Abel López
Urban Transport Specialist
World Bank Group

The End of the Microbus?

Fri, 09/01/2017 - 11:25

The days when microbuses reigned over Mexico City will be long gone. Miguel Ángel Mancera, the city’s former mayor, announced measures to advance the renewal of microbuses with cleaner buses as a means to reduce pollution. Abel López, Urban Transport Specialist at World Bank Group, thinks this is a necessary policy but not sufficient to reduce pollution. “We tend to think that microbuses pollute more than new cars but there is little difference. Every additional car in use occupies road space, influencing traffic congestion and speed.”

Microbuses do not receive positive reviews from Mexico City’s population. A poll taken in 2013 by market analysis and research company Parametría on mobility and transport in Mexico City revealed that microbuses are the least esteemed transport method among users, with 75 percent stating they have a negative opinion of the service. Data from the Institute of Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) show the costs of public transport systems and the associated externalities in areas of safety and comfort make the use of public transportation a less preferred option. ITDP revealed that 81 percent of those surveyed would be willing to leave their cars at home if public transportation were safer and 79 percent said they would also do so if it were more comfortable.

Though newer and greener units will help the environment, that alone will not do the trick. “The real impact we can have on CO2 reduction comes from people leaving their cars at home and using public transportation,” says López. "To encourage this modal shift, we need to promote methods that could improve the travel experience in a clean, safe, affordable and reliable way.” Realizing effective infrastructure improvements might prove more difficult than expected, particularly in a city where the allocation of responsibilities within government entities can be blurry. According to article 39, section XXVIII of the Organic Law of the Public Administration of the Federal District, municipalities are obligated to propose to the competent government entity the necessary measures to improve streets’ conditions. Section LII of the same article establishes that municipalities are responsible for building and rehabilitating secondary roads within their territorial demarcation. While the law might be clear, the practice is rarely as easy as the theory sounds. There are ongoing disputes between municipalities and the city’s government regarding the reach of their responsibilities.

According to López, for people to move to public transport there needs to be a change in the total travel cost. “Travel cost includes several variables. The access cost is the time it takes to get to a bus stop and the conditions of streets people must use to get to that point. The cost of the bus fare and the cost associated to the conditions of safety and comfort must be added to the time spent getting to one’s destination,” he says.

Asking for a change in the way people move around the city is easier said than done. When the Metrobús project was inaugurated back in 2005, it expected a modal shift of 10 percent, says López. More than 10 years after Line 1 opened, he says the system has only witnessed a 4-6 percent modal shift. While results might not have been what was expected, Metrobús provoked a positive response from users. Parametría’s poll found that 83 percent of those surveyed reviewed the service positively and Mancera says that the latest Metrobús route, Line 6, helps 1.1 million users commute on a daily basis across the 20km covered.

Regardless of all the discomfort microbuses cause, they are well integrated and connected to other public transport routes. “In Mexico City, almost every microbus route makes a connection with at least one metro station,” says López. Though the entrance of new buses is expected to alter some existing routes, new routes will be designed to reflect demand and to be integrated with other modes of transport. For López, the change of microbuses obeys a legal rather than environmental logic. “The law says that microbuses must be 10 years old on average but many of Mexico City’s units are older than 20 years, which means that they operate outside the established legal framework.” Mancera’s determination to remove the estimated 14,000 microbuses in Mexico City from the transport system will take some time. The disappearance of the microbus goes beyond merely renewing old units. “There will be a change in the concession scheme. Group concessions will be favored instead of individual owneroperators,” says López. “We will no longer be able to call them microbuseros. Instead they will be entrepreneurs.”