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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.)

Traffic on Pasar Senen, Jakarta.

Jakarta’s bus-metro

Before visiting Jakarta three years ago, I read someplace that the Indonesian capital may be the largest city in the world without a metro railway. A couple of other cities could contest that claim, but Jakarta is certainly one of the biggest metro-less cities.

Instead of a metro railway, Jakarta has the Transjakarta Busway, a hybrid transportation technology that is effectively a bus metro. The buses run in their own lanes and stop at stations that can only be entered with a smartcard. The bus doors are high off the ground to meet the station platforms, so it is only possible to board the buses through the stations. There can still be quite a gap between bus and platform, more than on any metro I’ve ridden.

Buses at a Transjakarta station.

Buses at a Transjakarta station.

A dedicated busway lane on Jalan Gunung Sahari.

A dedicated busway lane on Jalan Gunung Sahari.

A busway station

A busway station

Interior of another busway station.

Interior of another busway station.

At its best, the Transjakarta Busway is faster and more efficient than regular buses, which are at the mercy of all the other traffic in a city. It was also much cheaper to build than a metro railway, because the buses run on existing roadways rather than purpose-built tunnels. At its worst, the busway may not offer much advantage over regular buses, because traffic doesn’t always stay out of the designated bus lanes.

Jakarta was the first place I saw a busway, but then when I went to Yogyakarta in south-central Java, I found a small busway system in that city as well. When I moved to Jaipur later that year, I saw what appeared to be the ruins of a rapid-transit bus system. On one of the roads on the western side of the city, buses ran in their own dedicated lanes, but the lanes were not always open, and at other times non-bus traffic infiltrated the lanes.

To return to Jakarta: there is a metro railway under construction in Jakarta, but it has yet to open. When it does, the Transjakarta Busway will probably continue to operate alongside it.

Metro construction on one of the boulevards of Jakarta, 2015.

Metro construction on one of the boulevards of Jakarta, 2015.

Indonesia has two other public transportation technologies that are worth mentioning: ojeks and becaks. Ojeks are motorcycle taxis. The passenger sits on the back of the motorcycle behind the driver. Thanks to their narrow profile, ojeks can weave through traffic. I understand that motorcycle taxis are common elsewhere in southeast Asia. It seems that they could be popular in India as well, but they have not caught on there for some reason—possibly because they would not be practical for women traveling alone.

The other distinctively Indonesian mode of public transit is the becak, a three-wheeled cycle-taxi. (The c in “becak” is said like ch in “change.”) Unlike the cycle-rickshaws of India or the trishaws of Malaysia, becaks have a passenger seat in the front, and the driver sits in the back. The use of becaks has fallen off considerably in recent decades, but they are still around, especially in touristy areas.

A becak in Yogyakarta.

A becak in Yogyakarta.

Gambhiri-River-Bridge

Chittaurgarh’s 700-year-old bridge

View of the medieval Gambhiri River Bridge from the eastern riverbank.

View of the medieval Gambhiri River Bridge from the eastern riverbank.

For at least a thousand years, people have been building large structures out of stone in northwestern India. The modern Indian state of Rajasthan is full of the remains of these monuments. Most of the monuments—fortresses, palaces, tombs, cenotaphs, and the like—have no real use anymore, except maybe as tourist attractions. There are plenty of pre-modern temples still in use, although many of them have been altered beyond recognition over centuries of use. And then there are some pieces of infrastructure that, with proper maintenance, still serve their original function hundreds of years after they were built.

One example is a bridge over the Gambhiri River in the town of Chittaurgarh in southern Rajasthan. The bridge is located on the main road into town. It is built entirely of stone, with nine slightly-pointed arches and one semicircular arch. (The river flows through eight of the arches, while the remaining two are on the shore. There are also two additional arches on each side of the bridge, but these are made in a different style and seem to have been added later.) The piers founded in the river have triangular projections on the upstream side, to help the river water, and any debris that might be floating in it, flow smoothly around the bridge.

The Rajasthan state Department of Archaeology and Museums has set up a Hindi interpretive plaque on the western side of the bridge. According to the plaque, the bridge was built early in the fourteenth century by Khijra Khan, after his father Alauddin Khilji captured Chittaurgarh in 1303. The bridge is built partly of stone blocks appropriated from other buildings. Inscriptions of Tej Singh and Samar Singh, two late-thirteenth-century rulers of Mewar, are still visible on the bridge. There are also some surviving architectural flourishes from the original structures, including designs of flowers and leaves. (None of this is visible to the casual observer from the shore, but I trust that the state archeologists know where to look.)

The Gambhiri River Bridge has been modified a little over the past seven hundred years. Although it was designed for horses and carts, it is strong enough to support motor vehicles. In modern times, a three-foot railing was added to the side of the bridge; when this proved inadequate for whatever reason, an eight-foot fence was also added. The bridge also carries several pipelines and some cables. Just downstream, a newer bridge has been built for eastbound traffic. The medieval bridge now just carries westbound traffic away from Chittaurgarh.

View of the Gambhiri bridge from the western bank.

View of the Gambhiri bridge from the western bank.

For readers who aren’t familiar with Chittaurgarh: The place is famous for the fortress by that name, a massive structure stretching five kilometers along the top of a ridge. The fortress was defensible, thanks to its position, but it was also a highly sought-after strategic prize, and it was captured and re-captured several times throughout its long history. Emperor Akbar won the fort for the Mughal Empire in a long and bloody siege in 1567-68. The fortress is now maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, although it is so huge that inhabited villages exist within the walls alongside the historical monuments. Architectural highlights inside the fort include the Vijay Stambh (Tower of Victory, 1457-68), Kumbha Shyam Mandir (magnificent Nagara-style temple), Mira Bai Mandir, and Gaumukh Kund (rainwater storage tank).

Vijay Stambh (Tower of Victory), Chittaurgarh.

Vijay Stambh (Tower of Victory), Chittaurgarh.

Kumbha Shyam Mandir.

Kumbha Shyam Mandir.

Meera Mandir, where poet-saint Meera Bai worshiped Krishna.

Meera Mandir, where poet-saint Meera Bai worshiped Krishna.

Gaumukh Kund (Cow-mouth Well), Chittaurgarh.

Gaumukh Kund (Cow-mouth Well), Chittaurgarh.

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