Tijuana’s Getting a $61 Million Transit Makeover

The Mexican border city is moving from old U.S. school buses to a 23-mile bus rapid transit system.

Story by Johnny Magdaleno

Photography by Johnny Magdaleno

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América Rangél’s family could never afford a car, so like the estimated 300,000 other residents who depend on mass transit in Tijuana, Mexico, the 23-year-old industrial design student keeps a mental layout of the city that pairs streets and neighborhoods with the color-coded buses and taxis that navigate them.

To get from her house in the San Antonio de los Buenos neighborhood to the city center, she takes a taxi de ruta — one of the mélange of striped cargo vans that clog the streets during rush hour — for a 30-minute trip. From there, she hops on an orange bus, for a 45-minute ride to her class at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC) in Valle de las Palmas, a neighborhood between Tijuana and Tecate. When she was working at Macroplaza, just southeast of Tijuana’s city center, she had another 90-minute taxi van commute from class to her old job.

Tijuana’s public transit companies have no central office, no help center, no detailed route maps. In fact, the service they offer is less a system, and more a patchwork of disgruntled drivers who often drive exactly how they feel. Traveling in the city requires patience and grace, and once you’ve picked one from a multicolor herd of vehicles to get you where you need to go, the only guarantee is that there’s no guarantee you’ll arrive on time. “At least once every two weeks a bus will break down and we’ll have to wait and board another bus,” says Rangél. “That means arriving to class 30 or 40 minutes late when the teacher only tolerates 15 minutes.”

Sometimes, there’s no service at all. Rangél and her friends made local headlines earlier this year when one of the evening buses that typically service UABC never showed up. They got out of class at 5 p.m., during the peak of winter, and the sun had started to set. Her and about 30 other students waited more than an hour and a half for the driver to arrive, and when he didn’t, they had to walk 30 minutes on a pitch black road, the sound of coyotes howling in the vague distance around them, until they found a housing tract that got service from another private taxi company.

“Days later, I found out that the bus did finally arrive at the school, but an hour and a half after we left,” she says.

América Rangél is an industrial design student in Tijuana. 

The city’s buses are run by 14 private companies contracted out by the city. Tijuana’s taxi network is also private — 33 companies run along 127 different routes. All of them are competing for streets, passengers and money, and if there’s a dispute between transportation operators over who controls which route, the residential areas, or colonias, along them won’t see a taxi or bus until the companies reach a resolution.

Before the end of the year, Rangél will be one of an estimated 120,000 Tijuana residents who will benefit from the first phase of a $61 million, 23-mile bus rapid transit system, called the Sistema Integral de Transporte Tijuana, or SITT. Air-conditioned buses with WiFi, transfer tickets that cost 75 cents, and a reduction in transit times by 25 to 30 percent are all amenities that José Alonso López Sepúlveda, director of the SITT program, says Tijuanenses can expect as soon as November.

“It’s a city project,” he says. To him, the people set to benefit the most are those on the outskirts of the city, like students at UABC Valle de las Palmas, who’ve suffered for too long at the hands of erratic passenger vans and taxis. What his city is about to debut is far more than just a line of shiny new buses, he says. “It’s about reforming, in this moment, the idea of movement in Tijuana.”


Tijuana is derided by many in the U.S. as a capital of vice and a battleground for Mexico’s drug cartels, but these traits can’t stack up to its significance as one of North America’s major economic channels. In 2015, there were 72 million legal crossings into the United States through Tijuana — including everything from pedestrians to semitrucks — making it the world’s busiest border crossing. As a transnational urban area, Tijuana and its U.S. neighbor San Diego have an economy with an estimated value of $230 billion. The mayors of both cities say that, with the right investments in already booming industries like medical manufacturing, the region has the potential to become an even greater economic powerhouse. “We’re going to convince the world that it’s better to invest in San Diego and Tijuana than China or India,” Tijuana Mayor Jorge Astiazarán told Bloomberg News last year.

Residents say it’s in the midst of a cultural revival and tourism boom, but its longstanding issues with poverty remain intractable. Tens of thousands of Mexican nationals get repatriated from the U.S. to Tijuana every year, but government and local developers have failed to keep up with the populations that stick around to look for jobs, stay close to their families in Southern California or wait for opportunities to cross back into the U.S. Migrants arriving in Tijuana from both Latin America and U.S. deportations often take up housing in informal settlements that sprawl east toward Mexicali, southwest toward Rosarito, and north, where illegal buildings on slabs of undeveloped land run along the hills before suddenly dropping off against the border wall.

To build their shelters, the poorest communities have used garbage from the United States for decades. Neighborhoods in Los Laureles, for example, are quilts of refuse: houses made out of garage doors from San Diego, propped up on hillsides by retainer walls built from discarded tires also from San Diego. Post-World War II bungalows from that Southern Californian city, facing demolition, are bought up by Mexican contractors and installed on steel frames in outskirt neighborhoods with just enough space beneath to host taco stands, car service centers and other stores.

But it’s not just migrant communities that have relied on the United States’ junk to make ends meet. The city’s public transport companies have built an entire system from it. Many of the city’s 3,600 buses were once U.S. school buses. Forty percent are more than 11 years old, mechanically unsound and have emissions rates that are off the charts. They’re loud, slow and prone to breakdowns, and if you stand too close to one as it takes off from a stop, you’ll get a blast of exhaust and a 10-second coughing fit.

Like most of the city’s transit riders, Rangél has accumulated a short but remarkable list of transit horror stories: buses veering off the side of the road because of careless driving, drivers stuffing buckets in the back as extra seats to squeeze in a couple more paying passengers, and costs per ride that, she says, increase every year. She’s not employed right now, but when she worked in the city’s business district, Zona Río, last year, the $54 dollars she spent each month ate up nearly one-fifth of her $258 monthly income.

All of this is why Tijuana’s transportation is often regarded as the least efficient and the most expensive public transit system in all of Mexico. For the service these transit companies deliver, Tijuanenses are severely overcharged. Tijuana is the largest city in the Mexican state of Baja California, and of the estimated 106,000 Baja residents living below Mexico’s extreme poverty threshold of $1.25 U.S. a day, nearly 56,000 of them live in Tijuana. The average salary in Baja California hovers around $490 a month, and that government data doesn’t factor in informal workers. Employees in the infamous maquilas, or manufacturing warehouses, can make as little as $310 a month, and minimum wage throughout the country is $4.25 a day. Meanwhile, bus rides back and forth from work in Tijuana can cost anywhere from $2 to $4 per day.

That means for the city’s poor and working class, public transportation costs can eat up anywhere from 20 to 70 percent of their monthly income.

Residents like Wally Guillermo, 26, refer to the transportation companies as “transportation mafias” because of their feudal and sometimes violent control over streets. Unions in the tourist transport sector target competitors with rocks in the heart of Tijuana over route and passenger disputes, and contractors with the ride-hailing service Uber have been thrashed by taxi drivers in taxi-dense areas like the San Ysidro border crossing.

But if you’ve lived in Tijuana, it’s just expected. “There’s a 50 percent chance you’re going to have a bad experience” when you board a bus or taxi, says Guillermo. He commutes 13 miles to his teaching job in Rosarito every day with a taxi de ruta. He says it’s not uncommon for the driver of his vehicle — a van that seats eight people — to try and pack in up to 16 people each trip.

“Like sardines,” he says.

“They just want to cut corners, save some money — but also make a lot of money. They buy used vans but paint them up to make them look nice, then you get inside and they’re pretty dirty. They don’t get any maintenance,” he says. On a recent trip, a taxi driver threatened to pull the car over and fistfight Guillermo on the side of the road because he asked to turn the music down.


Sepúlveda is one of the many optimists in the current Tijuana administration who thinks the time has never been more ripe for a BRT project. “This system will benefit the people of Tijuana in a way they have never seen before,” the SITT director says, a laminated map of the border city blanketing the wall behind him.

His office is a building on a small slice of street corner at the edge of Zona Río. It’s marked by a lone vinyl banner, “SITT” set in big text across its length, that faces out to the street. There are no formal entrances, just an unmarked steel door that swings open to a hall of cubicles. Instead of a welcome desk, a woman pops her head up from one of the cubicles to toss a greeting in your direction. The office represents the city’s first effort to congregate its transit service into one administrative hub.

Blocks away, construction crews work steadfastly to fix sheets of glass and smooth out concrete ramps in what will become one of the city’s largest BRT stops, just meters away from the U.S.-Mexico border wall. The map behind Sepúlveda, however, envisions a city where the dust from these projects has long settled.

Red, green and yellow lines streak down the center of his map at an angle, and branch off toward the corners like a nervous system. A full rollout, he says, will only take three years. “The [main] corridor was proposed across many administrations,” he says. “There have been many studies already, but no government has been able to achieve what we’ve done.”

Original plans for Tijuana’s SITT system stalled, according to Salvador Herrera, a planning adviser for UN-Habitat, which focuses on sustainable urban development, because the city was too worried about disrupting the flow of car traffic with a series of public works that cut up the streets for an extended period of time.

“They preferred to put the corridor wherever it wouldn’t have interference with cars,” he says. “They were putting it along the [Tijuana] river bed, where there was no demand, and the connection was really bad.” Unsurprisingly, these original efforts failed to get backing from the federal government’s Public Transportation Federal Support Program, or PROTRAM, which works with the World Bank to plan and fund public transit systems in cities throughout the country.

Sepúlveda worked with the current administration in Tijuana, helmed by Jorge Astiazarán, and a group of researchers to bring the project to life after five years of delays. He spent 20 days traveling around on old buses from district to district throughout Tijuana with city staff, asking passengers and people on the street where they were going, where they were coming back to, and where they needed to be at what times.

In the end, “we spoke with hundreds of people,” he says.

They also consulted closely with other Mexican cities that have installed BRT systems, like Mexico City, Guerrero and Nuevo León, and major institutions that have had a hand in developing BRT systems throughout the country, like UN-Habitat, the federal government and the World Bank — which is helping fund half of Tijuana’s BRT project.

On top of sharing know-how, these groups are also helping Tijuana accomplish a remarkable feat: It won’t have to go into debt to get this project up and running. Nearly $28 million is coming from the federal government through PROTRAM, another $14 million from a World Bank credit, and $19 million from Tijuana tax revenue, according to the city’s public affairs office.


The new system is designed to connect Zona Río and other commercial sections of the city to outlying residential neighborhoods, including rural colonias. From the new BRT terminal in the heart of Florido, a low-income neighborhood of dusty streets where shop names are painted on wood or corrugated iron, auxiliary buses will circle east and west of the main route, spreading throughout the streets that circumvent Cerro Colorado, Tijuana’s highest peak. It’ll reach into the densest and in some cases unpaved regions of eastern Tijuana, giving those neighborhoods a link to the heart of the city.

Many of Tijuana's buses are old, converted U.S. school buses. 

With the current transportation system, each new bus you board means purchasing your seat at costs that range from 8 to 15 pesos (41 to 78 cents U.S.). With SITT, as is common with BRT systems throughout the world, the single ticket you buy when you first board for your commute covers you for every short-term transfer thereafter.

On top of a fleet of 546 buses powered by natural gas and low-emission diesel, and two massive terminals in Zona Río and the Florido area, the city is installing fiber-optic cables along the main route to help monitor bus performance and give riders waiting at stops up-to-date arrival times. Hundreds of workers, predominantly from Tijuana, have been contracted out by 12 different local construction companies to complete these public works projects.

Most of these jobs, however, will end when the system is done being built, and although a synchronized public transit system like this has been touted for decades as a way to reduce barriers to getting around in a city and create economic opportunities, still unproven is how benefits will reach Tijuana’s most vulnerable residents. If a BRT system isn’t incorporated into a greater municipal plan that’s aimed at upping all kinds of mobility methods — biking routes, walking routes, park-and-ride stations — it might not actually provide the equity boon that politicians anticipate.

“In and of itself, it isn’t going to do too much for the low-income,” says Enrique Silva, a researcher at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy who oversees Latin America and the Caribbean. “Depending on what low-income bracket you’re looking at, because of wages and salaries, the BRT might be affordable to middle- and lower-middle-income families, and still be unaffordable to other houses and incomes.”

“A lot of it depends on the way it’s planned, the way its routes are, how far it extends, how far it penetrates,” he says. One community benefit commonly associated with BRT lines is that they raise land values, but the jury on whether that effect can be replicated in other countries is still out. A 2004 report on land value impact in Bogotá, Colombia, suggests that rental values decrease by 7 to 9 percent every 5 minutes you walk away from the city’s BRT line, but researchers in other parts of the world have criticized past studies on BRT land value impacts as insufficient and inconclusive.

Already in Tijuana, property owners are anticipating higher land costs because of the new system. Abel Lopez Dodero, a transport specialist with the World Bank, says he’s noticed movement by once-shuttered businesses in the Zona Norte — the spine of Tijuana’s legal red light district.

“Before the construction started, that area was terrible,” he says. When he went to visit in July, city authorities told him that people who own the commercial buildings around the Zona Norte terminal, where the line starts, are already talking about opening the shops and storefronts they closed years ago because of crime.

“A lot of people are interested in renting and leasing these spaces for various commercial proposals,” says Lopez Dodero. “The people that are living there have started to paint their houses,” with the hope that they can cash in on their properties if value does increase.

He expects other property owners along the system’s many touch points throughout the city to do the same. The buses themselves will be divided into three systems, each of which will operate side-by-side with the already existing bus and taxi company services to make sure citizens can ease into the new system as the old one fades out. Property owners may also try to capitalize on the increased value of the area near the eight new pedestrian bridges that are coming with the SITT plan. These new bridges will cross over the Tijuana River, a ravine that splits the city in half and parallels the BRT’s central vein.

Herrera, the adviser at UN-Habitat, says those additional links position Tijuana to take advantage of a transportation system that’s as equitable and environmentally conscious as possible.

“They are planning a rezoning strategy, which includes lots that are a certain distance from the corridor, to make sure [these properties] receive the benefits of higher density and land use and construction plans,” says Herrera. Next, he says, the city needs to look into a whole range of policies aimed not only at increasing ridership, but also at decreasing the amount of smoggy cars on the road. Cap-and-trade programs with businesses, public awareness campaigns for engine checkups, parking meters and stations — every angle possible to loosen the grip that automobiles have over the streets and air quality of Tijuana.

But if there’s one sect of the city that doesn’t think so highly of the SITT, it’s taxi drivers. To them, with the project comes the threat of widespread unemployment.

In June, drivers clogged the streets in front of Tijuana’s City Hall by halting their vehicles on the street to dam traffic. They’re uniting against what they perceive as the “monopolization” of public transit, and are going as far as comparing Astiazarán to Hitler.

In a distinct but affiliated instance of protest, some taxi drivers have been staging an ongoing hunger strike in front of City Hall since July, urging the government to issue driver’s licenses to people who claim they’ve been waiting for three years to get properly registered for work.

The protest of the city’s inefficient licensing bureaucracy is not directly associated with SITT, but it’s added fuel to the debate between government and Tijuana’s transit companies. When Astiazarán boarded a SITT bus to give members of the press a tour of the new bus fleet in July, taxi drivers formed a wall in front of the bus, waving placards and shouting for the mayor to allow them their right to work before fights broke out between police and the men. One of them laid beneath the bus’s tires to prevent it from running.

Attempts at interviewing multiple taxi drivers on the streets of Tijuana were met with silence. Some responded that they wouldn’t talk because “the press are liars.” Others denied the conflicts. But Lupita Alegría, a 20-year-old driver, says she wondered what would happen to her older colleagues.

“I work part-time at a restaurant, so I’ll survive,” she says, sitting on the sidewalk near a fleet of maroon taxis de la ruta, her eyes squinting in the sun. “But there are a lot of people who depend 100 percent on this job. What’s going to happen to them? Many of them came back here after being deported from the U.S. and now work this job.”

They’ve watched as their bosses leaped from vehement opposition of the new SITT system to striking deals with the local government to make sure they get a stake in the future of Tijuana transit. Underneath the title “empresa de empresas,” or company of companies, at least 12 of Tijuana’s transportation companies have agreed to work with the government to help run and operate the new SITT system. Bus drivers for the new fleet will be selected from existing transportation companies who can show they can act professional, follow procedure and get from stop to stop at their scheduled time — demands that drivers previously knew as mere suggestions.

But there are only so many driving opportunities to go around, and some transit operators say they’ve been kept in the dark on how to access that job market. On a street corner on Avenida Revolución, a 50-year-old taxi driver who would only give his name as Pedro Juan, said that even though taxis will still operate on their own outside the SITT bus system during this initial phase, he’s not sure what his life will be like a few years down the line.

“There isn’t a lot of information,” he said. “We don’t know anything. We weren’t included in that program.” When asked if he thought taxi drivers should have been included, he nodded. “Yes, of course,” he said, adding he didn’t know what his future as a taxi driver looked like.

Boarding the BRT Trend

BRT systems have spiked in popularity in the past five years, going from 120 cities worldwide in 2011 to 207 cities today. In Latin America, they more than doubled, from 32 cities to 69 in the same time period. More than 60 percent of the 34 million daily BRT passengers riding in cities across the world live in Latin America, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

But to the World Bank’s Lopez Dodero, there isn’t a country in the world that supports developing BRT systems quite as efficiently as Mexico does.

“In terms of urban mobility in cities, it’s usually states that have the control. The federal government often has very little say,” says Lopez Dodero. “That’s why [PROTRAM] is so important. It gives the federal government an instrument so that it can encourage cities to advance in sustainable transport solutions.”

The World Bank loans money directly to PROTRAM, which the federal government then gives to cities to cover up to 50 percent of transit project costs. The federal government pays its loans back to the World Bank with low interest rates, while the cities themselves get to treat the money as a credit.

“It’s the direction cities are moving in Mexico,” Lopez Dodero continues. He points to Mexico City as an example of both the potential and challenge of new BRT systems. That city has had a BRT line in place since 2005. “Despite the fact that you see a lot of cars and traffic jams, 60 percent of trips in the [city] are being made by public transportation,” with at least 850,000 riders using BRT every day. He says that at least 16 new cities are getting funding to start their own BRT systems in Mexico, and another 23 are running technical studies with BRT in mind.

For Tijuana’s BRT, success is far from guaranteed. The bus lines are going to have to compete directly with private transportation companies until the entire system rolls out three years from now. November’s initial demo will be backed by a government-led public relations campaign, and the old informal buses will be prohibited from entering certain routes covered by BRT buses, but a smooth start depends on whether or not the public turns away from the public transit culture it’s relied on for decades and toward the new Volvo fleet.

It’ll also take time to ingrain system tools like a smart card, which riders will use to access boarding stations. For the informal and low-income working classes of Tijuana, that’s like introducing a new form of currency, according to Lopez Dodero.

But BRTs have never failed to overcome these issues throughout Latin America, where transportation has historically been informal and private transit companies wield sway over local politics. Outside of Tijuana, BRT systems faced mass resistance from transit companies in cities like Santiago, Chile, and Quito, Ecuador, according to Silva. In Mexico City, where the government encountered an initial BRT backlash similar to what Tijuana’s seeing now with private transport companies, routes were unveiled little by little to help transit riders replace old-school transit routes with BRT buses.

Tijuana’s government is taking a page from that book. At this point, “there is no actual large plan for removing these types of [private transport] services,” says Lopez Dodero. Decommissioning the groups and their decrepit vehicles will have to be a key component of phase two.

Once these hurdles are overcome, other cities have seen new systems succeed because of the very reason they were installed: They improve the lives of residents like Rangél who can’t afford cars.

“What we are expecting to see is that, because the BRT system will provide a faster and cleaner and to some extent cheaper form of public transit, you will see that if people see their experiences improved in general, they will prefer to use this system so the demand for [private transportation] will stop,” Lopez Dodero says.

On a recent Wednesday, Rangél woke up at 4:30 a.m., like she does every weekday, to prepare for the commute to school. Her first bus to the city center was late by 30 minutes. Once she arrived, she waited for 15 minutes with a line of a few dozen students as the occasional taxi de ruta pulled up to the curb and its driver barked at the crowd to climb in the back.

Crunched into the car, elbows jammed into windows and digging into ribs, heads pressed firmly against the ceiling, the students wait out the 45-minute ride by studying or listening to music. Ten minutes out from the school, Rangél points to a spot in the road where a pregnant woman got in a non-fatal car accident with a taxi de ruta driver because he forgot to put his blinker on.

Rangél arrives 30 minutes late to class. She’ll go home again at 5 p.m., fall asleep at 10 p.m. or 2 a.m. — “depending on if I have homework,” she says — and wake up at 4:30 the next morning to repeat the same trip.

Taxis de ruta swing into the school’s parking lot every few minutes, and a small stream of students hop out and walk toward the campus. No one seems particularly bothered by their arduous commute; they’re used to it. As Rangél watches the students approach, she says that’s because getting used to it is the only option they’ve ever had.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Johnny Magdaleno is a journalist, writer and photographer. His writing and photographs have been published by The Guardian, Al Jazeera, NPR, Newsweek, VICE News, the Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and others. He was the 2016-2017 equitable cities fellow at Next City. 

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