Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Eco-friendly bus rides for Mexico

We’ve all ridden traditional city busses at one time or another. Passengers board them from the sidewalk. One-by-one passengers climb three or four steps to get on board, and then remember “Oh yes, I have to pay for this ride” and search for the proper change. Upon alighting they get off equally slow, one-by-one.

All that time the expensive piece of transportation equipment — the bus — is standing still at a bus stop creating traffic congestion.

The Brazilian city of Curitiba, famous for its environmental innovations, came up with a better – and counter-intuitive — idea. Why have buses travel in the curbside lane when with equal ease the left-hand lane of boulevards could be the designated bus lane?

Furthermore, why not have passengers board from platforms the same height of the floor of the bus so they can just step on board? Since access to the platform can be controlled, collect the passengers’ bus fare on the ramp leading to the platform before the bus even arrives. Since the driver does not need to see if people pay, the whole side of the bus can open up as on a subway car.

Mexico City is one of the cities that copied Curidiba’s innovation, naming the transportation system with fire-engine-red busses the Metrobus. Now entering its tenth year of operation, the first Metrobus line was built during the Lopez Obrador administration (2000-2006) to run the length of Insurgentes Avenue.

In Mexico, buses and taxis give the impression of being owned by a company since they are identically painted. In reality they are usually independently owned, though often affiliated to “routes”. It was a major breakthrough by López Obrador’s administration to remove and scrap hundreds of privately owned buses running on Insurgentes Avenue and replace them with the new environmentally-friendly buses owned by a government controlled company.

To do so without conflict, the city carried out a census of those whose economic livelihood was dependent on bus transportation on Insurgentes Avenue.

Drivers were offered retraining and mechanics were offered technical school studies to learn how to repair the brand new diesel engines. With the city holding 51% of the shares, owners of buses that had plied Insurgentes were offered the opportunity to purchase the 49% of shares that would remain private – paying for some of the value of the shares with the proceeds from bonuses for their scrapped buses.

The Insurgentes Avenue line reduces carbon monoxide emissions along that corridor by 60,000 to 80,000 tons a year. This is from replacing older, more polluting busses, reducing traffic congestions, and encouraging city residents to leave their cars at home and ride a clean, efficient, and dependable bus system.

With four additional lines added under Marcelo Ebrard’s administration (2006-2012), the Metrobus now reduces carbon emissions by 110,000 tons per year.

Under the Kyoto Protocol rules, countries that measurably reduce pollution that benefit all of humanity are due some compensation and can sell carbon reduction credits on international markets. Mexico receives financial compensation for reducing pollution with the Metrobús.

The Curidiba-type bus lines — now classified world-wide as BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) systems — are much more appropriate for developing economies than underground subway systems. Not only can they be built for a fraction of the cost of subways, their planning-to-completion times is less than five years compared to ten to fifteen for a subway. Even U.S. cities like Cleveland, Ohio are implementing BRT lines.

Metrobúses travel in a designated lane. Don’t get caught driving in it—you’ll pay a hefty fine and lose your car overnight.

By pacing the buses four to five minutes apart there is no reason for buses to pull out into other lanes to overtake a slow bus ahead. To double passenger capacity each bus tows a second car. To increase capacity even more they experimented with each bus pulling two trailers but instead settled on having two busses, each with a trailer, occupying a time slot.

Metrobús’ fare of 6 pesos per ride is paid with a card the size of a credit card — purchased from a vending machine.

With card in hand passengers may add as many fares as they wish to their card. By holding the card up to an electronic-reader they gain access to the boarding platform.

The card’s memory allows for free transfers to other lines within two hours of initiating a ride.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Going to the airport? Enjoy your time there and stay a while

I enjoy driving to the airport. More precisely, I enjoy driving people to the airport. And talking to them en route. Either they are about to go off on a journey they are excited about or they are finishing a trip in Mexico and processing what they’ve seen and done. I learn quite a bit about them and the lives they lead. And I get to spend time in the Mexico City airport, one of my favorite places.

Airports in Latin American seem to be a special breed. They’re usually found right on the main highways, not isolated and off by themselves. Unlike U.S. airports where shops ands restaurants are usually on the other side of “security,” in Latin American airports many of the shops and services are available to the non-traveling public as well as airline passengers. On road trips they are marvelous places to stop for clean restrooms, restaurants, and getting cash from an ATM.

The Benito Juaréz International airport in Mexico City, or MEX as I fondly think of it, is one of the grandest of all. In addition to the to-be-expected money exchange booths, newsstands, restaurants, souvenir shops and taxi stands, the Mexico City airport has an array of other services.

Copy shops, pharmacies, cell-phone company customer service offices, and bookstores are all in the public area of Terminal 1’s ground floor and mezzanine. There’s even that increasingly hard-to-find rarity, a post office. You can mail the post cards you needed to send with a Mexican stamp just before boarding your plane. If you’re a resident of Mexico and have utility bills to pay, you can do so in convenience stores between check-in and boarding time.

Massage spas, barber-shops and beauty salons are scattered through the terminals. Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins always allows an extra hour before flights for what she describes as “one of the best foot massages anywhere in the world.”

Not only do banks have ATMs throughout the terminal they also have full service branch offices in which you can cash checks and make deposits. With Mexico’s banks all being nationwide, you can take care of banking business in the airport terminal as if you were at your very own branch office.

For a very small fee the Metrobus – with racks on board for suitcase stowage – connects both terminals to downtown Mexico City. Terminal 1 is accessible to downtown by subway but only allows minimal luggage.

Long distance busses run the routes from MEX to Cuernavaca, Toluca, Queretaro, Tlaxcala, Puebla, Pachuca and Cordoba — all from a much less harried setting than any of Mexico City’s bus stations.

Last week after driving a student to the airport I strolled over to the inauguration of a fabulous crafts exhibit near Gate C in Terminal 1. The governor of Guerrero Angel Aguirre Rivero and First Lady Laura del Rocío Herrera cut the ribbon of the exhibit titled “Guerrero Flor y Color” (Guerrero Flower and Color).

Though everything in the exhibit is worthy of museum display, these works are for sale. You’ll not only be able to buy a wide variety of crafts directly from the craftspeople, you might even be able to watch your item being made. You’ll certainly have a grand time learning about the crafts of this southern state and watching the craftspeople. Perhaps you’ll even get a head start on your Christmas shopping.

Back-strap weavers are there working in the traditional Mesoamerican style with one end of their loom strapped around their waist and the other tied around a pole. Other craft makers are fabricating and selling hand woven hats, ceramic art, children’s necklaces, bracelets, and toys. There’s fine sterling silver jewelry from Taxco. Paintings on amate bark-paper and decorated gourds and flutes represent the Rio Balsas area. You’ll see Guerrero’s amazing carved wooden masks which are not that different from the masks of pre-colonial Mesoamerica. The famous lacquered wooden boxes and trays from Olinalá emit their fabulous cedar aroma. With the exception of the displayed furniture most everything is easily packable in carry-on luggage.

Guerrero Flor y Color is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. through August 15, near Gate C of Terminal 1 at MEX. The Guerrero crafts exhibit is only MEX’s most recent offering. The airport has been host to similar craft shows from other states as well as a number of exceptional exhibits of fine art. Throughout the airport one can also find the fantasy masked man-bird sculptures by Mexico’s preeminent sculptor, Jorge Marín.

I find airports to be wonderful places. Who was it that put the idea in our minds that we should rush through them? Probably those same people who pride themselves on traveling light and not checking luggage. I’m not one of them!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Mexico begins Cup

Soccer-mania will reach a crescendo this week. Mexico’s team isn’t in the running for the World Cup any longer, but Mexico’s ancient cultures can take considerable credit for originating the game.

Before the conquest of Mexico, western Europe didn’t know team sports. They had one-on-one sports, such as jousting matches. And games where one person wins and everyone else loses, as in traditional Olympic events. And games where a person competed against an animal, such as bull fighting. But no team sports. The concept of a group of people competing against an equally sized opponent team is a Mesoamerican idea introduced to Europe in the early 16th century.

In the ancient Mesoamerican ball game, two teams competed on an I-shaped court, using their bodies to move a ball and scoring points along the way. Several Mesoamerican ball teams were taken to Spain shortly after the conquest. There they played exhibition matches for the king’s court thereby introducing the concept of teamwork to European sports.

Ancient cities all over Mexico, and indeed throughout Mesoamerica, have ball courts. Many even have multiple courts. Strangely Teotihuacan – the largest city of all – has none.

The most unusual ball court I’ve visited is in El Tajin in northern Veracruz. Seventeen ball courts have been discovered there so far and more will undoubtedly be found as archeologists continue to clear vegetation from the ruins.

The most famous of its ball courts has a pictorial description carved in stone of scenes of a game leading up to the sacrifice of one of the players. The scenes do not follow a progression of left to right or top to bottom. Instead they follow the path of the ball on the court as if being hit from one end of the court to the other. Viewing the vignettes in their proper order requires walking back and forth from one end to the other and from side to side of the court in an X-type pattern.

Not all ball games ended with the sacrifice of one of the players, but the fact that some did is evidence of the religious nature of the game. Spanish authorities considered anything associated with Mesoamerican religion to be cult of the devil and prohibited Mesoamerican ball games from being held. A few “descendent” games are played in northwestern Mexico and in Oaxaca but they don’t make use of the pre-Hispanic capital-I-shaped playing field.

While the rules of the ancient game have been lost, its effect on the world has not. World Cup soccer is proof.