In Mexico City, The Return Of Terrible Smog

Apr 13, 2016
Originally published on April 19, 2016 3:55 pm

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.

"It's my favorite time of the year," he says.

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.

Sarah Chavaria was trying to get to her job in a butcher shop near downtown but had already watched four packed trains go by.

"The subway was full before the smog alerts. Now it's worse than ever," she says. "I've been crushed, stepped on, and everything in between."

By the time she gets to work, she adds, she is already stressed out.

Mexico City's public transportation hasn't kept up with its population growth, especially in the suburbs. Government housing policies and investment in highways over public transportation have led to ever increasing sprawl.

There are now 23 million people in the Mexico City metropolitan area and nearly 6 million registered cars, says Gabriela Alarcon, an urban development specialist with the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness.

She says 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," Alarcon says.

And, Alarcon says, 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.

At a pizzeria, manager Juan Carlos Gutierrez says the delivery motorcycle was barred from the road the day before, so deliveries are down.

"I'm crying twice as much," says Gutierrez. "Once for all the smog in my eyes and again because of all the money I'm losing."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Mexico City is covered in the worst smog it's seen in more than a decade. That's led the government to limit car traffic based on license plate numbers. Forced off the roads, people are crowding the subways and buses. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, it seems like every city resident has a story about how the pollution has made life harder.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Springtime is usually beautiful in Mexico City. The weather turns warmer, and the purple jacaranda trees along boulevards and dotting neighborhoods are in full bloom.

FERNANDO PADILLA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Everything is prettier now," says Fernando Padilla, a driver taking a break in a Mexico City park. It's usually his favorite time of the year, but this spring his eyes are watering, his throat hurts and one day a week he can't use his car on the road, meaning he's poorer, too.

Ten-year-old Julieta Mejia Cabrera 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 is stuck inside their classrooms even during lunchtime.

JULIETA MEJIA CABRERA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: (Speaking Spanish).

JULIETA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: We can't play with our friends. It's so boring, she adds. It's like being at home.

Last month, for the first time since 2005, Mexico City officials declared a phase one smog alert. Based on license plate numbers, everyone's car has to stay off the streets 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, granted smog levels aren't as high as in Beijing or even as high as they were back in the 1980s or '90s.

But last week, the pollution was so bad - more than twice the 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.

Check out the commute for Sarah Chavaria. She's trying to get to her job near downtown in a butcher shop, but she's already watched four packed-to-the-gills trains go by.

SARAH CHAVARIA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: The subway was full before the smog alerts. Now it's even worse than ever, she says -and adds, by the time she gets to work, she's already stressed out.

CHAVARIA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: I've been crushed, stepped on and everything in between, she says.

Mexico City's public transportation hasn't kept up with its population growth especially in the suburbs. Government housing policies and investments in highways over public transportation has led to sprawl into neighboring states. There are now 23 million people in the Mexico City metropolitan area and nearly 6 million registered cars, says Gabriela Alarcon, an urban development expert with the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness. She says more needs to be done than just restricting traffic according to license plate numbers.

GABRIELA ALARCON: Because people adjust and they buy an additional car, and - so then you would have even more congestion to an already very congested city.

KAHN: And Alarcon says Mexico smog standards are behind the times. A car bought in Mexico in 2016 has the same tailpipe emissions as a 2004 car sold in the U.S.

Manager Juan Carlos Guitierrez tries to start his pizzeria's delivery motorcycle. He hasn't used it as much because of the smog prevention rules, so deliveries are down.

JUAN CARLOS GUITIERREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I'm crying twice as much," says Guitierrez, "once for all the smog in my eyes and again because of all the money I'm losing." Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.