Mexico City has its faults; its residents live under the constant threat of earthquakes, and the city regularly experiences tremors and occasional minor quakes. But it is the man-made disasters, rather than the natural ones, that threaten to destroy the city which has been called the Paris of the Western Hemisphere.
The traffic may be the world’s worst. Getting around in Mexico City is nerve-wracking, slow, and hazardous to life and limb. A traffic death is reported in the city every seven hours; an injury, every forty minutes. Property damage each year reaches millions of dollars. A recent traffic study concluded that the average speed on Mexico City’s streets is seven miles an hour—and that includes occasional spurts of up to fifty mph whenever a driver spots a rare open road. But it also takes into account massive traffic jams where cars don’t move for ten or fifteen minutes. Most of the streets are narrow and winding, and sometimes five or even six streets converge at intersections. There are stop signs and traffic signals, to be sure, but drivers ignore them cheerfully, respecting only the law of survival of the fittest.
There’s no use trying to escape by turning to public transportation. Buses have to use the same roads as all those cars that aren’t going anywhere. The modern subway system, only four years old, is already inadequate; it was originally planned to carry one million passengers daily but is now moving nearly double that amount.
Mexico City is the nation’s industrial backbone, its Pittsburgh and Detroit rolled into one. The heavy industry and 1.3 million automobiles combine to spew out more than 4600 tons of waste into the air over the city each day. This polluted air is almost perpetually trapped within the ring of mountains which surround the city, turning the sky a constant gray-brown except during brief periods when rain or wind storms sweep away the thick clouds and bring momentary relief. The rest of the time the atmosphere is the worst in Latin America; it causes eyes to smart and lungs to ache, and is undoubtedly responsible for the rising incidence of emphysema and other respiratory diseases.
But the factories mean jobs, and the campesinos continue to pour out of the rural areas into the capital. In 1960 the city had 3.5 million inhabitants; by 1970 the population had doubled, and is now increasing by about 500,000 people a year. There may be another million uncounted poor living in the shanty towns surrounding the city. Three-quarters of the population live in slums where some of the houses are nothing more than piles of stones with sheets of tin for roofs. The housing problem has reached such monumental proportions that the government could spend all of the money in the national treasury on low-cost housing and still more would be needed. To make matters worse—much worse—the mass migrations show no sign of letting up: by 1980 an estimated fifteen million people will live in the metropolitan area.
Many sections of the city lack electricity and running water. Residents who live near a water hydrant are considered lucky. Shacks concentrate around the garbage dumps that are a source of materials for shelter, clothing, and food. No one really knows how many unemployed and underemployed persons live in Mexico City, but guesses range from fifteen to thirty per cent of the potential working population, or as many as one million people. Many of those with jobs barely earn subsistence wages.
In addition to its own peculiar problems, Mexico City faces all the troubles shared by other large cities in the western world: interruptions of electric power, low water pressure, inadequate police and fire protection, garbage in the streets, and crime—although violent crime is less of a problem in Mexico City than in U.S. cities. The rich, though they live very well indeed, are increasingly less able to isolate themselves from their surroundings. Though they flee to their country homes on weekends, during the week they, like everyone else, must contend with the traffic and the crowds and the bad air.
And it may be too late to do anything except watch it get worse.