Cash-strapped Mexico City is pressing ahead with new bus lines and bike lanes in 2010, buoyed by prestigious recognition for a world-class transit system that has reduced pollution in one of the globe's largest cities.
"We hope that Mexico City will inspire other cities around the world to embrace environmentally sustainable programs," said Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, who visited Harvard University this week to accept the Roy Family Award for Environmental Partnerships for the city's 4-year-old Metrobus system.
Funded with tax revenues and World Bank loans, the bus rapid transit corridor opened in 2005 along 12 miles (19 kilometers) of one of Mexico City's busiest boulevards, supplementing an overloaded, aging subway.
Today the system is three times as long, and more than 450,000 people ride each day for $0.40 to $0.75 a ticket, an affordable price for middle-class residents who make up the bulk of users.
"They're a calmer way to travel through the city," said university student Aaron Arredondo, waiting on a platform Thursday to catch a bus to school. "If they keep expanding, it's just going to get better."
Metrobus general manager Guillermo Calderon Aguilera said Thursday that Metrobus has improved the quality of life here and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 80,000 tons.
"Not just for the atmosphere of Mexico City, but for the planet," Calderon said.
A notoriously congested metropolis with more than 20 million residents and 6 million cars, Mexico City was named the world's most polluted city by the United Nations in 1992.
Since then, pollution has been reined in by public transporation, bike lanes and limits on when cars can be on the road. But the city still struggles with chronic smog and gridlock.
This year's global cash crunch hit Mexico hard, forcing the capital to cancel events including a massive Day of the Dead gathering and putting planned public transit improvements in jeopardy.
Mayor Ebrard said Thursday he has struggled to keep public services operating during tough financial times, and the Harvard environmental award came at a crucial moment.
"The recognition came at a good time," he said. "We need great courage and resolve in 2010 to be sure that not all projects slow down," he said, committing to major Metrobus extensions.
That's good news for residents, who were forced to endure antiquated buses that took two hours to travel the length of the north-south Insurgentes thoroughfare before Metrobus was installed along the route. Benefiting from dedicated lanes and subway-like boarding platforms, the new buses now make the same journey in less than an hour.
The clean, quiet buses have also removed 839 of the city's 28,000 minibuses, known as "peseros," from city streets, reduced traffic accidents by 30 percent in the area Metrobus serves and encouraged an estimated 6 percent shift from private vehicles to public transport.
Cyclists are allowed to use the Metrobus lanes as well, encouraging emission-free commutes.
Similar transit systems are now in the works for several other major Mexican cities.