rail (but not one of the double-articulated buses, unfortunately!) It was incredibly easy to navigate, even with just enough Spanish to purchase tickets and obtain directions. Overall, a good experience! Except for one really, really bad experience.

    Those crush-loads at rush hour Coming back from UNAM on Line 3, we were packed in so tightly the sweat from other commuters was soaking through my own clothing, and vice-versa. It was well over 90 degrees inside the packed, un-airconditioned train car which moved barely faster than a human could walk. Eventually we stopped between stations for 30 minutes with zero air flow and windows which wouldn’t open as the temperature climbed higher and higher. We finally made it out at the next station before passing out from heat but it was close. By the end, I think the only thing keeping my girlfriend upright was the other passengers bodies pressed around us. No trains passed the other direction while we were stopped, either, which was very strange.

    Other commuters reported they’d never had something like this happen before. At the next station when we did finally move again, all seemed normal and there never was any indication of what had happened to block rush-hour metro traffic on the line for a long time. Who knows!

    Despite this challenge, though, it was definitely a world-class transit system and overall it was neat to see how it compared to ours here at home.

    1. JW, your comment brings back memories of an average summer afternoon rush hour on the Chicago ‘El. Which for another fifteen years or so would be air-conditioned with actual open windows bringing in a breeze off of melted tar-covered roofs and fans ceiling fans each in their own cage.

      Public Radio Mature Content Warning: In the Pre-Post-Industrial still un-sprawled last days of US public transit, passengers making things like motors and locomotive boilers smelled a lot different than line-workers making apps, credit default swaps and ORCA fare products.

      It’s probably been at least sixty years since Seattle passengers ever sat looking at ads demanding to know if they realized they “Offended!” Which was morally worse than present meaning. Well, change has good sides and bad.

      However much the cosmetics and ventilation industries helped with the smell of work-induced sweat, its post-Industrial replacement by forty years of lifelong wage-deprived, home-outpriced, education-forbidding debt smells a lot worse.

      Curious, though. Were the Line 3 passengers angered by the crowding, heat and sweat, or by the fact the train wasn’t moving top speed?

      Mark

      1. I have never experienced such a stoic bunch of people together in a terrible situation. It would have been horrific if people had actually started behaving angrily or anything but I think a baby that cried for a few minutes was about the most complaint anyone made about the situation. What little grumbling was mostly about the speed, the temperature seemed to be normal.

    1. But it is by metropolitan area.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_metropolitan_areas_in_the_Americas

      Municipalities have arbitrary boundaries based on random political decisions in the past. Seattle annexed area as they got built up until the late 1950s when the suburban “local control” movement became strong and people looked at central cities as backward. The metropolitan area is by definition the area people commute between and has an economic interrelationship. So looking at city boundary numbers is meaningless.

    2. Glenn, embarrassed to say I haven’t been following events in Sao Paolo, Brazil for about twenty years, so this link shows why its content is such an unpleasant surprise.

      http://www.tramz.com/br/sp/ff/00.html

      Though also best photo-essay ever about what I thought the Downtown Seattle Transit Project would develop into, though of course featuring joint operations with light rail tracks on the guideways.

      A few minutes online research indicates that problem had nothing to do with transit mode or technology, but mostly the tragic fact of municipal government that corruption and incompetence are worse than indecisive passive aggression.

      I’m not looking forward to learning the rest of the story, but somebody’s got to do it. Before DSTT broke ground, I’d actually started taking lessons in Brazilian Portuguese to go check out this system.

      Also major reason I advocated against taking Breda to court and its buses to that electric steel mill at the west end of the Spokane Street bridge. I desperately needed cutting edge driving experience at least partly under wire.

      Well, at least I could’ve told my Brazilian brothers in their own language that I could drive one of those things without whatever “training wheels” is in Portuguese. And with the seniority I would’ve had by now, I could also finally have picked East Base.

      Best thing of all would’ve been zinging by all those “Save Our Trails” billboards edited to say “Save Our Views, Go Back To Diesel!

      But for the sake of my dream of region-wide joint operations I really hoped would be everybody’s favorite part of the next ST-? I’m a little sorry nobody campaigning for busways-only ever got to see a really hot one.

      Mark Dublin

  2. Love the idea of women- and children-only cars. I know my wife would greatly appreciate that when she’s traveling on her own. Too many creeps and oddballs who enjoy sitting next to her despite a few rows of open seats…

    Also love the businesses in the stations. Since day one of riding Link (4 years ago), Westlake just seems like a gigantic cavern waiting for some life to be injected into it.

    Are there rules or regulations somewhere online regarding putting shops in the Link stations?

    1. I think commerce in stations is mostly a matter of ridership. Based on the numbers in this post, Mexico City metro stations have an average of 25,000 boardings per day, and the most-heavily used stations must be much higher than that. Westlake, Link’s busiest, has only recently started pushing 10,000 boardings per day.

      When Westlake has 25,000 boardings per day, commercial pressure will start growing on Sound Transit to remodel the station and change policies to allow commerce inside. At the current usage level, potential profit must not be high enough to warrant the investment.

      1. I just realized I left out all the bus boardings at Westlake. Maybe that station is closer to the threshold for profitable businesses. But yet, I expect that ST will allow commerce if actual companies are clamoring to invest.

      2. The busiest station in the Mexico City metro appears to be Indios Verdes on Line 3 with 122,000 daily boardings. Just to show how high boardings can go on metro stations, Ikebuburo in Japan has 275,000 boardings per day on 3 metro lines, reputed to be the world’s highest.

      3. Indios Verdes was the the most chaotic station I visited by far. Minibuses from just about everywhere converge on the station.

      4. Perhaps you’re right that it’s a question of ridership and market forces Chad – but based on station design and past behavior by ST and Metro, I suspect there is a strong bureaucratic aversion to having “lively” stations at all.

      5. It’s policy, not the lack of a market. King County and Sound Transit (former and future owners of the DSTT) didn’t want businesses in the stations for some reason. Only a few buskers are tolerated. There’s certainly a market for an espresso cart or newsstand, and it could go who knows how far beyond that. The worst that could happen is if ST offers several spaces and some of them don’t get any bids. Well then, we’ll know the limit of the market, and we’ll also know how big a variety of businesses we can get. German train stations have entire supermarkets and bookstores. New York subway stations have the latest smoothies and organic sandwiches. Russian stations have a cluster of kiosks around them — outside the station but adjacent — that function as convenience stores for residents on their way home or going out for a loaf of bread or vodka. The Othello “village” around the station is vaguely similar (although a smaller variety of retail and more restaurants). Maybe some stations like TIB or 145th couldn’t sustain businesses, but the DSTT stations definitely could.

    2. Eric,

      Found another pertinent reference from the transit days when ladies-only cars were popular.

      http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/hatpin-peril-terrorized-men-who-couldnt-handle-20th-century-woman-180951219/?no-ist

      Maybe the reserved cars were actually created because local medical examiners had had enough of retrieving formerly lecherous dead bodies that had spent the day on board a subway car whose interior temperatures hit the mid 90’s.

      Meantime, though, our passenger self-arrangement posters could give the little seat-hog a cute porcupine for a friend, with ambivalent message as to avoiding doing things that get you punctured, or not turning a fellow passenger into a pin cushion however much he deserves it.

      Also solves problem of not being able to use Mace in a crowded car.

      Mark

  3. The stations have commerce – do they also have restrooms? One of my peeves about US transit systems. Try taking a 3 seat trip with kids (or even a 1 seat trip after last call) and you’ll know why many US transit centers smell like urine/feces.

    1. Eric and Glen, hundred percent with you. I’m really glad DSTT finally got some advertising, which I always liked about other transit systems, because it adds both color and a human element. Would also like to see us light outdoor shelters with panel-sized signs. Would be a great safety measure as well as an source of comfort.

      Might also create someplace revenue-producing advertising can be without making me feel like I’m looking at Mt. Rainier on my way to prison. I’m surprised the police even allow those things. Officers coming on-scene have no idea what’s happening on board ’til they find out the hard way.

      Also, while the design of DSTT stations is impressive, all that mezzanine space looks like it was intended for commerce that never materialized. Wouldn’t be surprised to find out there’s no plumbing or power for stalls or shops. In which case we’re long overdue to add some.

      Also surprised that after going on thirty years the health department hasn’t forced us to add restrooms- and whatever staff’s involved to maintain them. Maybe elevators can be tiled, and fitted with a drain in the floor and a chain hanging from the ceiling.

      Mark

      1. I like the humor in the Capitol Hill ads, It’s also interesting that it’s one company at a time with a suite of ads, like walking through an art gallery that has a rotating monthly theme.

    2. I can’t remember from the last time I was there, but if they have restrooms there’s a good chance you’d have to pay (a small amount) for them.

  4. I spend 11 days in Mexico City in May. Sometimes the subway was great, but not always.

    1. Rush hour crush loads seemed to strain the system. People would crush into the train, and then the doors wouldn’t close because someone was blocking it. I waited 10 minutes like this on a train multiple times. Sometimes it would happen each stop. Also, there didn’t seem to be AC on the trains powerful enough to keep it cool with all the bodies on board. During crush load, it’s also difficult to get off of the train. People tend to charge aboard as you try to leave.

    I think tourists tend to miss rush hour, so they often miss the subway at times when it is crowded and doesn’t work that well.

    2. The metrobus was also fairly packed, overheated, and slow.

    Despite having separate roadway in many places, the metrobus still seemed to spend a lot of time stuck in traffic. To me, this shows that BRT is kind of bullshit. They did everything “right” from a BRT perspective, but it was still slow during rush hour.

    I would say it’s not really fair to judge a transport system unless you are on there when everyone is trying to get to work and back. I think it’s also easy to miss the busiest lines when you are a tourist.

    The lines to and from UNAM (the university) seem to be some of the busiest during rush hour, which makes sense. The university has 300,000 students.

    Of course, on non-peak times I think subway was great. It’s just way under built for the size of the city. They ought to have something closer to Tokyo’s network given how big the city is.

    1. On a more positive note, I think Mexico City is a great place to visit. It’s an enormous urban environment with lots to do, bigger than new york or los angeles (though less dense than NYC), but incredibly cheap. If you like big cities, this is probably the best deal in the world.

      1. Mexico City is amazing.

        I’ve been (either passing through or actually to visit) 3 times in the last 18 months.

        I’d go again next weekend if I could get away. Massively underrated as a destination.

  5. “Westlake just looked dead and stale by comparison.”
    And so incredibly easy to fix. Get ON it, ST! Start with the basement space beneath All Saints and go from there

  6. Pretty much agree with everything Zach wrote above.

    I’ve made two trips specifically to Mexico City in the last 18months, and a 3rd trip where I flew home from MEX and spent part of a day in the city within the same timeframe.

    Its a wonderful, massively underrated city, and because of the Metro, its very easy to get around.

    A couple more observations.

    I also was unable to acquire a fare card so I just made sure that I took the opportunity to buy a stack of tickets at the taquilla whenever I saw one that didn’t have a huge line.

    As Zach notes, the trains come flying into the station (they do on the rubber tired subway in Montreal as well). Dwell time is virtually nothing at many of the station. And safety standards are somewhat less that what we’d like – the non A/C cars have slide down windows that are wide open … in the tubes the trains pass awfully close to signals, pipes etc. Don’t stick your arm out or you won’t have one any more.

    The commerce observation is excellent. Nearly every station was totally alive with vendors, etc. And thats below ground. Often, the immediate area above the station was full of vendors as well. Saw a huge line at the station near where I was staying in La Condesa for a woman making little gorditas or something that commuters were grabbing before hoping on the subway.

    The one thing not noted is the role of the small, green, local buses. These things are all over the city, and work as collector / distributors for the adjacent neighborhoods to the subway stations. It is rare to actually see a full sized bus thats not one of the trolleybuses or MetroBuses … the little green buses do a lot of heavy lifting bringing people to the subway to use as the trunkline.

  7. Glenn, truth is that for me, since I started driving for Metro in 1982, our whole regional transit project has really been about wanting to drive it. That’s why I would’ve loved to drive the “Fura Fila” system (more or less “Queue Jump” or “Taking ‘cuts’ in line”.

    And would still give a lot to drive the Russian trolleybus line over the mountains in Crimea. So thirty years ago, I really liked the “spirit” of the Brazilian line. Thirty years later, I think that after thirty years, the best rapid bus line should have become light rail in ten years before.

    I also believe in the idea of designing our system to immediately start carrying passengers on bus transit deliberately designed to transition to electric rail. This approach has kept suburban communities in a system that still hasn’t brought them any rail.

    But I also know that there’s a difference between building busways to be eventually converted to rail and a railroad able to carry buses until it’s ready to run trains. As we did with the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel. Four foot thick slab of reinforced concrete and all.

    This is a very expensive way to lay a roadbed. But worth every penny if it can start giving passengers the service they’re paying for as soon as possible. For as long as necessary until the trains arrive.

    But also favor quicker measures, like installing the decades-overdue southbound I-5 transit lane between Northgate and Downtown Seattle, coupled with at least finally building the northern freeway ramps at Ash Way Park and Ride.

    And also know how many of the mechanisms and practices aboard the first trains into Everett and Tacoma haven’t been invented yet.

    Mark

  8. Retail is one thing that Seattle, and really many transit systems in the US lack inside their transportation facilities. Its pretty commonplace in Europe, in their train stations to have some form of newsstand type store, and often some form of hot food service as well. Of course all of them have some form of visual train information board showing the next X arrivals which we don’t even have at King Street Station. In Paris for example, they have what amounts to a whole shopping mall with high end stores inside the fair paid area (controlled by fare gates) at Paris Gare du Nord. I think its beneficial for the public and the traveler to have retail, not only does it provide services for the travelling public, I also think it makes the system a little safer as it can bring people in for different purposes, and gives areas of refuge for people who want to stay out of the crowds.

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