Transportation planners often talk about mobility and accessibility. Mobility is the concept of being able to move freely from point to point, while accessibility reflects the set of possible destinations within reasonable reach. The two are not necessarily complementary, as downtown Manhattan offers high accessibility with low mobility (congestion), while rural Maine downtowns offer much lower accessibility but high mobility.
I recently returned from a 10-day trip around three states of Mexico: Quintana Roo, Yucatán, and Campeche. This area of Mexico has a few large cities (including Mérida, Campeche city, and Cancún) but is mostly home to smaller cities of thirty- to fifty-thousand residents and much smaller Mayan villages. One remarkable facet of travel here is how mobile one can be – buses within cities and between cities are plentiful, frequent, and many are very low-cost. Aside from buses, Mexicans take advantage of many other forms of transport as well – bicycles, tricitaxis (half-motorcycle, half-utility bicycle), and colectivos (taxi vans that charge a low per-person fare to travel between popular origins and destinations) – many of which are foreign to Americans and, if found in our cities, would be more likely to be considered novelties than real transportation solutions. But, in an area where sprawling development is a relatively new thing, older and denser cities allow for this type of mobility. I found accessibility to be high as well, particularly in the cities located at intersection points of several transportation corridors. Smaller Mayan villages tended to be located along single roads and would offer small local businesses, such as taquerias, a school, and almost always a church. Bigger cities offered all types of businesses, from shoe repair shops to groceries, hospitals, fish, meat and produce markets, and lawyers’ and doctors’ offices. What makes these cities different from American cities (among other things) is how intermingled these commercial establishments are with residences. Mexico has very few zoning laws, allowing for mixed land uses of this type and increased accessibility.
As Mexico continues to develop, a major challenge will be to maintain its mobility and accessibility – more people means more congestion on tiny, old urban streets. The contrast was highlighted for me on a bus ride arriving to Mérida from Cancún. Across much of the peninsula, traffic was low and travel speeds were high; however, upon arrival in Mérida we immediately slowed to a crawl on narrow, two-lane, one-way streets among bikers, scooters, taxis, colectivos, city buses and several personal automobiles. We walked the distance later in almost the same time. And, as a pedestrian on these streets, the air quality was noticeably poor, thick with exhaust fumes.
I think we stand to learn a lot from developing countries’ transportation systems. Implementing these ideas would require adaptation to developed countries’ established systems; however the ideas – of less fossil-fuel-dependent and more communal-based travel systems – are entirely relevant. Mexico should also learn from the US and other developed countries, while maintaining the accessibility they have allowed. Short term increases in mobility through private auto ownership only lead to long term decreases in mobility.