Mexico City bans cars one day a week to combat ongoing pollution problem

Smog blankets distant skyscrapers along Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City, March 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Despite decades of rising pollution and scientific evidence of its negative effects on residents’ health, vehicles have, until recently, been exempt from Mexico City’s “no circulation” rules if they obtain a holographic sticker that certifies them as lower-emission.

Now, the Environmental Commission of the Megalopolis changed this policy so that all cars must stay off the road one day a week in accordance with the color of a government assigned sticker, regardless of their emission levels.

The measure, which began April 5, will run until June 30th – the start of the rainy season, which typically helps improve air quality in the region.

Mexico City has had similar policies in place since the late 1980s, so the ‘no circulation rule’ isn’t new. But after a Phase 1 emergency due to ozone levels – the first since 2005 – was declared last month, Mexican authorities are under more pressure than ever to address the ongoing pollution problem.

Lucas Davis, an energy researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who has analyzed the city’s previous attempts, disagrees with the city’s new pollution policy. ‘No circulation’ measures actually lead to more air pollution in the long term, his research shows, and is ultimately both costly and ineffective.

This is partly because the policies are a hassle for residents, Davis told Vox. Authorities hope people will turn to public transportation, but residents often find the city’s public transit system terribly overcrowded and inconvenient. Instead, people invest in another car with a different license plate number, take taxis, or use Uber or Lyft.

“The Mexico City politicians want action,” Davis told Vox. “They see a problem and politicians want to do something. These driving restriction make them feel like they are doing something.”

Unfortunately, vehicles are not the only factor contributing to air pollution. According to Alberta University professor Alvaro Osornio, who has studied Mexico City’s air pollution and its effects on public health, human-caused climate change also affects the pollution problem.

“Weather patterns have been changing in Mexico City,” Osornio said in an interview with Think Progress. “So when we thought that just by controlling vehicular traffic we would beat the problem, we ended up discovering that many more variables are at play.”

The residents of Mexico City are directly affected by the health risks associated with this degree of air contamination. According to government data, air pollution kills as many as 2,700 people every year, and recent studies support long-held claims that air pollution causes more deaths than malnutrition, obesity, alcohol and drug abuse, and unsafe sex.

Air pollution contributed to around 5.5 million premature deaths in 2013, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013.

Whether the new measure will reduce air pollution or the harmful effects it has on those living in the city remains to be seen. One promising aspect of the new policy is that it doesn’t allow for exemption for any vehicles, which has been a major loophole in the past. According to Mexico News Daily, it is common knowledge among the city’s residents that for a bribe of about 350 pesos, drivers can ensure a car passes emissions tests.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com