A couple of weeks ago, I had my first experience using the microbús in Mexico City. 14 million trips are made each day in this privately-operated but subsidized mode of transportation. However, when you check on Google Maps to see how to arrive to your destination, these routes do not appear, as the routes, schedules and stops are not documented. An ongoing initiative in Mexico City, Mapatón, is starting to map these routes, by involving citizens via a mobile application for Android that makes mapping a kind of urban game.
On the day of my first experience using a microbús, I was on my way to a meeting at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in the Lomas de Sante Fe, a rather affluent and low-density neighbourhood in the western part of Mexico City. In the morning of my meeting, I googled the address and checked the route on Google Maps. The result was a trip of 1.5 hours, though it would only take 45 minutes by car, to cover the 20km from my house to the research center. I wondered if there was a better way of getting there, so I sent an e-mail to the professor I was going to visit. He said he did not know how to arrive by public transit and suggested I take an UBER. My boyfriend also suggested I take an UBER. However, determined to figure out how to reach the CIDE by public transportation, as the many other people who cross Mexico City each day by public transportation, I checked CIDE’s website and found instructions: “From the metro station Tacubaya, get on a microbús or bus to whichever of the following destinations: Cuajimalpa, Navidad, Chimalpa, Acopilco”. No bus number, no schedule, no stop. No problem.
I left my house and I took the metro to Tacubaya. As I left the station, I followed the signs to the exit and arrived in the street, surrounded by street venders, no sidewalks and a mass of traffic, including dozens of buses. I scanned the area and quickly saw a bus with the destination “Cuajimalpa”. Perfect, I thought. That was easy. I walked over to the bus and asked the man standing outside if it would stop at the CIDE. Unsure, he asked the driver who, after a slight hesitation, said yes. I got on, paid 5.50 pesos (combined with the metro, the total cost of the trip was 10.50 pesos, less than a Canadian dollar, compared to 140 pesos to take an UBER) and sat down near the front of the bus.
Knowing that the stops are not announced, I got out my phone to follow our path on Google Maps. This is an important challenge to using public transportation in Mexico City, as you have to know the route and the place you are getting off, otherwise you can easily miss your stop. This makes wayfinding difficult, which I believe also contributes to a sense of insecurity. Luckily, I had Google Maps and followed our progression on my screen.
It took us a long time just to get away from the metro station, the traffic was so heavy. As we pulled away, someone banged on the back side of the bus, causing the bus to stop and let him on. As we pulled away, a young man began to sell chocolates. When he finished, two young men got on the bus and played music as we moved slowly through the heavy CDMX traffic. I smiled and thought it was appropriate that, stuck in the Mexico City traffic, under the sun’s hot rays, we were being serenaded with some live, acoustic music (little did I know that after two more weeks of taking public transportation in Mexico I would grow tired of the incessant solicitation). As the musicians finished their performance and thanked us for our “cooperación” (i.e. donation), they got off and we continued on the way to the CIDE. The sun was shining directly into my side of the bus. It was so strong that the woman sitting in front of me used her scarf to cover her and her son’s faces.
As we approached my destination, I stood up and asked the bus driver to let me out. There was no official stop, no bus shelter, but when I said I wanted to get out, the bus driver pulled over and let me out of the bus. As I got out, I looked around and noticed I was on the side of a highway. A bit disoriented, I checked my map. It turned out my destination was on the other side of the highway. Great! I looked up from my phone and over to the left and saw the building faintly behind a large fence. I then noticed a pedestrian overpass about ten meters in front of me. I walked towards it and used it to cross the busy arterial road. Arriving on the other side, I entered the campus of the CIDE: An impressive, modern sett of buildings, cut off from the world outside, with a beautiful view on Sante Fe. I had arrived at my destination in just about an hour – 30 minutes faster than Google estimated – thanks to a system of public transportation whose premise route, schedule and stops remain a mystery.