“Bajan!” Anyone who has ridden public transportation in Tijuana has shouted those two syllables. There are no real bus stops in the city, the few that exist are symbolic. You can yell “bajan” at any moment of your ride. The driver will pull over as soon as possible and open the door for you (it can be in the middle of the highway). There are no maps and no indications of routes, except whatever you can make out of the improvised signs on the front of the bus or taxi de ruta (route taxi).
The cheapest public transportation for 10 pesos (60 cents) is the bus, also called calafias. The backseats of some of these mostly ancient buses shake like mechanical bulls. I have ridden more than a couple of calafias that broke down while trying to negotiate the hills of the city. Some buses spew heavy black smoke from their tailpipes. A few buses are modern, but for the most part they are former school buses from California semi-converted to suit public transit.
The second cheapest option is a taxi de ruta, sometimes called taxi colectivo, a car or van with a semi-established route that you share with other passengers for 12 to 18 pesos, depending on route and time of day. There are more than a couple dozen routes with different types of vehicles — old and modern, big and small. The combinations of colors indicate the route. The only way to find out which route takes you where is by asking around, and you don’t always get the right answer.
Then there are all the different independent taxis that have been competing against each other for decades. The addition of Uber over a year ago added a new player to the battle. Taxistas are not happy with the new competition, and they’ve been fighting the ride service within and without the frame of the law. In defense of what they call their “territory,” taxistas have attacked Uber drivers and passengers. Uber was declared legal by the Tijuana government in July 2016, but that hasn’t stopped taxistas’ rage against competition they deem unfair.
Most tijuanenses agree, the city’s public transit has always been chaotic. But the municipal government is taking another shot at bringing order to public transportation by introducing a bus system named Sistema Integral de Transporte de Tijuana, known locally by as SITT (pronounced seat). Announced to the public in September 2015 by means of an inspirational futuristic video, the transportation system promises to revolutionize public transit with buses that have air conditioning and security cameras, a smart-card payment system, and even Wi-Fi at the cost of 13.50 pesos per ride (around 65¢). Authorities promise it will have a functional and on-time schedule.
“The future is for those who believe in it,” states a promotional video. Their translated motto is “SITT is the transport that Tijuana deserves, #ItIsNowAReality.”
The project costs approximately $60 million and is funded by the federal and state governments, as well as international investors. The first phase, which opened in November 2016, includes 51 stations, two terminals, and 60 buses that will serve 120,000 passengers a day.
The main route is a 23-mile loop known as Ruta Troncal, or trunk route (as in the trunk of a tree). One of its 51 platforms is located near the San Ysidro border entry, which takes you to one of the main terminals along downtown’s Avenida Revolución and continues through the most famous and oldest avenue in Tijuana. It turns east to Zona Rio on 8th street and extends southeast via Tijuana’s main highway (Via Rapida) to Insurgentes Boulevard to the other main terminal by the far east end of the city. The bus will run in shared lanes with regular traffic and some dedicated lanes where private vehicles will not be allowed.
The main terminal located in downtown is one block north of the Arch on the street corner where Coahuila meets Avenida Revolución, in the Zona Norte area. Cheap hotels and sketchy dive bars contrast with the modern-looking terminal. Businesses in that block haven’t seen much action in recent years. I witnessed an older woman hanging up clothes to dry in what used to be the main entrance of the Purple Rain brothel and Luciernaga Hotel.
The terminal is catty-corner from a gay strip club named Premier. One block to the west, street hookers work all hours of the day and night and clubs operate 24 hours a day. Dark alleys in the area are known for the selling of all sorts of drugs. There is a church in between two brothels and a middle school not far.
The mafia is not happy
This is not the first time Tijuana has attempted a massive overhaul of public transit. The last six mayors of Tijuana tried and failed. In the late 1990s there was talk about building a trolley system similar to San Diego’s. The plans never materialized, at least partly due to vehement opposition by powerful transportation unions that tijuanenses often collectively named la mafia de taxistas. There were other failed attempts at formalizing public transit throughout the 2000s, but it wasn’t until 2012 that funds were approved to create the new bus system.
“We have a constant supervision by Los Pinos personnel,” Tijuana mayor Jorge Astiazarán said in a press conference on February 9th. (Los Pinos is Mexico’s White House.) “The big difference is that this program is supported by the federal government. It is a promise given by President Peña Nieto’s campaign. All of the work is already under contract.”
The tour of the first rapid-transit bus was July 29th of this year, with Astiazarán accompanied by transportation system officials and other public transit agents, as well as members of the press. The tour got off to a rocky start as taxistas blocked the bus’s path and pelted it with rocks.
According to the local government, the new bus system was 78 percent complete as of August 18.“We have made the effort. We said it, SITT is a reality,” continued Astiazarán. “It is a modern system endorsed by the secretary of communications and transport, and it is the responsibility of the next administration to continue with the second, third, and even fourth phases of the project.”
The next mayor, Juan Manuel “El Patas” Gastélum, is a candidate from the PAN party. The party currently in power is the PRI. Gastélum came into office the first day of December after winning a tight and contentious race on June 5th. Public transit businesses showed avid support for PAN and ardent negative remarks against PRI.
Public transit businesses have opposed SITT since it was first announced in September 2015. But in the first week of February 2016, 12 public transit businesses signed a document endorsing the project in what they called “a compromise agreement.” A couple of days after signing, nine businesses said they felt cheated by the mayor’s administration as they made some changes and expansions to the document that only benefited five businesses. Protests took place immediately. Taxistas compared Mayor Astiazarán to Hitler and blamed him for stealing their patrimony. Public transit businesses recently challenged the project with more than 900 injunctions and continue to oppose changes to public transit.
“We have to sensitize drivers and pedestrians,” said Astiazarán in a recent interview with Zeta News. “What we are trying to do is for the population to leave their vehicle behind and opt for this modern, economic, and comfortable transit system. There will be more traffic [in some areas], but in the long run there will be less.”
Tijuana has seen a heavy increase in traffic in recent days, due to simultaneous public works and a 13 percent increase in vehicles. Throughout the city there are new traffic lights creating havoc, posts placed in front of new sidewalk ramps, confusing signage worded like haiku, new bike lanes where cyclists rarely ride, and other general construction.
Astiazarán’s administration rushed to get the first phase of of the transportation system running before he left office on November 30th, and the first bus ran on November 20th to the displeasure of the transportistas, who blocked the bus’s path and punctured its tires. The new mayor, Gastélum, garnered part of his support through these same transportistas. Much of the public assumes the system will never reach the level of efficiency that’s been promised.