Model law, dirty air in Mexico Pollution: Efforts to clean up Mexico City's air by restricting automobile use have backfired.

November 26, 1995|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

MEXICO CITY -- It looked simple enough on paper six years ago, when Mexico City's lawmakers imposed their toughest scheme yet to clean up some of the worst air on the planet: Every workday, between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m., certain cars were banished from the city's streets, based on rotation of their license numbers.

The "Today Don't Drive" law was billed as a breakthrough at the time -- the city's first concrete step to cut the auto emissions that were presumed to be a leading cause of the horrific smog that suffocates the Mexican capital most days.

But now, a study by Mexico City's Metropolitan Commission for Pollution Control and Prevention has confirmed what most of the city's estimated 20 million residents have suspected for years: The law doesn't work, and it hasn't since soon after it went into force.

In fact, as the city enters the eye-stinging, lung-burning, brown-air days of winter, the commission has recommended that the law be either radically modified or altogether repealed. Almost overnight, the study has re-opened the debate over the source of -- and solution to -- the capital's air-pollution nightmare.

The commission found that the federal district that includes the capital now consumes nearly 2 million more liters -- or about 500,000 more gallons -- of gasoline each day than it did when the law took effect.

The reason: About 2 million cars were on the streets on any given day in December 1989; today, there are nearly 3 million.

Fueled by government policies that encouraged credit-financing, and by the Today Don't Drive law itself, most families simply bought a second, third or fourth car to get around the restriction, the study concluded.

The law bans cars one day a week according to the last digit of each license plate.

If a plate ends with a 1 or 2, for example, the car may not be driven on Monday; a 3 or 4 bans the car every Tuesday, and so on through 9 and 0 on Friday.

By buying additional cars, drivers could acquire a selection of plates that allowed them to drive every day, undermining the system.

And the city's notoriously corrupt police, rather than enforce the system by the book, used it as a daily cash machine to generate bribes from offenders.

"Today Don't Drive has not reduced the number of cars on the street nor increased the use of public transportation," concluded Luis Manuel Guerra, a leading industrial chemist and air pollution expert who participated in the study.

What's more, he said, "if you took all the private cars off the street tomorrow, you would reduce air pollution by only 10 percent. One of the biggest problems is collective transport -- taxis, buses, vans.

"Also, there is the escape of the hydrocarbons from [liquid petroleum] tanks."

Among the fiercest critics of the study's findings are the supporters of the original law.

"We know the law isn't perfect; it doesn't reduce pollution, but it keeps 700,000 cars off the road every day," said Homero Aridjis, whose Group of 100 environmentalist lobby was a leading proponent of the measure six years ago.

The chairman of the city's environment commission, who headed the study, said the law will not be repealed until alternative restrictions are put in place, to avoid a traffic nightmare.

The study recommended that, instead of restrictions, the government should create greater incentives for drivers who install pollution-reducing catalytic converters -- still a rarity in this city.

And experts stressed that the government also must go after businesses that are the worst polluters, a difficult task amid a deep economic crisis that already has hurt Mexican industry and cost more than 1 million jobs.

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