Friday, May 23, 2008

"Citizens desperately seeking a subway find encouragement online"

(Published May 24, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

In a city where the pace of bureaucracy moves at a numbing speed and infrastructure problems soar exponentially, a group of ten young citizens has taken another route to solve Guadalajara’s greatest urban crisis.

A Facebook group called “Queremos un metro en Guadalajara” (“We want a metro in Guadalajara”), founded by Abraham Jaime Hernandez five months ago, has caught momentum as fast as the high-speed connection that brings it to computer screens all over the city. Members of the online social network Facebook, where users keep track of their friends’ hobbies, favorite videos and photo albums listed in personal profiles, have flocked to the activist group. Over 7,000 Facebook users now belong to “Queremos un metro.”

“We only had the idea to create a social consciousness, but we realized the group could go farther than that – not just as a Facebook group,” Hernandez told the Reporter last week. “We began by collecting signatures in universities, then we started contacting enterprises, unions, and government chambers, asking for letters saying ‘we support the metro, we should change the city and modernize it.’”

The Facebook group keeps a neat online archive of newspaper clippings and charts that support its case, in addition to photographs of uber-modern rail systems in cities such as Sydney and Vancouver. Envious group members, like children peering through the window of a candy shop, leave disparaging comments below the pictures.

Under Vancouver’s elevated train, user Gino Berruti laughed: “You’re asking for a lot. If only something like that was built, or even something worse that would at least help the people of Guadalajara.” To the map of Guadalajara’s existing one and a half “Tren Ligero” (light train) lines, user Aldo Vega commented, “Honestly, this looks really sad,” along with a frowning emoticon.

In only a matter of months, the group has opened Guadalajara’s eyes to a serious impending crisis. It is the most polluted city in the country, topping Mexico City, Monterrey and Toluca. There is one car for every three inhabitants, while the Mexico City ratio is one to seven. Guadalajara also boasts more car accidents that any other metropolitan zone in Mexico. Sadly, by the year 2030, it is predicted that a person will be able to walk at a faster rate than a car can drive within the city, due to mounting congestion.

With all that in mind, Guadalajara is far behind the rest of the world’s cities in terms of a modern metro system. Comparing population density with lines of metro provided, the city is at the bottom of the list, even below others with a quarter the inhabitants.

“If you have the opportunity to travel to other places, you see other metro systems,” Hernandez said. “Monterrey is building four lines. Mexico City has the subway, another line like a monorail, and a suburban train.”

Group coordinator and University of Guadalajara law student Maria Andrea Cuellar Camarena speculates that the original metro system, planned in 1975 as seven lines to be built in two phases, was abandoned as the city’s political atmosphere changed. “The project could take up to six years to complete, so a governor doesn’t want to start a project and have someone else get credit for its success.”

“You’ll remember,” added Hernandez, “that the bus system is owned by important political figures.”

The energetic group has gained more support for the metro movement in the last five months than any other organization has since the Tren Ligero project was abandoned. Thousands of signatures were collected on petitions, and in March, the Jalisco State Congress voted unanimously in favor of metro construction in a “point of agreement”-not an initiative of law, but a recommendation for action.

“There is no impediment,” Hernandez explained. “We have money from other countries [Japan, France, and Germany have expressed interest in financing the project] and from companies [Siemens, Mitsubishi, Bombardier, and Alston].”

The former director of the Tren Ligero system was also in support of the project. Current director Diego Monraz, however, is another story. The group met with Monraz three months ago when he proposed the new “sustainable mobility plan” that includes the Macrobus lines now under construction.

“We asked him why the subway is not included in the mobility plan,” Camarena recalled. “It’s the backbone of a city. He told us that if he had all the money in the world he wouldn’t do it. He has since changed his mind but that was just for political acceptance.”

A request for an audience with Jalisco Governor Emilio Gonzalez, who group members believe opposes the project, was refused.

“He just doesn’t want to get into a project like this,” said Alfredo Rodriguez Aguirre, who owns a graphic design studio. “We are planning for the Pan American Games, and he doesn’t want to have all the roads under construction.”

The group had more luck with President Felipe Calderon, who they met briefly at a press conference on April 30.

“We told the president about the project and he thought it was interesting,” Hernandez said. “We’re going to ask him to do studies of metropolitan mobility. If we have a study no one can refuse or deny the importance of having a metro system.”

“Queremos un metro” members insist that there’s an urgent need for a more extensive, environmentally-friendly transport system in Guadalajara. Sighed Hernandez, “I think we have reached our limits.”

“There was a need then,” said officer Pablo Sainz AlbaƱez, referring to the original 1975 metro plan. “Think how much the population has grown since. For some reason, it’s no longer a priority.”

Any of the “Queremos un metro” members mentioned in this article can be contacted by email at