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Anyone who’s ever been stuck in Tijuana traffic knows it can be an exhausting experience. Driving across the city during peak periods can make a half-hour trip take two hours – and the number of vehicles on the road just keeps multiplying.
But getting drivers to switch to public transportation has been a challenge – many would rather sit in their idling vehicles than depend on Tijuana’s costly, inefficient and unreliable network of buses and mini-buses.
Other cities in Mexico – Puebla, Guadalajara, Monterrey, Mexico City – have been successfully making the switch to Bus Rapid Transit, with newer buses, centralized controls, and dedicated lanes. But in Tijuana, not all transportistas – private operators who work under concessions from the city – have been willing to make the switch. Despite federal financing for bridges, stations, special lanes and other BRT infrastructure, the municipal transportation agency, SITT, has yet to get the system up and running.
Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero’s administration has been in talks with the transportistas, but there is still no clear plan on moving forward. Today, stations all along the system’s 23-mile “trunk route” sit empty and vandalized, and buses operate sporadically. One possibility is that operation of the city’s BRT be transferred to the state government, but so far, no such action has been taken.
To better understand the city’s challenges, I turned to Jorge Alberto Gutierrez Topete. He’s a 56-year-old architect who has been studying transportation issues for years – both in government and as an outsider pressing for change. Now head of the Baja California Sustainable Mobility Institute (IMOS), he is overseeing public transportation statewide. If the SITT is eventually turned over to the state, he will be charged with its oversight.
Q: The nonprofit Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO) reports that Tijuana loses close to $142 million annually due to traffic congestion. Why does the city have such traffic problems?
A: We are too dependent on cars, and part of the reason is that we’ve never developed an efficient and high-quality public transportation system.
In 2008, 33 percent of the population used public transportation, by 2018 it was 26 percent. It should be going in the opposite direction. It’s said that a city begins to resolve its mobility issues when at least half of the population uses public transit as its primary means of transportation.
Q: You have called Tijuana a city that is “disperse, disconnected and distant.” What do you mean by that?
A: It’s the incorrect model for a city – it’s a model based on the automobile and single-family home. Cities that are successful in terms of mobility have … greater density … walkable areas. Connecting them with a good transportation system and inhibiting the use of the automobile. That’s what we have to do. Inhibit the use of the automobile.
Q: In San Diego, bus and trolley fares pay for a third of the cost of operating the Metropolitan Transit System – with the rest subsidized with federal, state and municipal funds. But Tijuana’s system is entirely paid for by the users. What are the fares?
A: Every ticket in Tijuana costs 16 pesos (about 80 cents). But to get to their destination, people must use two or three buses. (There are no transfers) They on average buy five or six tickets round-trip. So you’re talking about 80 to 90 pesos a day ($4.00 to $4.50). We Tijuanenses are spending too much on transportation.
Q: Transportation decisions in the city of Tijuana have historically been subject to political pressures. The reluctance of some transportistas to upgrade and modernize has thwarted attempts at reform. Do you think this can change?
A: In the end, (members of the transportation sector) are people who want the same thing we do. What we are trying to make them see is that their wellbeing and their future depends on making some changes today, because every day their livelihood is becoming more precarious.
Q: Many of Tijuana’s maquiladora factories have solved the transportation problem by sending their own buses to pick up workers and take them home. Is this a solution?
A: When it was first created a couple of decades ago, it was meant as a complement to the city’s transportation system, especially for night shifts, when there was no coverage. It started as a complementary service, but now has been converted to a supplementary service, which is replacing public transportation. We need to encourage use of public transportation.
Q: The state government has announced Ruta Violeta – a purple route for women and children, in response to the statewide gender alert for high levels of violence against women. Can you explain this project?
A: We’ll soon be inaugurating them in the five main cities. There’s a pilot program now on Bulevar Agua Caliente (in Tijuana). It’s for women, and children under age 12. All the stops will have orange alert buttons where you can ask for assistance if you’re being followed.
Q: Some are advocating the elimination of the concession system, and instead have the public sector operate and fund public transportation systems, as in San Diego. Is that idea being contemplated?
A: The intention is to make it work together with the transportistas, as they have done in cities such as Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey. The government’s role would be regulatory.
Q: What if the city’s transportistas simply don’t back the city’s BRT plans and the system can’t be launched?
A: I would tell you that to see the BRT fail would mean the failure of the transformation of mobility in Tijuana. So we must make a final attempt to fix it, in the best way that we can.
In Other News
Ukranians at the border: Ukrainians fleeing the war in their country are making their way to the Tijuana-San Diego border in growing numbers as they seek to enter the U.S. The news website Tijuanapress.com is reporting that they have been arriving at the rate of about 100 people per day. Over the weekend, city officials turned a sports facility in the city’s Zona Norte into a makeshift shelter for some 400 refugees. One volunteer told the Union-Tribune that on average families spend 34 hours in Tijuana before being admitted to the U.S.
Title 42: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced on Friday that it is discontinuing the Title 42 policy as of May 23. That policy was implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19, government officials said, but it received pushback from advocates who argued it violated U.S. asylum laws.
Tijuana tech hub: With a shortage of U.S. software engineers and other tech workers, San Diego companies have been looking south to Tijuana for their needs, KPBS reports.
Border City podcast: A new podcast focused on Tijuana and my 26 years reporting there for the San Diego Union- Tribune launches Tuesday, presented by the Los Angeles Times. Border City is a memoir, personal and journalistic, that delves into the effects of organized crime in Tijuana – but also tells a more personal story of my growing connection to the city.