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CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Mexico City used to be known as the smog capital of the world. But it's now lost that dubious distinction to other cities, including Beijing and Hong Kong. Authorities say air quality has improved slightly in Mexico City. Last year, for the first time in a decade, this city of 20,000,000 celebrated a full year without calling a smog alert. But the good news may not last. More and more cars and trucks are coming on the road, and the population is projected to double in the next two or three decades. From Mexico City, Jana Schroeder has this report.
SCHROEDER: There are plenty of reasons Mexico City has an air pollution problem. It's a city that's grown rapidly without adequate planning or regulations. To see where it all started, there's no better place than the historic downtown area.
[SOUNDS OF THE CITY UP AND UNDER]
SCHROEDER: I'm on top of a city government building overlooking the huge main square with Jorge Legorreta, a prominent Mexican urbanist. He points to the cloud-covered horizon beyond the city's largest cathedral.
LEGORRETA: [IN SPANISH]
TRANSLATOR: Mexico City is located over 7,000 feet above sea level. We're basically in the mountains. And what we see around us are clouds. Only about 15 days a year we can see perfectly the two volcanoes to the southeast and all the mountains around us.
SCHROEDER: Mr. Legorreta insists that clouds, not pollution, block the view on most days. But whether you can see it or not, the dirty air is there, and the National Institute of Ecology reports 85 percent of it comes from vehicles. Since the city's in a basin surrounded by mountains on all sides, harmful emissions remain trapped in this metropolis, which was built over the site of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. But as Jorge Legorreta tells me, the Aztec god of the wind, known as Ehecatl sometimes lends a hand.
LEGORRETA: [IN SPANISH]
TRANSLATOR: This is the god that saves from the catastrophes caused by pollution. Mexico couldn't survive without the wind god. He takes away the fumes, the polluting particles. It disperses them and carries them out of the valley.
SCHROEDER: In fact, favorable climactic conditions with strong winds are cited as one of the reasons air quality has improved. Although authorities admit the levels permitted before a smog alert is called are 2.4 times over internationally accepted standards, Mr. Legorreta says measures implemented in the early 1990s have made a difference. They include cleaner formulas for gasoline, a requirement that cars older than 1997 stay off the streets one day a week, two days a week when a smog alert is called. Plus a vehicle inspection program.
[SOUND OF VEHICLES AT INSPECTION CENTER]
SCHROEDER: At this inspection center, workers say about 15 percent of vehicles fail the emissions test on their first try. The test has been required in Mexico City since 1990. But in the early years, these centers were known for giving a clean bill of health to any car in exchange for a bribe.
[CUTAWAY OF FERNANDO LOPEZ TALKING AT INSPECTION CTR.]
SCHROEDER: Fernando Lopez, the supervisor here, says in the last few years, the corruption in most inspection centers has been cleaned up. Authorities claim to have revoked the licenses for nine centers, and they plan to install new, centrally controlled software making it impossible to tamper with inspection equipment. But city authorities recognize there's still much more to be done. Specifically, to lower levels of ozone produced from the combination of sunlight and vehicle exhaust and the levels of suspended particles resulting from the combustion of fossil fuels.
[CUTAWAY OF SANTIAGO MENDEZ TALKING AT CENTER UP AND UNDER]
SCHROEDER: Santiago Mendez is waiting to take his car through the test. He says he thinks the inspection program is important and wishes everyone would do their part. Mr. Mendez's car is a 1978 Volkswagen Bug. He says his car has always passed the inspection because he keeps it well tuned. But, in fact, standards for older cars are lower. Ecologists say the many old vehicles in Mexico City are a big problem, since they don't have catalytic converters to filter car exhaust into less harmful gases. But it's difficult to get older cars off the streets, especially since cars are more expensive in Mexico than in the United States, for example. And high interest rates keep many people from borrowing money. Dr. Claudia Scheinbaum is Mexico City's new Environment Secretary. She agrees old cars are a problem, but she plans to focus on other areas.
SCHEINBAUM: There have been a lot of proposals to give money to the people who have very old cars. But I think that these kind of programs incentive the private vehicle. We have to put it where we think it's better, and that's public transportation.
SCHROEDER: But what will convince people to leave the comfort of their own cars? Dr. Scheinbaum says there's a lot that can be done to make public transportation preferable.
SCHEINBAUM: If I can come in half an hour from my house to here if I come by Metro, and it is safe and a clean place, then, you know, I will start using the Metro.
SCHROEDER: Some say Mexico City's subway system is as efficient or better than those in other cities. But Dr. Scheinbaum says improvements are still needed, such as more coordination between subway lines and bus routes. Dr. Scheinbaum says so far, all the attention has been placed on gasoline vehicles. But now, for the first time, strict standards will also be applied to diesel vehicles.
[SOUND OF GEESE UP AND UNDER]
SCHROEDER: Outside the city, ecologist Manuel Guerra lives away from the pollution on a farm with a flock of noisy geese and some rescued deer. But he goes into the city every day to work at the Autonomous Institute for Environmental Research. He says due to economic crises in Mexico, public funds have not been dedicated to improving traffic design, which could minimize congestion and thus, harmful emissions.
GUERRA: There has been a huge de-investment in infrastructure, in roads and bridges. And so, Mexico City grew in the amount of vehicles, but didn't grow in the existing infrastructure. We have to make an enormous effort in modernizing, making much more subway, introducing more lines of trolleys, electrical transport, and principally, a renovation of the fleet of taxis.
SCHROEDER: In fact, the new Mexico City mayor Andres Lopez Obrador recently claimed taxis pollute more than any other vehicle in the city and have reached a saturation point with more taxis on the streets than are needed. He said no new licenses for taxis will be issued for three years, and actions will begin against nearly 3,000 pirate taxis operating illegally. According to Manuel Guerra taxis, together with mini-buses and delivery trucks, are responsible for over half of vehicle pollution, even though they make up only 20 percent of the total number of vehicles. Mr. Guerra says up to now authorities have taken the easy way out with measures targeting private citizens instead of tackling powerful commercial interests. A 10-year-plan to improve Mexico City's air quality is being developed by a research team headed by Dr. Mario Molina, a Mexican chemist who won a Nobel Prize in 1995 for his work on the ozone layer. From his post at MIT, he's working with government authorities in Mexico and has recommended a long list of measures.
MOLINA: We know where the system is failing. Institutional barriers, social difficulties, economic problems, but it will take a relatively high level of government decisions to bring these changes about.
SCHROEDER: Dr. Molina says people aren't as concerned as they used to be, now that air quality has improved a little. But he insists that more pressure from citizens is needed, given predictions for the city's growth.
MOLINA: We have, on the one hand, the potential to have a cleaner city, using newer technologies. But there is a race with the natural growth of the City, in terms of more population, more cars, more trucks.
SCHROEDER: But Dr. Molina is hopeful and he believes his 10-year-plan for Mexico City can serve as a model for other cities in the developing world. For Living On Earth, I'm Jana Schroeder in Mexico City.