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Category: Mexico (Page 1 of 2)

Villa de Guadalupe with Mexico City skyline in the distance.

Riding the Mexico City Metro

Mexico City got its first subway line in 1969, shortly before Washington, DC and San Francisco opened their metros but long after Boston and New York City had gotten theirs. Over the past year and a half, I have visited Mexico City a couple of times and used the metro to get around each time. Here are some things I have noticed about the Metro CDMX system and the experience of riding it.

Dedication plaque in the Zócalo station.

Dedication plaque for Line 2 in the Zócalo station.

The most unique feature of Metro CDMX is that is is a decentralized network. Most metro systems start in the city center and radiate out into the suburbs, but Metro CDMX’s route map looks more like a net laid over the city. A decentralized network is more usable to more people, but it also means that you have to change trains to get almost anywhere.

Route map of the Washington Metro.

Route map of the Washington Metro. This is a centralized network, which makes it easy to go from the periphery to the center, or vice versa; but if you want to go from one part of the periphery to another, you will probably have to go through the center. (Source: https://www.wmata.com/schedules/maps/)

Route map of Metro CDMX.

Route map of Metro CDMX. Since this is a decentralized network, you might not have to go all the way to the center if you want to go from one part of the periphery to another. (Source: https://www.metro.cdmx.gob.mx/la-red/mapa-de-la-red)

The rolling stock has rubber tires like buses, which run on metal tracks in the tunnels and stations. (There are also steel wheels running on conventional rails, but they are hidden behind the rubber tires.) The same technology is used in the Montreal metro, as well as at a smaller scale in various airport people-movers in the United States. I have heard it asserted that this type of metro is quieter than steel-wheeled trains, but I am dubious about that, because Metro CDMX trains do not seem any quieter than other metros I have ridden.

Rubber-tired train of Metro CDMX.

Rubber-tired train of Metro CDMX.

Metro CDMX trains love their Keith Haring.

Metro CDMX trains love their Keith Haring.

To ride on Metro CDMX, you can buy a paper ticket, or use an RF-ID smartcard with stored value. Either way, the price is the same: M$5 for a ride anywhere in the system. At 25¢ in US currency, this is amazingly cheap, probably the best value for public transport anywhere in the world.

Every metro station has a unique symbol associated with its name or the neighborhood it serves. The symbols appear on signage in stations and on the trains. Many of the stations are named after national heroes.

Signage in Zapata station, named after agrarian revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.

Signage in Zapata station, named after agrarian revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.

There is plenty of artwork in the stations, including murals, replica archeological artifacts, and displays of caricatures. The Zócalo station has dioramas of that part of the city over time.

Diorama of the prehispanic incarnation of the Zócalo, in the concourse of the metro station.

Diorama of the prehispanic incarnation of the Zócalo, in the concourse of the metro station.

When Pino Suarez station was under construction, this Aztec temple to Ehecatl, the wind god, was unearthed. It was restored and incorporated into the design of the station.

When Pino Suarez station was under construction, this Aztec temple to Ehecatl, the wind god, was unearthed. It was restored and incorporated into the design of the station.

Metro trains in Mexico City tend not to get nearly as crowded as their counterparts in Delhi, even though Mexico City is the bigger city. The only time I got bodily pushed from behind into a crowded train car (a common occurrence in Delhi), that turned out just to have been a distraction created by pickpocketers. Ordinarily, when a train car is over-crowded, passengers just don’t get on the train. They line up on the platform and wait for the next train to come.

Some lines have vendors that sell things from train car to train car: snacks, books, CDs of folk music, anything that can be sold for M$10.

Metro CDMX farecards can be used on other systems as well, including buses and a single lightrail line connecting the metro to the canals at Xochimilco. The buses, like the metro, seemed to work well, but Tren Ligero (the lightrail) was overcrowded and slow when I rode on it.

Metrobus picking up passengers at a station on Avenida de los Insurgentes.

Metrobus picking up passengers at a station on Avenida de los Insurgentes. (This is the same technology as the TransJakarta Busway.)

The turtle-taxis of Tabasco

I have written quite a lot on this blog about autorickshaws, the remarkable three-wheeled taxis derived from motor scooters that are used extensively in India. In this post, I explained the surprising origins of a common name for the vehicle, and in this one, I described them as a creole technology. This term, introduced by David Edgerton in his fascinating book The Shock of the Old, describes a technology that originated in one part of the world but took on new and different uses in another part. In the case of autorickshaws, scooter technology came from Europe, but this technology transformed into a ubiquitous urban and rural mode of transportation in India and elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia.

A Bajaj autorickshaw at Firoz Shah Kotla, Delhi.

Bajaj autorickshaws at Firoz Shah Kotla, Delhi.

When I wrote those posts five years ago, I had no idea that there was an entire dimension to this creole technology that I had completely missed. It turns out that autorickshaws are not just used in southern Asia. They are also used extensively in Latin America.

On a recent visit to the state of Tabasco in southern Mexico, I got to go on a couple of rides in a pochimóvil, as autorickshaws are called there (apparently because the vehicle’s hard fiberglass shell is reminiscent of the Tabasco mud turtle or pochitoque).

A pochimovíl in a suburb of Villahermosa, Tabasco, southern Mexico.

A pochimóvil in a suburb of Villahermosa, Tabasco, southern Mexico.

The pochimóviles I saw were very similar in design to those I am familiar with from India, and in fact they were manufactured in India by the industrial conglomerate Bajaj. One of them even had a little sticker behind the handlebar that said (in English) “MADE IN INDIA.”

Interior of a pochimovíl.

Interior of a pochimóvil.

The only significant differences I could identify between Indian and Mexican rickshaws were accessories, like the fiberglass shell (most autorickshaws in India have fabric tops) and proper doors for the passengers. Since the driver sits in the middle of the front, an autorickshaw can just as easily drive on the right side of the road (in Mexico) as the left (in India).

Mexico and India are very different from each other, but as I observed in an earlier post, both countries share certain similarities in terms of economics and (at least in tropical Tabasco) climate, so technologies like autorickshaws/pochimóviles work well in both places.

Learning about Mexico

Why do we travel? I know that people travel for diverse reasons. For my part, I travel to learn. If I want to learn about some part of the world, I find that there is no substitute for actually going there in person, walking around, talking with people (if I can), making notes, and taking pictures.

But I can only learn so much from travel. To get deeper knowledge, I need to read books written by people who are more experienced and knowledgeable than me. Travel and reading go hand-in-hand. My travel experiences make me pay more attention to parts of the books I read, and often my reading makes me want to go back to a place to pay more attention to something I had missed before.

Here is an example of how reading can help me better understand a place I have visited. I have been reading Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans, by Alan Riding (1983, revised edition published in 1986). This was a lucky used bookstore find. Riding is a British journalist, but he wrote the book for an American audience. In the introduction, he argues that Americans hardly understand Mexico at all, and we need to understand the country better. This is why he wrote the book.

I agree that Americans really don’t try to understand our southern neighbor. Apart from the drug wars near the US border, Mexico does not appear in American news very much. When we teach world history at the college level, Mexico has its fifteen minutes of fame during the Aztec conquest. Then it disappears.

My knowledge of post-1521 Mexico is therefore almost a complete blank, and so I have had plenty to learn from Distant Neighbors.

According to the book, the man who really created modern Mexico was Miguel Alemán, who served as president of the country from 1946 to 1952. Alemán opened the country to large-scale foreign investment. This was when American companies like Ford and Coca-Cola entered Mexico. Thanks in large part to American investment, the Mexican middle class grew rapidly during Alemán’s presidency and afterward.

Alemán also invested in big irrigation projects to promote agriculture in Sonora and Sinaloa. These two states are in arid northwestern Mexico. Sonora is just across the international border from Arizona; Sinaloa is the next state south of Sonora. Alemán wanted farms in northwestern Mexico to grow crops on a large scale, with irrigation and fertilizers, like farms in the USA. Most of the agriculture in these two states is organized in large farms, either privately-held latifundios, or sometimes a collective of small holdings known as ejidos granted to the Yaqui and Mayo people in government land-reform programs.

American-style agriculture outside of Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, northern Mexico.

American-style agriculture outside of Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, northern Mexico.

A couple of years ago, I visited the town of Ciudad Obregón in Sonora. (See “An Audience with Dr. Borlaug” for more information about Obregón.) I saw the large-scale agriculture, but I didn’t know why or when the countryside was developed in that way. I also didn’t know why the main street in Obregón is named Calle Miguel Alemán. (“Calle” means “street.”) Now, thanks to Alan Riding’s book, I do.

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