Tuesday, November 25, 2008


[published in the London Guardian Weekly in 2007]

In Mexico City, cars rule. Speed limits are neither obeyed nor strictly enforced, red lights and stop signs are mere suggestions, and one-way streets exist only in theory. Recommended car-lengths between cars are measured in inches, while (rarely used) turn signals seem to inspire others drivers to block your intention. Drivers’ licenses are handed out without any actual driving or vision tests, yet even so, most people driving in México City lack a valid license. Weekend nights, most drivers drive under the influence of alcohol (many of the younger drivers are returning from ‘all you can drink’ bars), and the random alcohol police checkpoints instituted a year or two ago have disappeared (even during the operation, drinkers were given a free pass on all holidays).

It’s not that they are bad drivers, but once people step into a car in Mexico City they immediately enter into the battle of everyone for themselves and God against all. Cars, buses, taxis and trucks all jockey for position, intent upon making everyone else suck their exhaust fumes and establishing themselves as the king of the road. The only thing that dares to interfere with their freedom to speed ahead, the only thing that unites all the different vehicles on the road, is their common enemy, the pedestrian.

The idea of slowing down (let alone stopping) at a crosswalk to see if anyone is waiting to get to the other side is a foreign concept in Mexico City. It’s not that drivers hate pedestrians (some of their best friends walk on the streets at times), but that they just don’t consider them on the same evolutionary level. Pedestrians are meant to respect cars like small mammals had to respect dinosaurs (perhaps dinosaurs also got a thrill from making smaller creatures scramble to safety to avoid being squashed).

The failure to recognize the existence and rights of pedestrians takes its toll on the local population. Traffic accidents in Mexico City represent the number one cause of non-natural death, though the ones who take the biggest hit are the pedestrians. Each day, two pedestrians are killed by motorized vehicles (mostly between three and six in the afternoon), and they are also the main cause of handicapped and physically challenged people within the city.

In these traffic wars, however, pedestrians are not totally defenseless. Pedestrians in Mexico City have on their side el tope (the speed bump). In theory, speed bumps, whether they are concrete humps, metal lumps or cautionary ribbed-concrete vibrators, are designed to slow cars down and give people a chance to cross the street. Speed bumps do a lot of things in Mexico City, but helping pedestrians safely get to the other side really isn’t one of them.

Drivers see speed bumps as an impediment to their liberty and the pursuit of happiness (getting out of the horrible city traffic as quickly as possible makes people happy), and thus they tend to brake at the last second, bump up and over as fast as they can (risking their muffler and suspension), and then floor the accelerator, making up for time lost. Many people don’t even see the speed bump (most but not all have yellow stripes) until it’s too late to brake.

There are around 18 thousand speed bumps in Mexico City (there are two on my street), most built by the City government, often using forced labor of prison inmates. There are thousands of other speed bumps, though, that were constructed by nervous neighbors to protect their children and dogs and discourage cars from racing down their street. There are also speed bumps that, like the tiny crosses sunk in the sidewalks around the city to commemorate loved ones lost in traffic accidents, seek to prevent future tragic deaths. Most speed bumps are set up at dangerous crosswalks or in front of schools and hospitals, but others tend to pop up in strange places, such as inside tunnels or beneath pedestrian crosswalks. While the official speed bumps are of a standard height, the unofficial ones can be vindictively high and steep. Although it is illegal to disrupt traffic in any way, especially in a permanent way, thousands of illegal speed bumps remain on the streets.

Cars drive an average of 10 kilometers a day in Mexico City, passing over a speed bump approximately once every kilometer. Speed bumps that slow down vehicles, often on wide avenues designed for high-speed traffic, lead to even greater traffic problems in a city that is plagued by traffic (as the joke goes, the highway that rings the city becomes the world’s largest parking lot during rush hour).

México City has one of the highest concentrations of cars in the world (more than double that of Los Angeles), and it also has the slowest average speed of circulation of all major cities (the average speed in Mexico City is around 22 kilometers per hour, less than half of that of Los Angeles). Speed bumps tend to interfere with people’s desire for speed, and thus to frustrate and aggravate both the traffic problems and the mental state of the drivers. As those with money tend to buy expensive, powerful vehicles to help liberate themselves from urban problems like traffic, the difference between their vehicle’s potential velocity and the actual rate of traffic movement leads to road rage and class hatred (old, poorly tuned cars are still the majority on the roads).

Due to the effects of the thousands of topes located throughout the city, over one hundred thousand extra liters of gas are consumed each day in Mexico City, generating an addition cost of around 25 million dollars each year. Burning all that extra gas leads to 24 times more carbon monoxide and dioxide emissions. México City has one of the highest levels of toxic emissions in the world (almost seven times that of Los Angeles), principally due to the exhausts of private cars. The pollutants belched out each day by vehicle exhausts, representing around 80% of the city’s air pollution, lead to widespread respiratory diseases and more than 4 thousand premature deaths each year, mainly among children and senior citizens.

In most cultures, speed is equivalent to modernity and social progress. The speed bump, which represents a social backlash against unbridled speed and its fatal consequences, also takes its tolls on the population of the city. In any case, despite whether it’s part of the problem or part of the solution, el tope has become an essential urban icon in the daily bump-and-grind of driving in Mexico City.

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