From: Mark Stevenson, Associated Press
Published June 23, 2005 12:00 AM

New Rapid-Bus Transit System Draws Catcalls, Cheers in Mexico City

MEXICO CITY — Mexico City's introduction of a trolley-like, dedicated-lane bus line has become a closely watched experiment in mass transit and a tough tests for popular Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Rushed into service before it was fully ready, the bus line is intended to reduce pollution and improve public transport in a city whose streets are jammed by a chaotic system of privately operated minibuses.

It was also intended as a project for the masses, to balance Lopez Obrador's record of building huge double-decker expressways for car owners, who are an affluent minority in this city of 8.5 million.

Since the service opened Sunday, about 75 articulated buses have struggled to take the place of hundreds of smoke-spewing, privately operated jitney vans and buses.

But projections that the new buses could move more passengers with fewer vehicles proved optimistic.


City officials attributed the crowding to increased ridership caused by the novelty and free rides offered during the introductory period.

"It took less time on the old buses," said Mariana Benitez, a 24-year-old cook, describing service on her commute to a restaurant job in the city's center as "bad."

During morning rush hour in the city's poorer, more densely packed north, she said, "the buses are very crowded, and you have to wait to find space," sometimes watching as several packed buses go by.

That's not the kind of thing that a self-described champion of the poor such as Lopez Obrador likes to hear.

Sensitive to criticism in the best of times -- and convinced that some media outlets and political commentators are biased against him -- he has brushed off criticism of untrained drivers, unfinished stations and poor planning that turned minor problems like flat tires into major snarls.

"Things are getting back to normal and happiness is on its way," Lopez Obrador said, making use of his presidential campaign slogan. He leads in polls on the 2006 presidential race, but continued poor performance by the buses could hurt him.

Local media gave heavy coverage to incidents like flat tires, breakdowns, a woman whose ankle was sprained when a door closed on it and another who apparently bruised her calf in the gap between a bus and the station floor.

People who don't have to battle for space at rush hour say the project works pretty well, as long as motorists don't try to drive in the exclusive bus lanes.

"It actually moves along pretty fast, when drivers don't invade the lane," said student David Segura, 28.

The mayor's fervent followers -- some of whom attended the Sunday inauguration carrying signs reading, "We Support You, Andres Manuel" -- denounced critics as impatient and ill-intentioned.

But even those who defend the buses -- similar systems have worked in Curitiba, Brazil, and Bogota, Colombia -- acknowledge that the rushed inauguration of Mexico City's system displayed some of Lopez Obrador's weak points.

Loath to consult with others, share credit or admit mistakes, the mayor often treats such projects more as personal causes than urban planning decisions.

"The haste in inaugurating this service is inadmissible in terms of public service and is only understandable in terms of political interests and propaganda," the newspaper La Jornada wrote in an editorial.

Known as "bus rapid transit" systems, the buses are supposed to provide subway-like service at a fraction of the initial construction cost, but in Mexico City, they also took away two lanes of streets previously used by cars.

Source: Associated Press

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