Mexico City’s Housing and Commuter Crisis

As Acute as These Problems Are in the U.S., CDMX Has It Much Worse
October 23, 2019

Americans who follow urban issues know about the long commutes—or even “super-commutes”—that plague our cities. Average commute times in New York, Boston, and D.C. exceed 30 minutes, and in the worst-case scenarios 2 hours. Drivers there lose, depending on the metropolis, around 150 hours per year to congestion, according to Inrix. I’ve written in this column about the government-related factors, such as lack of road pricing and infill housing, that causes the problem, and the hardship this inflicts.

But it turns out we have things good.

In Mexico City (CDMX), where I visited recently, super-commuting is common for the working- and middle-class, rather than the plight of an unlucky few. Drivers spend an average of 218 hours per year in congestion. Many workers spend 4, 6, or even 8 hours daily net on their commutes.

A typical scenario is that of Angie Cedillo, a resident I met. She lives in a distant western suburb and works a white-collar job in Polanco, one of CDMX’s nicest areas and main finance centers. She commutes by public transit, spending most of her time on the Metrobus but transferring along the way. She’d prefer to live in Polanco and walk to work, but can’t dream of that due to the high prices.

Her situation is common in CDMX because the city is, in many ways, a bigger, more extreme version of U.S. metropolitan areas. It’s the epitome of “dense sprawl”, a moniker often used to describe Los Angeles. CDMX has 8.9 million people living in 573 square miles, with another 12.3 million living in the suburbs. This means the residential density, while high, is much lower than New York City. Instead CDMX spreads across a patchwork of low-to-mid-rise multi-family housing that surrounds a mono-centric job market; four central districts contain 53 percent of the jobs but 19 percent of the population.

This setup, by its very geographical nature, forces long commutes—lots of people from all around are going to the same place. And while the percentage of commuters who take public transit is high, personal car ownership is also soaring. This jams up the roads for single-occupancy vehicles and buses alike, and contributes to CDMX’s ongoing air pollution.

Looking over CDMX’s “dense sprawl” from my outbound plane.

The first thing to understand about this problem is that there’s no easy fix. When a metropolis has 21.2 million people, limited space, and limited resources to build more roads and rail, there’s just going to be traffic. One answer would be congestion pricing, but that won’t be politically popular in a city of limited incomes. Another answer is land-use changes: rather than continuing to be a relatively low-rise city, CDMX could build up. Today, there are only 16 towers above 600ft, compared to 140 in New York City. With more centrally-located construction, at least some residents would have the opportunity to live closer to work.

But turns out there’s political resistance to this that would be all-too-familiar to U.S. urbanites. One is institutional: the Mexico City government, fitting the stereotype of governance at large in this developing world nation, is riddled with cronyism, graft, and regulatory uncertainty, with building prospects hinging on political connections. Interestingly, a recent effort by Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum to enforce the regulatory code, so as to improve consistency, caused a megaproject to fall through and has cooled construction at large, according to a Bloomberg report.

Then there is the grassroots Nimbyism, which, like in America, comes from multiple parties. Anti-gentrification activists oppose development, arguing that it will help whites of European heritage displace Indigenous people. Anti-growth activists, many of them homeowners, don’t want to see changes to neighborhood character.

Other factors work to prevent construction, some of them uncommon in the U.S. Frequent earthquakes necessitate stricter building codes, which adds to construction costs. The lower incomes in Mexico mean there’s less demand to support vertical construction, which generally serves the higher-end of the housing market. In many ways the federal government itself encourages dispersion, such as its program to build suburban housing throughout Mexico.

Together these factors have made CDMX dense yet sprawling; transit-oriented yet choked by the automobile, and “urban” but relatively low-rise. This unique form has created a traffic and commuting nightmare. To fix it, Mexico City will need to change how it looks and gets around.