The Mexican Tianguis: Outside a metro, inside IKEA or in someone’s office?

It has been over a month since I left Mexico City. After walking the streets, riding the metro and lingering in the spaces of this 20-million-person megalopolis for just over four months, I began to understand how the use of public space is unique, that is, the understanding of the purpose that public space should serve is different than the common North American or European conception.

For instance, public space in Mexico City often serves a commercial function. This is not uncommon in cities, which have always served as centres of trade. However, while many cities in Canada and Europe have highly controlled commercial activity in the public realm (e.g. sidewalks, parks, squares), you can buy just about anything in the streets of Mexico City.

In my first few weeks, I was overwhelmed by the street vendors. Upon exiting a metro station, you often enter a labyrinth of kiosks and stalls, where you can buy anything from socks to DVDs to tacos. It feels a bit like being in IKEA – you need to pass each and every stall before you reach the street, continuing onto your destination. A European friend of mine once likened it to walking through the cave of Ali Baba.

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The line between stores and the sidewalk is blurred, as the sidewalk is covered with street-vendors (ambulantes), selling everything from food to socks to electronics.

While it can be relentless, one day as I walked through one such tianguis (the Mexican word for an open-air market), complaining that one could not escape commercial activities, I found myself perusing a table of socks and leaving with a cellphone cover. The thing is, while the presence of ambulantes (street-vendors) throughout the city can be overwhelming, people really do buy from them. Instead of heading to a high-street as in most of Europe, or a shopping mall in North America, people head for the market, the tianguis, even the metro. One morning, I asked my partner where I could buy bobby pins. Thinking he would respond the name of a store, instead he responded, “In the metro”. I was skeptical, but later that morning on my way to a meeting, a young woman entered my metro car selling bobby pins (and mini tubes of toothpaste!).

Between my house and the metro, the sidewalk was covered with street-vendors, as well as inside the metro station and even inside the metro cars, changing cars at each station. They sold snacks, cream for aches and pains and even a book about how to properly raise your children. This commercial activity in the public space is not just cultural and historical, though Mexico City has always been a center of trade, it is also the result of a large number of people having trouble getting formal work and therefore a substantial informal sector. Selling products in the public realm offers them a livelihood, but also turns public spaces effectively into workspaces.

While we may hear workplace and think of an office, a desk and computer, or perhaps shops and restaurants in the service industry, in Mexico the public realm is often a workplace.  One day, while walking through the Merced neighbourhood with a tour group from the United States, a quite inconsiderate member of the group held up a man who was transporting fruits in a large cart to let us pass, without giving any apologies, oblivious to the fact that he had just walked into that man’s office and disrupted his work.

These spaces are often also cared for like one’s office. Early in the morning, street-vendors sweep and wash the area they use for their business. Sometimes the stalls block the circulation of pedestrians, and once I even had to crouch down to keep walking, as two little old women had covered their stands with a tarp, exactly at their height, to create some much needed shade. They were designing and modifying their office.

While it can be frustrating to those trying to use the sidewalk to transit from one activity to the next, and while the public realm should remain public and accessible to everyone, these stalls sometimes create spaces to stay, to sit, and to enjoy the city, whether it is to eat a taco with your neighbours, buy your groceries, or chit-chat as you peruse a pile of socks. All this packed into the narrow sidewalk, overflowing onto the street, or in and around the metro.

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The Many Layers of Mexico City

Mexico City is spatially segregated; as in many cities, one can make assumptions about a stranger’s affluence by simply asking whereabouts they live. In the West lie the swanky neighborhoods of Polanco and Las Lomas, the hipster and gentrified La Roma and to the South, the formerly hippy, turned affluent and trendy, Coyoacán. To the East, traditionally live the poorer, marginalized, working-class, as is the case of Iztapalapa*.

While these social and economic divisions are evident in the spatial layout of the city, and where one lays their head down to sleep at night, during the day this dynamic is shaken and often several worlds meet in one space. This is especially true in the Historic Center. Take Anillo de Circunvalación, a boulevard on the edge of the Historic Center, with its mix of street vendors, clothing stores – and sex workers. While I often walked on this street, passing through, other young women, standing several meters apart, lingered, waiting. While for me Circunvalación was a weekend destination, a place to shop for inexpensive clothing, for these women it is a place of work, work they may not have chosen. A few streets over, Calle San Pablo sees young women interspersed between bike shops. While I used San Pablo to get to the metro, or to buy accessories for my bike, it is the workplace of these many women and street vendors.

The many layers of the city spread beyond the city center, to the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where one can observe students sitting, talking and sipping coffees on the vast campus as an older woman throws aside old coffee cups, sifting through the dumpsters for something valuable.

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The National Autonomous University of Mexico

The layered city continues in its palpably exclusionary establishments and pricing. For example, while some gyms cost only 500 pesos per month ($35), others cost upwards of 2500 ($171), with steep joining fees. These excessive prices are effective exclusionary measures, assuring that only a certain economic and social class can access the services, keeping the poor or middle-class outside, whilst living in the same, but oh so different, Mexico City.


* This is, of course, a generalization.

Feeling of Insecurity Exacerbating DF Congestion Problem?

Mexico City has a traffic congestion problem which results in a wide array of environmental, social and economic concerns, including air and noise pollution, high levels of stress, time lost transporting people and goods to their destinations and a generally negative effect on quality of life in the city.

While this congestion problem can be directly attributed to the sheer number of people living and moving around the city, I believe it also has some indirect origins: Perceptions of insecurity in public transportation, especially at night.

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Front part of the Metrobús in Mexico City: Reserved for women, children and people with disabilities.

While the proportion of trips made daily by personal vehicle was just 29% in 2007 (compared to 68.6% of trips taken by a combination of privately-operated and publicly-operated public transportation)*, and the use of the personal automobile stems from the massive scale of the city  (i.e. long distances between home and work) and a cultural preference for driving, I believe that this preference for personal transportation is also rooted in an underlying sense of insecurity in some parts of the city, a feeling that is then used to rationalize moving around by means of private transportation, be it personal automobile, taxi or UBER.

For example, one Friday night I made plans to go out with some friends in the Santa María la Ribera colonia of Mexico City. When I told my partner where I was going, he told me that I should not take public transportation to come home alone. Later that night, as we left the venue, two male friends asked me how I was getting home. When I responded that I would get a lift home with the same female friend that had driven me, they responded “Ok, good!” and proceeded to walk the both of us to the parking lot where we had left the car upon arriving. When I asked my female friend if she felt more comfortable going out at night if she was driving her car, she told me yes.

This sense of insecurity in the city, and particularly at night and for women, may have an important impact on mobility patterns – and it is not at all uncommon. For example, when I went to a dance class just ten minutes from my apartment and left to walk home around midnight, the goodbyes with the people I was with included “Ve con cuidado!” (Go with caution!). It has become as such ingrained in my mind that I am not safe when alone at night. Yes, perhaps these are just common sayings, like the vacuous “Hey, how are you?” that we use so often in North America, without pausing to hear the answer. However, it comes from somewhere, a general sense that the city is not a safe place.

I have been told since arriving in Mexico City:

– Don’t walk alone at night

– Don’t take the public transit at night. As soon as it is empty, do not take the metro or the metrobús

– Never take a taxi off the street. Call a cab or use UBER.

While this sense of insecurity is more prominent at night, therefore outside of peak hours and not necessity exacerbating the congestion problem directly, it creates a demand for personal transportation – a habit of driving or calling an UBER. Once an individual has purchased a car, the initial cost is sunk  and this is an important incentive to keep driving, as the only additional cost is gas (where there are no parking fees or tolls). If one’s tank is already full, the perceived cost of the trip is null.

Of course, several cities have implemented policies to make users perceive the cost of driving, such as congestion pricing in London, Singapore and Stockholm, or adjusting parking fees, including in Mexico City’s central neighbourhoods and more famously in San Francisco. However, once this sense of insecurity exists, it incites a reaction. For some, namely those with the financial means, it results in driving a personal vehicle. Perhaps it is initially used when traveling at night, or for long trips, but once a habit is developed and the initial, sunk cost of car ownership is incurred, without policies that discourage driving such as parking fees and tolls, the result is an increasing number of trips made by car.

This general sense of insecurity also helps UBER succeed famously in Mexico City, as taxi cabs are more expensive and are still recovering from a bad reputation for assaults and robberies in the city – and not everyone can afford a personal vehicle, or a place to park it.

I can understand that one response to all of this discussion of insecurity is to (at least want to) purchase and use a car to get around. If you are told over and over again that walking, taking public transit and grabbing a cab are all dangerous activities, it is not unthinkable that one would choose to drive. Thus, this state of (or at least sense of) insecurity leads to a further justification of using the personal vehicle and exacerbates the traffic congestion problem in the city. If we are to tackle the congestion problem, it is not only going to be by limiting the use of the car, improving public transportation or designing bicycle infrastructure. We must address this perception of insecurity and recognize its impact on mobility patterns in the city.

* INEGI, 2007 (Found in ONU-Habitat. (2015). Reporte Nacional de Movilidad Urbana en Mexico 2014-2015. Mexico City, Mexico).

Bref, I rode the Mexico City metro at rush hour

Before arriving to Mexico City, I had heard about how packed the public transportation was, but you never really understand something until you experience it yourself. During my third week in Mexico City, I was coming back from a meeting in the Bosque de las Lomas, 17km from my house, in the Western part of the city, an area poorly connected by public transportation. It took me over two hours to get back to my house.

First, I waited for the microbus near the location of my meeting. The stops are not indicated, so I walked along the large boulevard and asked in a local shop where the bus stopped. Following their instructions, I walked further along the road and found a small group of people waiting together, partly on the sidewalk and partly in the street. The first bus to arrive was so full that it passed right by. The second was almost as full and when I got in, I stood in the stairs for the first ten minutes before there was enough room to advance into the bus. I remained standing for the rest of the hour’s ride to the metro, squished up against and pressed between the other passengers, who, I imagined, make this same trip every day. I could not help but wonder what this would be like on a hot, summer day.

As we arrived at the metro, everyone got out of the bus. Relieved, I enjoyed the view of the Auditorio Nacional and made my way to the metro station. Little did I know then, this was just the beginning of my rush hour experience. Auditorio is in Polanco, a neighbourhood full of offices. As I arrived around 7pm, I was joined by the throng of people finishing their workdays and heading towards the metro and home.

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Auditorio Nacional, Polanco

I entered the metro and made it to the platform. The platform was full of people when I arrived, but little did I know it would become even fuller. I walked to the front of the platform, the area that is usually reserved for women and children during peak hours. Normally it is closed off and guarded by a police officer. That day it was not blocked off, which meant that the area was awash with women and men alike.

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Sign stating that this part of the metro is reserved for women and children.

When the metro pulled up to the platform it was already full. As the doors opened, a few people exited and a mass of others tried to enter, although only a couple were successful in squeezing in before the doors closed. The doors closed and opened again several times, as various parts of people’s bodies, their clothing or their belongings were stuck in the door. Finally, once all the doors closed, the metro pulled away, packed to capacity.

This process repeated itself over and over. More and more people arrived on the platform and the metros arriving remained just as full. Each time the metro arrived, people exited at the same time as others tried to enter, pushing each other, those entering lifting their bags over their heads to take up less space.

No matter how close I got to the edge of the platform, I couldn’t manage to get into the metro. I got shoved and remained standing on the platform. It also felt very unsafe, as there were so many people behind me and packed in so tightly, I was afraid to get pushed onto the tracks below.

I was amazed by how calm most people remained. I guess if you do this every day it becomes a normal part of your commute. As it was my first time stuck in this rush hour traffic, I was very agitated, but, deciding that I was in no rush (and valued my life), I stood back against the wall and waited for the traffic to die down. Forty minutes later, the platform was just as full, as were the arriving metros. I decided I would try to enter again. I made my way, closer and closer, until I was right beside the edge of the platform. As the metro arrived and the doors opened, a women behind me tried to push in front of me to get into the metro. Realizing there was no other way to get into the metro, I pushed back (just a little, I promise), and got absorbed into the mass of people inside the metro. Holding my purse above the crowd, I stood, not needing to hold onto anything, as I was completely crammed between the other passengers.

I rode the metro for a few stops before needing to change lines. Saying “Con permiso!” loudly and pushing my way towards the door, I emerged onto the platform and into the crowd of people walking in the station. The crowd was so thick, that I could only take small steps forward, following the signs and the people to the next platform. Luckily, this one was not as busy and I managed to get into the metro and arrive at my destination in just a few minutes. Emerging from the metro, I was desperate to get out of the crowd in the station and along Avenida Insurgentes. I walked quickly and entered my neighbourhood, making my way home. I arrived at my door and checked the time: It was after 8:00pm, over two hours had passed since I left my appointment in Las Lomas de Sante Fe.

Bref, I rode the metro in Mexico City.

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Adventures in Mexico City: Being a woman in public space

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Coyoacán neighbourhood of Mexico City and the Frida Kahlo museum, in typical tourist style. As I am still getting used to the city and applying to jobs, I have had some time to wander around and get to know the city.

I realized something about Mexico City that week, that I had not noticed before, as I am usually with my boyfriend or other friends: Women are not supposed to be alone in public spaces. At least, this is how you are made to feel. Allow me to explain.

As I left the museum, I walked towards the city center of Coyoacán. I had already been to this neighbourhood and I knew where I was going; the center was less than 20 minutes by foot. However, I was asked many times by idling taxi drivers if I needed a lift. When I did not respond, thinking I didn’t speak Spanish, they asked me in English. I kept walking, explaining that I simply did not need a cab.

Arriving in the main square of Coyoacán, I walked around and eventually went to eat in a nearby café. A small parenthesis here, but if you sit outside in cafés in Mexico City, you will be asked over and over again if you want gum, cigarettes or someone to read their poetry to you (no jokes). As I was sitting many musicians arrived, performed for a bit and left, asking for our “cooperation” (i.e. donation). I enjoy music, and I do not mind being offered things in the street, but it can be incessant, and as a woman by herself, it can be uncomfortable, as I am the easiest person to approach; it is much easier to approach a single person than a group.

After leaving the café, I decided to walk around the plaza and the park and sat down by myself on a bench. In the space of a few minutes, a man had come over to me. He was selling small bracelets and, exasperated, I said immediately that I was not interested. He got angry, saying that I should listen to him. I explained I just wanted to sit alone, quietly, I am sorry, but I am not interested. He got angrier, told me I was in Coyoacán and if I wanted to be alone I could go home, or back to my own country (Spain. Apparently I am from Spain. As a side note, I was slightly elated in this moment for him thinking I was Spanish and not noticing my accent).

He eventually left. In the moments after the encounter, I looked around me and realized that there were no other women alone in the plaza. It was not late, about 6pm. However, the park was full of small groups, couples, mothers and their children, and some men by themselves, but no women. There is a part of it that I enjoy: People do not sit alone, but rather carry out their daily activities with their family, friends and loved ones. However, as a women who is new to the city and who does not yet know many people, it can be uncomfortable, as I inevitably end up alone at times, but still want to experience the city.

I told a few people about this experience afterwards and they explained that it is perceived as harsh or aggressive to say “no” straight away in Mexico. This is especially true for women, who are expected to play along.

The square in Coyoacán is not the only place where it is an issue to be a woman. In Parque México there is a gang of adolescents who sell cupcakes. It seems benign at first, but it becomes very annoying if you regularly pass through the space. One day, when I said, “no, I am not hungry”, the boy responded, “qué linda!”, ironically, suggesting that I was being unfriendly. In addition, many streets in Mexico City are very poorly lit at night, making it very uncomfortable to walk alone. This does not only apply to women, but is especially relevant to them.

I think it is true to say that in many parts* of Mexico City, women cannot use the public realm in the same way that men can, and if they try, it is considered dangerous, or unfriendly. Dangerous, when she walks alone on poorly lit streets, and unfriendly, when she tries to sit alone in a public space and read, make a phone call or just be.

* This is not a rule. There are some spaces that I have felt comfortable in, and there are many men who respect women in the public realm. However, it happens often enough and for this reason I have decided to write about it.

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Plaza Jardín Hidalgo, Coyoacán

Defensive Walking in Mexico City

Less than six months ago, when we were still living in Brussels, my partner (Guillén) warned me that I could not walk around Mexico City in the same way I had in Europe. That day, as we approached an intersection, I quickly continued into the crosswalk, pulling him along with me. We stepped into the intersection seconds before a car, forcing the driver to stop and allow us to pass. Guillén reminded me again, “Please, do not do that in Mexico”. So, I was well-prepared for the almost complete and utter disregard for pedestrians and crosswalks here in CDMX.

I am very careful when I walk in the city. I try not to be distracted (i.e. look at my phone) as I walk, and I always stop and look before crossing, even if there is a pedestrian crossing. Why? Because cars rarely stop. It is a bit comical, as many crosswalks are wide and portray a walking pedestrian – or several (see image below). However, cars roll through intersections looking straight through pedestrians and crosswalks. The only time a car yields or stops is for another automobile.

There are many issues at hand, that I am just beginning to understand. For one, until very recently there was no test to obtain a driver’s license and no mandatory theoretical or practical classes. Yes, that means that people just bought a license and a car and started to drive without any training. Sounds dangerous? It is.

Also, for safety reasons, at night cars do not have to stop at red lights. Of course, this is intended to keep drivers and passengers safe from robbery or assault, but it makes the roads more dangerous for pedestrians, roads that are already poorly lit.

One final problem I notice is the urban design. Oftentimes, the stopline of cars is in front of where pedestrians are coming from. This means that as a pedestrian, if I want to cross in front of cars, I am coming from behind them. Already, cars are not expecting pedestrians and do not stop for the pedestrians they see clearly in front of them, so imagine what it feels like to be a pedestrian in a crosswalk where the drivers cannot even see you coming.

Personal anecdote: I was once in the middle of Avenido Río Churubusco and wanted to cross the street to buy water at the 7Eleven. I could actually find no safe way of crossing the road and so did not go to the 7Eleven. Churubusco is an extreme example, with its heavy and highspeed traffic and lack of places to cross. However, it is evident that much of the city was built without thinking about the people who walk its streets. The design and regulations aim to address traffic congestion and dangers on the road, but ignore the safety of pedestrians.

This will hopefully change soon with the new Mobility Law in the city.

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Adventures in Mexico City: Riding the metro

On my way to the metro, I walk by a car wash that is playing salsa music and a taco restaurant that is playing Gente de Zona’s La Gozadera. Yes, I live in Mexico City, a.k.a. Distrito Federal.

I walk along Avenida Insurgentes to the metro, trying to walk quickly in a crowd of people who take smaller strides. I miss Europe for a moment, and then decide I have to slow down and get used to the pace of Mexico City.

I step over a few holes and cracks in the irregular sidewalk.

I pass street vendors selling everything from breakfast to mobile phone accessories to shoe-shining .

I enter the metro station; people continue to sell food and drinks inside.

I wait on the platform and there is a poster welcoming the Pope to Mexico – he arrived this weekend.

I get on the metro.

People are still selling things:

A man selling a book called “Porque te amo, te educo” (Because I love you, I educate you), a psychology book about how to raise your child well

A man selling a music album, naming each and every song on the album

A young girl selling gum and candy

A man selling Kleenex – Guillén needs Kleenex, so he buys some

A man selling Kit Kat – Guillén says it can’t be real Kit Kat.

I look around, most people are sitting or standing, looking at their phones.

I count 8 women applying mascara. One woman is applying mascara the entire time I am on the metro with her. I wonder how many tubes of mascara she goes through per month.

I exit the metro and take the escalator.

Everyone stands on the escalator. I cannot walk up. For a moment, I miss the natural order of the Montreal metro: Standers on the right, walkers on the left. Again, I decide to embrace the way it is done here and I stand.

I see a sign at the top of the elevator that says “Goodbye DF, hello CDMX” – Mexico City has a new name.

I live in CDMX.

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