Adventures in Mexico City: My First Trip by Microbús

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View on Santa Fe from the CIDE

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.

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Bis bald, Wien!

Tango im Burggarten

Tango im Burggarten

It has been awhile since I last blogged about my studies and travels in Europe. Since arriving in Vienna, time has flown by so fast between going to class, traveling, meeting new people and learning German. When a friend of mine asked me a few weeks ago why I had not been blogging, I contemplated the question and realized that it was because Vienna was such a nice city to live in. While in Montreal and Brussels I had blogged about the things that did not seem to work, such as difficulty bicycling and the feeling of insecurity at night, I have been blown away by the ease and efficiency of life in Vienna. Bureaucratic procedures take just minutes, trains are fast, frequent and reliable and the people are open and friendly, contrary to what I had been told about the “grumpy Viennese”. Sure, the bicycle paths could be better. Sure, the U-Bahn could run later than 12:30 on weekdays. But all in all, Vienna is a good place to call home (I am not the first to notice this – 1.7 million people call Vienna home and several world-wide rankings have named Vienna the city with the best quality of life in the world). As I sit in a café in Salzburg, just hours after leaving my Vienna home-away-from-home and on the first day of my 4-week trip through Austria and Germany, I want to try to sum up my Vienna experience.

Getting around is a breeze

I think one of the most impressive things about Vienna is the ease of getting around. The U-Bahn can get you almost anywhere in the city in about 30 minutes and it runs 24 hours on the weekends.  Although the U-Bahn is great, I mostly biked in Vienna, which really gave me the opportunity to appreciate the beauty of the city. Every ride to school included the Ring Straße, with all its emblematic buildings. While bicycling could be better – many bicycle paths suddenly end or cross with the tram – it is much more pleasant to cycle in Vienna than Montreal and Brussels.

Leckeres Essen

Vienna has a reputation for its coffee, cakes and food. It has lived up to those expectations – I will miss the dense, brown breads, the cheese and the coffee. My other favourites include spinach strudels and Hugo and Aperol spritzers (champagne or white wine, carbonated water and elder flower or Aperol syrup respectively). While it can be heavy and only mildly vegetarian-friendly, Austria food is delicious. On top of that, groceries are quite inexpensive and unlike in Canada, there is not a big difference between the prices of organic and non-organic foods (e.g. dairy).

A hop, quick and a jump from nature

With a quick train ride, one can escape the (already quite green) city of Vienna and be in the mountains for walking and hiking in just over an hour. I went hiking in Semmering a couple of weeks ago with a friend, biking to the train station, taking a comfortable one-hour ride to the mountains and arriving straight on the trail. 

Semmering

Semmering

 “So, which is the dodgy neighbourhood?” “Um, actually, yours!”

After Brussels and Paris, Vienna is incredibly safe. Walking at night, except on the Gürtel (the outer ring road) feels safe. When I asked a friend of mine where the dangerous parts of the city in fact were, she responded “Hm, actually, it is your neighbourhood”. As an outer neighbourhood, near the Gürtel, my neighbourhood had many sex shops and not much in terms of touristic attractions. Nonetheless, it feels safe even at night.

6 Months to learn German

I wrote in my first Vienna post about learning German. I took a course and began to practice in February when I arrived. At first, I would try to speak and make mistakes, have trouble finding the right words and overall feel like a small child. However, 6 months later I can hold a grown-up conversation in German, watch movies and listen to the radio. Nicht schlecht!

Just one thing I will not miss

Somehow while in most of Europe, Canada and the United States smoking has been banned from indoors and most public spaces, smoking is still very often allowed in the cafés, bars and restaurants of Vienna. While there are usually both a smoking and non-smoking section, one can rarely avoid smoke when one goes out in the city. Many young people smoke in Austria, and this is something I had trouble with being a fervent non-smoker. Also, there are often cigarette butts in otherwise very nice parks. 

 

Zürich, a liveable city and a 4Citizens’ dream

I spent last weekend in Zürich, Switzerland, visiting a friend en route back to Canada to visit my family for the Easter break. I have visited Switzerland before, but I had never been to Zürich. Zürich regularly tops the lists of most liveable cities, among Vienna, Copenhagen and Vancouver. While these rankings are controversial and highly subjective, there is something to be said about the cities that top the lists. I have been living in Vienna for the past few months and it has much of what I need from a city: reliable and frequent public transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, cafés and restaurants, parks and green spaces, among other things. I instantly felt a difference between living in Brussels and in Vienna. Visiting Zürich for the weekend, I also felt this “liveability”. In this post, I will try to describe what makes Zürich such a liveable city.

Free water, free washrooms

It seems that lately my Masters programme cohort is constantly discussing public bathrooms and water fountains in the city. As young people who are often out and about in the city, we notice which cities have bathrooms we can use and places we can fill our water bottles. Brussels was a poor example, as one must always buy water in bars and restaurants and when you want to drop into a café or restaurant to use the bathroom, it costs 50 cents or so. I have even paid to use the bathroom in bars and restaurants where I have been a client and when a friend of mine visited me in October, he joked that he was constantly dehydrated.

Conversely, Zürich has an extensive network of water fountains, over 1,200 city-wide (according to my friend and this blog). They are nice fountains, serving as centers of squares large and small, but they also offer drinking water, and I regularly used them to fill my water bottle.

Water fountain, city center Zürich

In addition, there are public bathrooms everywhere in Zürich. They are free and usually clean. Brussels had only public urinals near train stations, which a) are only for the use of men and b) were the source of a horrible stench.

A human-scale, walkable city

Zürich is extremely walkable. With less than half a million inhabitants, the city is compact and I walked most of the time I was there. In a rush? Residents can jump on one of the many trams and get to their destination with ease. The airport is only 20-minutes away via a direct train line. Transportation is no problem in Zürich and trains are uncannily on time.

Walking along the waterfront at Lake Zürich

Access to parks, green space and mountains

Just 12 hours into my stay in Zürich, I was on a train to Üetliberg, the “home mountain” of Zürich. Just 30 minutes from the central station, it was a great place to walk and hike and offers a beautiful view on the city.

View from Üetliberg

View from Üetliberg

Youth

The city is vibrant and full of young people. I saw many young people sitting in cafés and walking in the city during the day, and in the restaurants and bars at night.

Public square in front of the Opera, recently redone

Public square in front of the Opera, recently redone

Biking

There were lots of bike in Zürich. Considering its compact size, it is a great place to cycle (if you do not mind some hills). Most cyclists seem to have no fear of their bike being stolen, as they leave them outside buildings, locking only the wheel to the frame.

Bikes left unlocked outside buildings

Bikes left unlocked outside buildings

Water

The city is full of water, sitting on Lake Zürich and cut by the Limmat river. One can spend hours walking along the lake or the river, and I spent much time doing just that.

Sitting beside the water

Sitting beside the water

In flux

Zürich is also changing, namely with brownfield redevelopment outside the historic center, in an area known as Zürich West. There are new buildings going up, interesting bars and cafés opening and former industrial buildings being re-purposed and renovated into shops, apartments and restaurants.

Umbrella installation in Zürich West

Umbrella installation in Zürich West

Caveat

I have to mention that Zürich is a very expensive city: coffee runs 5-7 francs, a drink at a bar anywhere from 7-20 francs and dinner around 25 francs, minimum. That said, people living in Zürich usually make salaries that match the high cost of living. Although I can imagine that students have a hard time in the city, as well as un- and underemployed people, and it is certainly expensive to most tourists.

 

Cyclists’ Attitude: A critical view from a cyclist

As a cyclist, I have to admit that one of the reasons I cycle is convenience. Yes, I do care about the environment and being physically active, so I choose to bike over driving (or taking transit), but cycling is the best way for me to get point A to point B in the city and usually involves me parking my bike right in front of my destination. Easy, convenient and fast.

During my last year of University, I did my Bachelors thesis about bicycling and I was particularly interested in what makes a city “bikeable” and what makes people decide to cycle as opposed to using other modes of transportation. A survey done by the research group I was a part of, “Transportation Research at McGill”, found that members of the University community often chose their preferred mode of transportation because it was the most convenient. Therefore, while cyclists also have environmental or health values, the main reason to cycle was convenience. Makes sense.

In a city, cycling is usually the fastest mode of transportation, as cyclists can avoid traffic congestion and the bicycle takes you from point A to point B without having to wait for transit connections. In both Brussels and Vienna, cycling was the fastest option for me to get from my home to the university campus or the city center. That said, I think cyclists often expect to be able to ride without stopping, and leave their bicycle in front of their destination. They are often impatient at red lights (sometimes going through these red lights) or leave their bicycles locked to any random object, not wanting to walk a few minutes to the nearest bicycle stand. Cyclists in this sense are like drivers, they are alone on their bicycle and expect to arrive to their destination without delays (although cycling gives a different perspective on the city that increases social relations, in my opinion).

Cyclists inhabit an ambiguous zone where they should follow the rules of the road, but do not always do so, slipping through red lights and crossing at crosswalks, often not giving pedestrians priority. As more and more cyclists hit the road, the bicycle infrastructure also becomes congested and cyclists have to start cycling more slowly. Also, more and more people are cycling, not just young and active people. Therefore as older or younger cyclists take to the road, the speed of cycling lanes decreases and conflicts arise. For instance, in Montréal there is a separated bicycle lane on de Maisonneuve in the city center. This is however very congested in the summer, meaning that the average speed of cyclists is much lower than the preferred speed of some cyclists. This leads to impatience, dangerous passing and some speed-seeking cyclists to take the adjacent roads, which have no cycling infrastructure, to be able to cycle more quickly.

The increasing number of cyclists in the city reminds me of the text written by André Gorz in 1973, “L’idéologie sociale de la bagnole”. He wrote that while the car was once a luxury item, only affordable for the wealthy and enabling them to live far from work and commute daily, in the post-war decades the automobile became a product of mass production and mass consumption under a new Fordism model of development. Less expensive to produce, it became less expensive to purchase and made its way into the driveways of a large segment of the population, especially in countries like Canada and the United States. The problem now is that so many people live in the suburbs and depend on the automobile for transportation that they are unable to escape the congestion caused by their own driving. In most cases, public transportation has not developed into a viable and reliable alternative and so a vicious cycle ensues: to escape the congested city, residents flee to the suburbs, but they are entirely dependent on an automobile to get to the city for work or access to services and therefore contribute to the problem which they seek to escape (Gorz 1973).

While cycling is different, for it is does not depend on petrol and takes up less space on the road, infrastructure is less costly and needs to be replaced less often, the growing number of cyclists on the road means that cyclists need to be more respectful and patient, slowing down and respecting the rules of the road. This new cycling congestion has been dealt with in some countries, like Denmark, with cycling “Super Highways”, increasing the space on the road available for cycling.

As more and more cyclists hit the roads, cyclists may not be able to park their bicycles where they wish, or cycle as fast as they want. At the same time, many cities still do not create transportation infrastructure for cyclists. I wrote in a blog post last year that cities should also design the roads for cyclists, with traffic signals for cyclists and separated bicycle lanes. Where this infrastructure does not yet exist, one can understand that cyclists “break the rules” by cycling along the sidewalk, or crossing the road at crosswalks with pedestrians, as the roads are still not being built with cycling for transportation in mind.

Privatized beautiful views, socialized imposing landscapes

View from the top floor of Donau City Tower 1 (left and middle) and view of the building (left) from the ground

Last week I was with my Masters course on the Donau City Island, a relatively new development in Vienna. We were inside the Donau City Tower 1 where I took the first two photos above. From the top floor of the tower, one has a beautiful view of Vienna and the surrounding areas. However, on the ground the view is not as lovely. These large buildings block the sun and create wind tunnels. In fact, our Professor told us that several people have been blowed right over from the wind in the area.

The scale is clearly not “human”, and there is still little activity on street level, where pedestrians are circulating. The area is lacking in entertainment offerings and restaurants/bars, where inhabitants and employees could go on foot.

This experience reminded me of something a friend told me when I was living in Paris: the best view of Paris is from the top of the Montparnasse  Tower, as this is the only spot from which you are not able to see Montparnasse. Clever. And true. This illustrates the conflict perfectly: from inside such huge towers, one can access a beautiful view of the city. However, access to these buildings is usually not open (they are either private commercial or residential buildings, or, as with the Empire State Building in New York City, one must pay to enter). While the beautiful view from the building is privatized, the negative effects of such large developments (wind, shade and “inhuman” scale) are socialized.

Cycling in Vienna: Better than Brussels but not quite Amsterdam

In an earlier post about Vienna, I mentioned bicycling. It was my first month here and I had yet to cycle in the city (in was February and I had not yet acquired a bike). Since then, I bought an old bike second hand off Willhaben (like Craigslist) and I have been cycling around the city ever since. From what I see, it is considerably easier to cycle in Vienna than it was in Brussels, but Vienna is not quite Amsterdam or Copenhagen – yet.

Mariahilfer Straße

Mariahilfer Straße

The good

It must first be said that there are indeed separated bicycle lanes in Vienna, which is an improvement over Brussels. Cyclists most often have their own space on the roads, either a lane just for themselves or shared with pedestrians. This separation from motorised traffic increases one’s sense of security and is especially appreciated along the “Ring” (the road around the historical inner city, the 1st district, which also happens to be lined with beautiful Habsburg era architecture) and around the “Gürtel”, which is the large arterial road that separates the inner and outer districts.

City Bike Vienna

City Bike Vienna

If one does not have a bicycle, Vienna has a system of Citybikes which costs just 1 euro for a lifetime membership and is free to use for periods of up to 1 hour. This means that you can bike all over Vienna, for just 1 euro, great for tourists, but also for locals (although sometimes there are no bicycles left at a station, or only broken bikes – a problem that all bike share systems face, mind you).

One can also bring one’s bicycle into the U-Bahn. This is really good for going out on the weekend, especially since, as I will mention later, there are heavy fines for cycling under the influence in Vienna (and one should never cycle drunk, regardless of the repercussions or lack thereof).

The best thing, however, has to be the temperament of car drivers. In Brussels, one always feels like the enemy of drivers when one is cycling. Drivers often cut off bicyclists and are not afraid to honk incessantly. This makes cycling unpleasant and makes cyclists feel unsafe on the road. I do not feel this tension in Vienna. This is perhaps due to the fact that drivers cannot honk incessantly, as it is illegal for motorists to honk in Vienna unless they are trying to avoid a collision (more info here). However, I also think that in general drivers are most patient and alert to cyclists.

Oh and finally, Vienna is mostly flat which makes cycling easier than climbing the hills of Brussels to cross the city.

The bad

As I mentioned, there are separated bicycle paths for cyclists. However, these paths often cross tram lines, pedestrian paths and other traffic, or suddenly end and restart somewhere else. This can be a bit confusing and a bit dangerous, and it brings about conflicts between different mode-users who are all under the impression that the space is theirs alone. I have had some near collisions and have just barely missed crossing in front of moving trams many times already.

One-way only

One-way only

Another problem is the lack of bicycle infrastructure in some parts of the city. For instance, I was cycling to a friend’s house in the 10th district last weekend and I suddenly lost the bicycle path and thus was cycling around an unknown neighbourhood, which was quite industrial and traffic-ridden, on the road with cars and then onto the sidewalk with pedestrians.

Parking is sometimes also a challenge. It is especially difficult to find a space to lock one’s bicycle in front of cafés and grocery stores.

Finally, one place where Brussels wins in terms of cycling is the ability for cyclists to ride against traffic – almost everywhere. This means that cyclists can take any street in Brussels. In Vienna, on many one-way streets cyclists are not allowed to ride counter-traffic. This means some considerable detours for cyclists.

The ugly

There is no real “ugly” in terms of bicycling in Vienna, but one thing that I have heard a lot are the heavy fines for not having a light, for cycling in the wrong place or for cycling under the influence. However, while this is unfortunate for the cyclists who are fined, it makes the road safer for everyone.

Overall, Vienna is a better city for cycling than Brussels, but connectivity needs to be improved and infrastructure extended to put it on par with Amsterdam.

auf Deutsch…

I have been learning German for a little while now. I started by taking a course last May just once per week. I continued to teach myself – using a mix of Duolingo, Pimsleur and a book, as well as chatting with my lovely (and patient) German-speaking friends in Brussels.

Arriving in Vienna one month ago, I was still a 2-year-old, pre-language “German baby”. It is like when I was learning Spanish and I could understand and write down my thoughts but had trouble expressing my ideas orally. My Spanish teacher explained to me that it was normal, like a baby I could understand Spanish before I could clearly express my ideas in the language. As with Spanish, I am growing up and can now have a decent conversation auf Deutsch (including grammatical mistakes and some English vocabulary, of course).

Learning German has come with some confusion, namely with my Spanish. It seems that Spanish and German share the same compartment in my brain. Unlike English and French, which I have spoken for many years and can switch between with no problem, I learned Spanish and German consciously and more recently. It seems they are someone sharing the same space in my brain and sometimes when I want to speak in Spanish, German words come out, especially with conjunctions and prepositions (“mit” instead of “con”, “ein” instead of “un”…). It is as if I have to turn on a faucet to speak and since German was being used before I turned off this pretend faucet, it exits first (as cold water would if I turned on the hot water just after the cold had been running). It takes some time before the old cold water drains (German) and the Spanish words “flow” once more. Another thing I have noticed is that I am sometimes using German sentence structure in Spanish. For instance, I recently wanted to write this sentence in Spanish, “ Entonces, es posible que debería comprar mi billete también”. At first I wrote out , “also…Entonces es posible dass…que debería también mi billete comprar”… Spanish words with a German sentence structure – sehr komisch!