Every day, whether rain or shine or alarming smog, Jesús Thomé drives his taxi around Mexico City, experiencing firsthand how air pollution affects his health.
Through his 12-hour shifts, as he maneuvers traffic jam after traffic jam in North America’s most populous megacity, he notices how his throat gets progressively dry and sore. His nose gets stuffy, too, as his skin feels covered with a coating that doesn’t feel like sweat. He doesn’t have to be an expert to understand that smog is responsible. He’s lived in Mexico City all his life. He knows the dense fog he sees covering the city when driving in higher-altitude areas is air pollution. He even knows that cars like his are mostly to blame.
“Yes, it’s worrisome,” the 55-year-old told ThinkProgress in Spanish, “but we can’t work on anything else.” He can’t even take a full day off. If anything, Thomé said, he works four hours on Sundays because the 500 pesos or $30 he earns daily are too important with the last of his three children still in college.
Thomé is just one driver of more than 6.8 million cars circulating Mexico City’s metropolitan area. These vehicles are now under an emergency car driving ban that took effect Tuesday and will last until June when the rainy season and winds pick up, ameliorating air pollution. Under this new program, all privately owned cars must remain off the streets one day per week in addition to one Saturday per month. Until now, vehicles were exempt from Mexico City’s “no circulation” or “Hoy No Circula” rules if owners had a holographic sticker certifying their cars were low emitters.
Two weeks ago officials issued a Phase 1 emergency for high ozone levels. While ozone is good as a protective layer in the stratosphere, ground-level ozone is harmful for humans, plants and the ecosystem. Ozone is also Mexico City’s biggest air pollution problem. Not since New Year’s of 2005 had the city issued a Phase 1 pollution warning for ozone.
For more than 40 years the now fourth-largest city in the world has struggled with air pollution that studies and experts said is mostly caused by vehicle emissions in conjunction with the city’s geography. Pollution gets trapped in Mexico City’s volcano-ringed valley, as the high altitude reduces the efficiency of vehicles’ internal combustion engines, and generates larger amounts of pollutants into the atmosphere. Vehicles are responsible for more than 80 percent of atmospheric contaminants, including 50 percent of ozone precursors and some 98 percent of carbon monoxide.
Yet after growing from fewer than 3 million people in 1950 to nearly 21 million as of the most recent figures show, Mexico City’s notoriously polluted air had been improving. Aside from implementing driving restrictions in 1989, during the 1990s, the government strengthened emission inspection rules that put old cars off the streets, pushed for lead-free gasoline, catalytic converters, and a reduction of sulfur in diesel fuel. In 2013, it became the first Latin American country to introduce a vehicle fuel efficiency standard, which reduces both fuel consumption and tailpipe emissions.
Meanwhile, however, the government also pressed on big budget projects like double deck freeways and other road expansions that created years of construction work for companies but incentivized car use. What’s more, people learned to avoid driving restrictions by bribing emission checkers, purchasing stickers or buying a second or third car. And last year, a Supreme Court decision overturned a rule banning cars over eight years old from the streets one day a week, partly because it said the rule adversely impacted the poor. The ruling put an extra 1.4 million vehicles back on the roads each day, according to the Associated Press.
Experts reached said the new measures, while a good first step, won’t be enough unless the government seriously invests in public mass transit.
“The vehicle fleet grew enormously in the last nine years,” said Salvador Medina, a Mexico City-based urban economist, in an interview with ThinkProgress. He explained that in 2005 the city had less than 4 million cars, a figure according to his calculations has almost doubled since then. Medina said funding needs to create better mass transit in the State of Mexico, the area surrounding the metropolitan area, since it has only 17 percent of public transport roadway but holds 60 percent of its people. “The driving program itself generates problematic incentives,” Medina said. “It’s just a temporary measure.”
Thalia Hernandez, an environmental economist who’s worked for the state, agreed and said public planning needs to occur soon or else attitudes won’t change. Hernandez said that as it is, the rapid transit system the city instituted in the mid-2000s has been saturated almost since the get-go. “Measures can’t be isolated, transportation is part of the holistic dynamic of the megalopolis,” Hernandez told ThinkProgress in Spanish.
Mexico City is just one of the latest megacities, that is, cities with 10 million or more people, managing dangerous pollution levels in the last year. In December, the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection and China Meteorological Administration issued red alerts of heavy air pollution for Beijing twice. Back then schools closed, construction halted, and driving restrictions were put in place. And last March, Paris said the number of cars permitted to drive in the city would be reduced by half in an effort to fight a “pollution emergency.” Paris did this as it surpassed pollution levels seen in China and India’s heavily-industrialized cities
Alvaro Osornio, who’s studied Mexico City’s air pollution and its health effects, said the Mexican experience describes not just the problem of human-caused pollution, but also how human-caused climate change affects pollution. “Weather patterns have been changing in Mexico City,” Osornio, a professor at Alberta University, told ThinkProgress in Spanish. “So when we thought that just by controlling vehicular traffic we would beat the problem, we ended up discovering that many more variables are at play.”
Heat waves in Mexico City are on the rise while Mexico in general has suffered extreme droughts, according to studies and published reports. And a combination of warm and dry weather is more likely to turn emissions into harmful ozone, which in turn can cause respiratory and cardiac problems.
According to the most recent Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study, air pollution causes more deaths than malnutrition, obesity, alcohol and drug abuse, and unsafe sex. About 5.5 million people prematurely died in 2013 because of indoor and outdoor air pollution.
“We can’t lower our guard when it comes to pollution. We need to stay put,” said Osornio.
Thomé, the taxi driver, also wants pollution to decrease and the government to take action, and yet when asked about the driving ban he hesitates because it means he won’t be able to work on Thursdays, and one Saturday per month — both good business days. At first, he was told that there would be an exception, he said. But that exception only allows him to operate during the morning rush hour. “I will be affected,” he said, “and that means less food on the table, less money for my daughter’s college and less money for gas.”