Transport, Social Justice, City Governance, and Left Populism – an interview with Andrés Lajous

Andrés Lajous, the Secretary for Mobility in the city governmnent of Mexico City, in the newly elected administration of mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, has one of the most challenging jobs in city government anywhere in the world. Lajous, who comes to his role overseeing the transport system of CDMX via academia, has a background in urban planning and political sociology, and is one of a new generation of political figures brought to prominence through the political sea-change of 2018 in Mexico. A member of the political collective Democracia Deliberada — a group whose self-description is as a current in search of the lost left (“corriente política en busqueda de la izquierda perdida”), Andrés Lajous now has overall responsibility for the transport system of a city of more than 22 million people, where more than 34 million journeys are made every day. Here he talks with Renewal commissioning editor Martin O’Neill about the role of transport policy in creating more just societies, strategies for overcoming inequalities of wealth and power, and the emergence of a new left populism within Mexico.

Martin:                   Thank you very much, Andrés, for finding the time to talk: I realise quite how busy you must be! You’re taking on what seems to me a very daunting and difficult job as Secretary for Mobility (i.e. Transport Secretary) for Mexico City. Would you just say a little to outline what some of the big challenges are for that role in the years ahead?

Andrés:                  I’m responsible for coordinating all our transport system, which is the subway, the BRT [Bus Rapid Transit] lines, the privatised buses, which are the ones that you mostly see around the city, and also the electric trolleys. Mexico City is a very segregated city, not only in socioeconomic terms, but also in functional terms. That means that the central area of the city is clearly defined as the main job attractor area, and the periphery is where people spend their nights. The thing is that the people that have the worst trips on public transport, which might take between one and a half hours and two and a half hours, are people with lowest income.

Our main challenge is to reduce the time of travel and have a much better quality treatment for the longest trips. Probably one of the most important factors of inequality within the city is the quality of life and how much time people can spend doing their jobs, or being at home, instead of just travelling.

Martin:                   It seems that, although at first it might seem that organising the transportation system of a city is quite a technocratic job that’s primarily about overall improving economic efficiency, here given the spatial distribution of people by class within the city, it seems like this is actually right at the core of tackling social inequality. So I’m curious as to how far the transport system go in dealing with those sorts of social and economic inequalities? AMLO’s book (A New Hope for Mexico (Pluto Press, 2018)) just came out in English. One thing he talks a lot about is that there’s been very bad public procurement, and lots of corruption, lots of rent-seeking, a lot of bad decisions made about development. Can the transport system now do enough to correct for some of these problems?

Andrés:                  I think the transport system by itself can do a lot, although of course it’s not enough. I think that the most important thing is in the perspective of what shapes a city. You were saying maybe people see this type of job as a technocratic one. It’s just an engineering job, that you just need to connect what needs to be connected, and then travelling will be more efficient. Actually, this is a type of thing where you can really see that any type of public intervention that has a spatial component is very political, meaning that there will be beneficiaries, and there will be people affected.

Even if you have a scientific method for deciding, and even if you think that it’s neutral, once you are really dealing with these decisions, you know that they’re not neutral. It is a direct political choice saying, “We can make the transport systems better if we address it towards the periphery.” The downtown more and more might be exclusionary in terms of the availability of land, but in terms of just simple access to jobs and amenities, still the city is very diverse, and the public transport system allows it to be so.

On the weekend if you go to the biggest park in the city, which is Chapultepec, everybody goes through the metro. The public transport system by itself does address some of these issues of inequalities, but it is clear that the decisions government take, even if they look technocratic, they are distributive in their consequences.

Martin:                   I think that’s something that often people don’t take seriously enough. All of these decisions have a dimension that’s about distributive justice. It’s about who gets what, who wins, and who loses? To push that a bit further, how much scope is there to increase transport budgets? Are you able to do more to tax businesses in the city? Is there a way of taxing cars to then spend that money on buses and subways, and look to effect transfers in that way?

Andrés:                  Not at the moment, because I would say that the main challenge and the greatest difficulty is that still, because of our society, which is highly unequal, power is still very concentrated. You would think that a city where 80% of trips are done through public transport spends most of the political resources and human resources of the government in trying to fix the problems in public transport, but most of the time, the government spends it trying to fix problems for car drivers. It’s just that car drivers are the rich and powerful people in the city.

Also, you’ll get that inequality is reflected in the modes of transport people use, and then the ability of government to finance the public transport system through taxation of car drivers is very difficult. I would say, to be completely honest of what I think about this, it’s not just to take the easy answer is to say, yeah, we should just do congestion charging, we should be increasing the taxes on cars. We have to think about the distributive consequences of that.

There are still many areas of the city, particularly in the periphery, that are not connected to the transport system. Most car users are people that are in the top two deciles of income, right? But then the effect on the lowest deciles of income that have absolutely no option but to use a car, if you do any kind of restriction on cars, is also very important. It’s very hard to address both things at a time, trying to invest money in the public transport system, and then to manage the distributive consequences of any restrictions on cars. That’s one thing.

Andrés:                  The other is that in terms of taxes, as it is for income taxes, which are charged at the national level, there is a lot of evasion. When you tell people that you’re going to increase the price of the subway system at least a couple of pesos, that may be justifiable as the subsidy is more than 200% of the actual cost. It’s true, but at the same time, there’s so much tax evasion on the taxes that richer people pay that it’s very hard to argue, yeah, we’re going to charge something extra on the metro system, but we’re not going to really do anything about tax evasion. An extra peso is not that much money, but it’s just the easy way out, instead of really trying to deal with evasion.

Most of the income for Mexico City comes from property taxes. If you talk about increasing or revaluing property taxes, you’re covered in the media for three years, people will go to the Supreme Court, and so on. If you increase the subway one peso, there are some complaints. Three years ago, they increased it two pesos, supposedly to finance renovations, et cetera. Nothing has really changed. People are pissed off, but it’s not in the media anymore. It’s not an issue. So it is very challenging to solve the financing of all this.

Martin:                   So there’s a lot of inequality of voice and inequality of influence and of power, as well as an inequality of financial means. Are there things that you’ll be doing to try and get the voices of the people from the periphery areas into the public debate on transport? Will people in those areas be involved in helping to design the solutions to these problems?

Andrés:                  There are two things in which the participation of the people will become important. One is, in the places where we’re going to have infrastructure projects in the periphery, like for example we’re going to build a network of cable cars. In those areas, just the possibility of building infrastructure without having community participation is impossible, because there’s very little state penetration. You have to deal with communities. Communities are happy about this kind of infrastructure, because it will decrease their time to go down to the main metro stations. But the communities have to be considered in various ways regarding the impact of the infrastructure.

Another issue where we have to involve communities is that in the case of the private operators of the bus system. We’re talking about thousands of people that provide a service to the city in conditions where it is not very easy for them to provide the service, because the city has a fixed price for the busing system, on the ticket, and the relationship with the government has always been kind of informal, and used for extortion. Then you start talking to them, and their complaints are fairly obvious and expected when you see how the system actually works.

What we think is that we have to take these private operators as legitimate participants of the transport system. We think that that’s a way in which we can reform the system, and at the same time not exclude the people that have always provided the service under very restricted conditions.

At the same time, and just to show you the inequality, when you start dealing with the size and power of big companies, like Uber, Didi, that’s much harder to deal with than the traditional bus operators. Those, for the whole working of the system, really worry me. They have so many users, so much money, it’s very hard to regulate them. That becomes way more complicated than the traditional bus drivers.

Martin:                   With this huge political change in Mexico, it seems like there’s a kind of new generation of people who’ve come into politics. Many of you have come through from academia, and been involved with the Democracia Deliberada group. Can you say a little bit about that group and about how the outlook and the thinking of that group informs the way that you think about the role that you’ll be doing in the city government?

Andrés:                  Well, some of us were already political activists. Some of us were linked to academia. We are all very policy-oriented. Part of the problem of the left in Mexico is that we don’t have their own technocracy, and sometimes debates in the public sphere need to be acted out as technocratic debates. If the left doesn’t have that capacity, it’s going to be very hard to convince a majority of the population. Every Tuesday we meet [as Democracia Deliberada]. Sessions are open to the public. We discuss various topics, and the aim of the meeting is to have a position on something, which is made public. We said, “People that agree with us are companions. People that disagree with us will be our adversaries.” We defined it as adversarial, even if it was very deliberative.

The group moved towards the populist Left because of what was going on in Mexico. For many people in the group, their outlook was changed by the experience of politics in the last six, seven years. When you talk about inequality in Mexico and about policies and politics to solve or to address our level of inequality, it’s very hard not to see it as a problem of political exclusion that needs to be addressed.

In that sense, populism is a type of politics that provides means of inclusion which our traditional politics in Mexico had not provided. Even if since 2000, we’ve had regular democratic elections, the electoral process by itself did not represent, for many people, a form of inclusion into politics and into decision-making, whereas participation in a populist movement does that. Still, at the same time, we’ve kept this adversarial part, which is very characteristic of populism.

It’s just it’s very hard in the context of Mexico to feel that politics made any sense if it wasn’t adversarial. Politics needs confrontation, because it needs to define very clearly that when there’s any kind of policy, we have beneficiaries and any kind of policy will affect people. If you don’t make this all explicit, then you’re just dealing and wheeling within the same people and things will stay the same, right?

Martin:                   That’s just a wonderful note on which to end. Andrés, thanks ever so much.

With many thanks to James Hickson, Claudio López-Guerra, and Sara Hidalgo.