Driving in Mexico City - July 2010
The world-class traffic jams in Mexico City are renowned around the globe, and they do leave the morning rush hour on the M25 looking like a good session on a high-speed Scalextric track. I recently spent four hours on the Mexico City ring road trying to get to the airport to meet my elderly mum and the image of her arriving with nobody to meet her nearly had me out of the car and walking. I decided in the end to be late rather than dead and stayed in the car, but the traffic is truly horrendous.
It is with surprise then that I can say that after a year of driving here the Chilango driving style has rather grown on me, and I have taken to driving myself around most of the time. Driving here is fun.
Mexico has four districts in the centre of the city that comprise the heart of the capital, and there are major boulevards and sweeping multi-lane roads that cut through them. There are two ring roads, the circuito interior, that is a rather more efficient version of London’s North and South Circular roads, and the M25 equivalent, the Periferico, which is a breathtaking construction of up to ten lanes with a second level of road built on stilts above you for much of its length. The Periferico junctions, one of which is crowned with a Mexican flag that is nearly a hundred feet long, has so many lanes and diverging roadways on concrete trestles that it really does look like a fantasy comic-book drawing of Judge Dredd driving his bike in Megapolis.
Mexico City drivers have developed a style that fits these roads and it works for the five million cars that use them every day. The drivers fight for every inch of space with an ability to judge the distances between their cars that has European passengers reaching suddenly for the hand strap above the window. As roads merge, the stream of new vehicles joining accelerates and piles into the new lane in the certain knowledge that the cars behind will react and make some room. If you waited for a gap you would never find one. It is normal to make life and death decisions about speed and lane changes based on the assumption that the other cars will react accordingly. It is precisely the opposite of the British police style of defensive driving when you are expected to assume every other car is out to get you.
If you drove in England in this way, the other cars would just not make room, and the act of forcing another car to slow down would result in honking of horns and raised fists. Here it is the only way to drive. So perhaps you would imagine that Mexico City drivers were aggressive and exhibited Latin fire and passion with tempers to match their driving style. Well, in fact the reverse is the case.
Whilst the cars fly around with reckless speed and panache, the drivers themselves are largely relaxed and unaffected by the drama. On a normal drive around town you will frequently see a car pull across three or four lanes of traffic at speed, forcing other cars to take avoiding action. But whereas in England the drivers would be knuckle-tight on their steering wheels and shouting abuse, in Mexico City they will be on the phone, eating an empanada, singing along to his radio or even reading the paper. It is not uncommon to see drivers typing on their lap tops as they go.
In a year of driving here I have only experienced a single incident of road rage, when the taxi in which I was a passenger was cut up by a courier van. Our driver was very angry and he turned and asked us if he could get out and go and shout at the other driver. We said no, and so he shrugged his shoulders and continued. That is a uniquely Mexican experience, and it is the reason that despite the terrible traffic, I really rather enjoy the thrill of driving in a style that requires the complicit camaraderie of your fellow drivers to get around. Dangerous? I guess it must be, but it seems to work.