Mexican Smog Dance
It used to be said in the 1980s that the air got so dirty in Mexico City that birds would emit a final chirp before they fell to the ground. A sad testament to some of the world's worst air pollution.
Nobody had actually seen that happen, but the urban legend's black humour revealed a perverse pride in survival.
Springtime is usually beautiful in Mexico City. As the weather warms, the purple jacaranda trees that line boulevards and dot neighborhoods are in full bloom. Everything is prettier, says Fernando Padilla, a driver taking a break in a park. But this spring, his eyes are watering, his throat hurts and one day a week he's not allowed to use his car on the road, which means he's poorer too.
Julieta Mejia Cabrera, 10, isn't happy either. Today she got to go to the park, but since the anti-smog plan has gone into effect, she says everyone at her school has to eat lunch inside their classrooms.
"We can't play with our friends," she says. "It's so boring. It's like being at home."
Last month, for the first time since 2005, Mexico City officials declared a Phase 1 smog alert. Based on license plate numbers, every car must be kept off the road one day a week and one Saturday a month through the end of June.
That's the start of the rainy season, which usually clears the air. Smog levels aren't as high as in Beijing, or even as high as they were here back in the 1980s and 1990s.
But last week the pollution was so bad more than twice acceptable levels the city ordered even more vehicles off the streets. As one columnist said, it was heaven for drivers on the traffic-free streets, but hell for those forced down into Mexico City's already saturated subway.
Then the city's smog began to lift. The government shut down a big oil refinery and pushed heavy industry out of the city. Lead was stripped from gasoline and incentives were put into play to encourage people to buy cleaner new cars.
And the birdsong myth came back.
Until now, the city has only managed to register about 20 clean' days this year. On all the other days particulates and ozone rose above the governments imposed limit. A central reason is that pollution simply dropped from the public's radar.
"As long as people don't complain and it's not high visibility, the government doesn't put a high priority on it," says Mario J. Molina, a Nobel Laureate I chemistry and a the director of a Mexico City Research Institute.1
Antipollution measures that could have made a difference ran out of gas. Although the region was able to reduce levels of major pollutants well into the 2000s, ozone and particulate pollution increased. I April, the regional environment commission lowered the level at which it declares an emergency.
Suddenly, talk of pollution is back in the public eye.
Radio reports give hourly updates as ozone levels climb each afternoon, noting how close the city is to another emergency. Newspapers plaster their front pages with photos of vast urban landscapes shrouded in a grey-yellow murk. On Twitter, drivers post photographs of vehicle spewing filthy fumes. A long time apathetic approach to outdoor activities has given way to anxious checks of the city's pollution map.
Every day, roughly 20 percent of the region's cars are grounded. Ozone and particulates have climbed so high the environment commission has declared eight pollution emergences since March, imposing rules that take 40 percent of the cars off the road. But divers waiting at an emission inspection and testing station recently lamented that they were taking all the blame.
To understand why having a car here is so important one has to consider the daily commute of one Iris Venegas Maldonado. She leaves her house at 6:15 a.m., catching two microbuses before she reaches a subway station, where she takes another bus to arrive at her job at 9:00 a.m. - nearly three hours hence.2
At the heart of the problem is how this megalopolis of more than 20 million people has evolved. About 8.5 million people live in Mexico City and the rest inhabit a sprawl that encompasses everything for gated communities to concrete slums. But residents are often far from their jobs. As soon as any family can afford to get a set of wheels, it does.
Leonardo Martinez Flores, and urban planning expert, said the entire city must be reconceived, "If you don't attack the problem of the urban structure, it doesn't matter how much you invest in public transport."3
The city has accommodated itself to an estimated five million plus cars. A long ribbon of elevated highway circles much of the city before reaching north into the neighbouring State of Mexico, where public transportation is extremely haphazard. Developers erect skyscrapers with a dozen floors reserved purely for parking.
Recently, the federal and local governments announced stricter emissions inspection rules, which will apply to trucks and buses. The city has pledged to install new sensors to detect dirty' vehicles which the police would stop and have the vehicle removed from the road. The mayor has also proposed a crackdown on industrial emissions and programmes for cleaner taxis and delivery vehicles, and has begun negotiations to limit cargo trucks to nighttime hours.
Back at the emissions inspection centre the debate rages on - whom or what is or was to blame.
Gerardo Sánchez, 40, who sells salads to office workers from the back of his 2007 vehicle and loses income when his car is grounded, named a favourite culprit. "The politicians have two or three cars filled with bodyguards that follow them everywhere. How much do they pollute," he asks.
The public knows that more needs to be done than just restricting traffic by license plate numbers.
Because people adjust, and they buy an additional car and [add] even more congestion to an already congested city. Mexico's smog standards are behind the times. Cars bought in Mexico in 2016 have the same tailpipe emissions as a 2004 car sold in the U.S.
During an interview pizzeria, manager Juan Carlos Gutierrez said the delivery motorcycle was barred from the road the day before, so deliveries are down. "I'm crying twice as much," he says. "Once for all the smog in my eyes and again because of all the money I'm losing."
1 Elizabeth Malkin. "Sprawl Brings Smog Back to Mexico City" The New York Times International Weekly (June 26, 2016): 2