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Concealed Public Transportation in Mexico City: The Invisible Stops of Peseros

Juan Fernández González

Part 1: Physical continuum of the permanent presence of public transportation

Mexico City’s public transportation network is composed of numerous modes, including the metro, metrobus, RPT (Red de Transporte de Pasajeros) urban buses, and peseros. For each one of these, there is a temporary physical presence, defined by the moving vehicles themselves and the crowds that they orchestrate, as well as a permanent physical presence, defined by the fixed stations and infrastructure that accommodates them. The permanent physical presence varies greatly from one mode to another, and between intermediate stops and terminal stops. Wheraas there is a great difference between the footprints of intermediate stops for these means of transportation (ex. Tasqueña’s metro station being almost 200 times larger than a metrobus stop shed), the proportional difference between terminal stops is not so great (ex. Ciudad Azteca metro station being 4 times larger than the Indios Verdes metrobus terminal). Thus, there is a physical continuum of the permanent presence of public transportation in Mexico City.

The urban responses to these stations and stops can be formal and informal. In some cases, the infrastructure that accommodates metros is connected to other buildings, such as retail and commercial spaces attached to metro stations. This can be considered a formal response because the buildings are permanent. In the case of pesero stops that are physically invisible without a shed or stop sign, commerce (to sell products, services, and/or food, among others) appears adjacent to the most transited waiting spaces. This can be considered an informal response because activities take place without the presence of built infrastructure or legal permission to practice commerce in that place. This is the case with the Miguel Ángel de Quevedo roundabout in the Oxtopulco neighborhood.

Within these categories, peseros stand out because their waiting spaces lack a permanent physical presence. Peseros (often also called colectivos) are privately owned vehicles that make up a public transportation network. They can take several forms including combis (usually Volkswagen’s Kombiwagen vans) which can carry a dozen people, small microbuses (usually Chevrolet or Mercedez Benz, see Figure 1) that can accommodate around 24 people sitting and 10 on foot, and larger buses that accommodate around 40 people sitting and 20 on foot. The inexistence of sheds or stop signs in all or most of their intermediate stops makes them an interesting case study. The routes of peseros are fixed, such as the ones passing through Insurgentes Avenue. However, their stops are not determined along the route. This allows people to get on and off these buses wherever by communicating it to the driver. Additionally, the permanent physical presence associated with each means of public transportation creates two conditions: continuous and discrete stops. When no stops are established or physically present, there is more freedom as to where a pesero can stop. The continuous stop condition allows peseros to stop anywhere along a predetermined path, whereas the discrete stop condition of other means of public transportation limits their stops to predetermined locations. This functional structure has mostly advantages for pedestrians and disadvantages for vehicle traffic.


Part 2: Labor force flows and time economy

The functioning of Mexico City depends on a population that lives beyond the city’s boundaries. Greater Mexico City, or the Zona Metropolitana del Valle de México, consists of numerous municipalities that are connected to Mexico City through public transportation. Whereas the metro, metrobus and most RPT buses are limited to Mexico City, the informal nature of peseros allows them to extend their routes beyond the city limits. Therefore, the limited public transportation choice of commuters most often results in them using peseros to get from their homes to the city and vice versa. Figure 2 shows that the commute to Mexico City can be longer than 2 hours and 30 minutes for some women, while men tend to do relatively shorter commutes. Regardless, commutes under 1 hour and 30 minutes are rare for those who live outside of Mexico City. Thus, the demand for labor and the schedules associated with it shape a time economy that is reflected in the routes of peseros.

The name “Pesero” derives from the word peso, since a trip used to cost one peso per person. Because of the lowest cost among all means of transportation, peseros could be afforded more easily afforded by the poorest communities and individuals. The financial accessibility of peseros made them the vehicle of choice for a large part of the population within and around Mexico City. Today, the cost gap of public transit makes means of transportation (metro, metrobus, RPT buses, and peseros) equally accessible financially. With 6 Mexican pesos (0.30 USD), it is possible to ride all of them, knowing that some have discounts based on age. However, it is not only the cost of the ticket that dictates who rides which means of transit; it is the placement of the routes. For example, Reforma Avenue runs through the financial and cultural center of Mexico City, as well as through rich neighborhoods. Today, metrobuses have the exclusive right to drive and stop in Reforma, whereas all other means of transport must take nearby streets instead. This is highlighted by a lane that is exclusively reserved for them. Peseros can be observed driving in Reforma but only briefly as they make a turn to deviate and take another road. (See Figure 3.) By limiting the rights of circulation to only certain types of public transit, people coming from further places are forced to transfer and leave peseros behind if they wish to commute through these routes. This results in the concealment of peseros and the people that they transport. The systematic tendency to define routes for more controlled means of public transportation (metrobuses instead of peseros) by following a political agenda limits the choice of public transportation for the people who do not live near to those selected routes. Frida Escobedo’s work on the systematic tendency of architecture to conceal spaces of domestic labor and the people (mostly women) who work in them, is echoed by the systematic tendency of urban spaces to conceal infrastructures that accommodate informal economies. Peseros and their concealed stops attest to this process of “invisibilization”, which exposes deep societal issues in the capital and other contemporary Mexican cities.

In addition to the permanent physical presence of different means of public transportation, another characteristic distinguishes peseros from all the rest. The regularization of the metros, metrobuses, RPT buses, and others, is reflected in their payment method. By means of centralized payment through rechargeable cards and/or tickets, the drivers of these vehicles are never directly in contact with the source of their payment and salaries. This means that they have no economic incentive to modify the assigned routes or schedules associated with their vehicles. On the other hand, peseros function through payment that goes directly from the commuters to the drivers upon entering the vehicle. This creates an incentive for drivers to pick up as many people as possible to meet a certain quota, after which they get to keep the profits. Thus, an opportunity to increase the quantity of people inside peseros can lead the drivers to challenge speed limits and waiting times at certain stops, among other things. This demonstrates that the difference between public and private in public transit is more of a spectrum than a binary condition. Peseros are public transportation although the vehicles are privately owned, but their regularization distinguishes their behavior from that of other public means of public transportation. Although peseros are part of a public transportation network, their behavior is more individual than collective due to the incentives of the drivers. The distinction to make is not between public and private, but rather about how what is private is organized and structured. The economic incentives of pesero drivers can lead them to leave their routes to perform other duties. For example, peseros can be paid to transport large numbers of passengers to a strike. (See Figure 4). This demonstrates the flexible nature of peseros and the variety of roles that are associated with a system that depends on the interests of the drivers and not of a more widely organized structure.

The lack of built infrastructure for pesero stops creates a need for waiting spaces. Passengers appropriate the public realm, the existing infrastructure, and found objects to wait for a ride. Recycled chairs, rocks, slanted walls, and tree trunks, among others, give shape to waiting spaces. Overcrowding stops leave no trace behind. The high visibility of peseros, as well as waiting crowds formed by their numerous passengers, is contrasted by the invisibility of their impermanent stops. This spatial phenomenon could be considered an architectural phenomenon on a small scale and an urban phenomenon on a larger scale. Informal stops can be situated in response to hubs of activity to find more passengers, or this can happen the other way around when informal stops that have been formalized through regularity and urban tendencies generate an ideal place for informal economies. The sale of products, services, and goods is deeply tied to public transit and its informal qualities.

Part 3: Safety, gender, and accessibility

Safety, accessibility, and gender play an important role in all types of public transportation. The regularization of certain means of transportation can increase safety. In the case of the metro and metrobuses, “Pink Transportation” has become a norm. This regulates how wagons in a metro or parts of a bus, characteristically painted in pink, can be occupied based on gender. These women-only safe spaces have reduced violence and harassment based on gender. However, whereas they exist in more regularized means of transportation, peseros do not have these spaces. The overcrowding nature of peseros limits the security of their passengers. Domestic workers, who are most often indigenous women, have to take peseros if they lie outside of the city, and they are thus not protected by “Pink Transportation”. This is a disadvantage of peseros for safety, but their continuous stops present more security for passengers because they can get off closer to their destination without being exposed to dangerous areas or corners, especially at night.

The outdated vehicles that make up the majority of peseros are not adequate for universal accessibility for several reasons. The inconsistency and lack of stops do not guarantee easy access to the vehicle, and especially the lack of ramp mechanisms makes them inaccessible to people in wheelchairs and many people with reduced mobility. The same is true for tactile paving and other designs that are appropriate to be inclusive with people with visual impairments. Means of public transportation with built formal stops are more accommodating whereas peseros are not. The lack of a trustworthy schedule is yet another factor that makes peseros more inaccessible. The fact that the metros and metrobuses satisfy these accessibility requirements means that people with disabilities have a limited choice of public transportation. Through a larger lens, this greatly limits the streets, neighborhoods, and nearby municipalities with accessible public transportation, which is tied to housing insecurity and deep problems of mobility within and around the capital.