What, Me Worry?
When you are a tourist in a place like Mexico City, especially if you are not from a big city yourself, you might be tempted to take taxis or ubers everywhere you go. These options certainly are pretty user-friendly, and when you are confronted with a map like the one below, you could quite easily throw up your hands and shake your head…Figuring that out might seem like too much work, and you are on vacation. The back of the uber seems so cozy and safe, and in light of the rumored ‘crush of humanity’ that awaits you below, a private ride seems altogether worth it. And they are pretty affordable, after all…
But, when you are planning to live in a city, you have to figure out how to live your actual life in that city (as opposed to swanning around like Ava Gabor in Green Acres) – vacation/tourist mode can’t be sustained for ever, and unless you have lots of disposable income to spend on transportation, you will eventually have to get on the train. And once you do, you will never look back.
Why are people so freaked out about the Metro? If you are planning a trip to Mexico City and have been looking into public transportation as an option, maybe you are freaked out too – the fear-mongering about the Metro on the travel boards can leave you with the impression that a being a gringo on the Metro is akin to being a lamb led to slaughter. Seemingly savvy travelers will tell you that their friend was robbed, their pockets were picked, their senses were assaulted, their personal space was violated…
I won’t deny there is an element of risk involved in taking the Metro (or any mass transit system in any city anywhere in the world), but over the next few posts, I hope I can take the edge off a bit with what I hope is a relatively balanced overview of the good, the bad, and the ugly…
The Good – and there is a lot of it…
Affordability – from the perspective of the tourist or expat, the Metro is practically free. 5 pesos (less than 25 cents CDN) will get you to any one of the 195 stations in a system with 12 lines and over 200 km of track. That is nothing to sniff at. Let me give you one example of how that stacks up against taxi fares while visiting Mexico City as tourists: on Day 1, we took a hotel taxi at morning rush hour between point A and B, and paid 200 pesos. The same day, we took a sitio taxi in the afternoon rush hour from point B to point A and paid 120 pesos. On day 2, taking the Metro the return trip between points A and B for two people was a total of 20 pesos. A bag of chips at Oxxo will run you about the same.
Ease of use – despite the scary map, the Metro is very user-friendly in terms of figuring out how to get where you are going. The first lines were built in the 60s when illiteracy levels were much higher than they are today – in order to make the system accessible, the different lines are colour-coded, and individual stations have distinctive symbols. Signs in the stations leading to the different lines use the same colour-coding. Trains are signed with the name of the last station on the line in the direction that the train is going. Once you know what station you want to go to, you just follow the signs in that colour, and then take the train going in the direction you want to go. It doesn’t sound like it should be that easy, but it really is. Tickets can be purchased at the station in whatever number you want – simply tell the agent how many you want and slide the money under the bar. When you walk to the turnstile, you simply insert the ticket into the reader and walk through. Easy peasy! If your Español is up to snuff, you can visit the official website here. And, if you don’t want to draw attention to yourself with a fold-out paper map, you might want to draw attention to yourself using this nifty Metro app on your smartphone!
Coverage – DF is a massive city, and the Metro can get you reasonably close to much of it. It is not as comprehensive as, say, the London Tube with stations on practically every corner in the city core, and some areas are definitely under-serviced. That said, considering that the area of DF itself (excluding its metropolitan areas) is almost 1500 sq km, the coverage is pretty remarkable. The Metro is supplemented by other mass transit systems, including a bus and surface trains.
Time – Traffic in DF is beyond ‘jammed’ at rush hour, and rush hour lasts most of the day. There have been some significant improvements in the past few years as a result of government programs to encourage bicycle use and mass transit, but it is still ‘Carmaggedon’ almost always. In the example I shared above, the A-B taxi ride at rush hour took about 90 minutes, much of which was spent at a standstill. The Metro ride the next day was 20 minutes. ‘Nuff said.
Environmentally friendly(er) – mass transit just makes sense in a city that has been choked by exhaust fumes for too long, and the declining air pollution in DF since the government started to support alternative transportation methods speaks for itself (excluding recent emergencies, sadly).
Experience – the Metro could be considered a tourist destination in and of itself, if you are interested in exploring the city under the city. There is no better way to get to know a place than by jumping in and finding your bearings. My exploration of DF by Metro is only beginning, but I will take inspiration from Andrew W. Davies’ Mexico City Metro Project, in which he wonderfully documents his visit to each station on the system, and the surrounding neighbourhoods. I highly recommend you check it out here. Maria Altobelli offers another great and thoughtful tour-de-force type article on the Metro experience here.
So there’s that. But you know the bad is coming…
Any images that are not my own are used with permission according to the terms of their Creative Commons License – click on the image to go to the source.
El Zocalo Metro, by Chris DeNunio,
Mexico City Metro Map, by Battroid Mysid
Streetfood in subway, Mexico City, by Michal Sänger
Shhh dejen dormir, by -alice-