A Oaxacan Sig Alert… traffic is bad and it’s going to get worse!

A typical traffic day heading into the Central de Abastos in Oaxaca. [from imparcialoaxaca.com.mx]

The news is not good, at least for Oaxaca.

Every time I opened Google News this week, my headlines tell me this… According to INRIX, Oaxaca has the slowest traffic in the world!

How does a modern day city move past that type of world wide bad news? I’m not sure it’s possible because to do so, and fix the problem, would take an amount of creativity, will and of course dinero, that I am not sure exists. After all, Oaxaca is not a modern day city. It’s basically a schizophrenic outpost torn between its colonial roots and dreams of becoming that modern day metropolis.

To understand this, you need only go back to the roots of a drive to lessen traffic by building a bridge at the southern entrance of the city. The idea was to give through traffic a way to avoid the constant stop and go experience at some of the city’s busiest intersections thereby reducing traffic and congestion.

Spending hundreds of millions of pesos, many residents were asking why the bridge was even needed, preferring the government to spend that money helping the poor. Many people protested against the construction of the bridge claiming it would destroy the colonial roots of Oaxaca and bring even worse traffic and congestion. Their argument was easier access to the city center would encourage even more people to try and drive into the already overcrowded downtown area.

They were partially right.

The Eduardo Mata Bridge and resulting underpass, despite some construction problems, has indeed made access to the city easier, but downtown remains firmly rooted in its cultural roots and colonialism. Traffic however, as people alleged, has almost spiraled out of control.

On the heels of the INRIX report, the Mayor of Oaxaca, José Antonio Hernández Fraguas while acknowledging the problems, pinned most of the blame on narrow city streets never designed for thousands of cars. Certainly that is part of the problem, as is the nearly 400% increase in vehicles registered in the city. In just the last decade, according to the Mexico News Daily, vehicle numbers have jumped from 50,000 to 180,000. This does not include thousands of vehicles registered in the nearby State of Mexico, where registration fees are significantly lower.

Hernandez has suggested restricting the number of vehicles entering the historic city center and almost laughably, imposing a speed limit of 30 kilometers per hour. How, one might ask, will a 30KMH speed limit help when the average speed in the city during peak times is already below 6KMH? Most drivers I know would be ecstatic to see speeds approach 30KMH.

One positive thing Oaxaca has done is remove traffic lights from strategic locations and institute a “one by one” policy, allowing traffic to flow more freely. This has also resulted in fewer accidents. Even the taxi drivers I’ve talked to like it. However the longterm success of this program will depend on the willingness of stressed out drivers to cede their position to others in just as big a rush to get to that next event, or drop the kids off at school.

But perhaps the biggest impediments to solving the Oaxacan traffic riddle are two huge issues the Mayor did not address… parking and blockades.

As the Daily News article points out, double parking contributes mightily to congestion on already clogged streets. Unless and until there are other parking options available, and a professional police force to enforce already existing parking regulations, this will continue to be an ongoing headache. Sadly, like the arguments that raged over the bridge construction, even a parking lot for the Guelaguetza Arena raised the hackles of the local colonialists.

A day in the life of a blockade… in front of the entrance to the international airport in Oaxaca.

While parking is certainly a vexing issue here, the biggest problem confronting Oaxaca and its world class traffic are the blockedes, a way of life since 2006. These can spring up anywhere, anytime and for any reason as people try and get government attention for their personal causes. While traffic is heavy across the city on a daily basis, when you throw in a blockade that shuts down a major artery or intersection, the damage lasts all day, killing schedules, appointments and local businesses.

It is hard to overestimate how much damage the blockades are doing to the city. Traffic can be snarled for hours. To understand how much this negatively impacts business consider what I experienced when the airport was recently blockaded.

I had a small cement pour of 6 meters scheduled for the next day when the company called to tell me that because of the blockade, my delivery was being delayed a day. It was impossible they said, for their workers to get there or their trucks to leave the yard. And yet what was the government response? Unless you consider local police helping set up the blockade as a response, there was absolutely nothing done by either the city, state government or federal government to end the blockade.

And that happens almost daily across Oaxaca.

The Mayor of Oaxaca and the Governor of the State can dream all they want about less traffic in the city. They can install synchronized lights and even remove a million of the speed bumps that dot the city, but unless they show some political will, the blockades, and the congestion in the city, will remain a fixture.

It almost makes one wonder if the powers that be are closet colonialists and are in fact working to keep Oaxaca in first place, at least in this inglorious category.

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