RALEIGH, North Carolina — The impoverished barrio of Santo Domingo in Medellín, Colombia, was once difficult to access from the metropolitan area of the Aburra Valley below it. However, with the introduction of a cable-propelled transit system, Medellín has evolved into a connected urban hub. Like several other hillside slums in large cities of Latin America, the barrio is the result of rapid urbanization in the 20th century outpacing the ability of the local government to ensure that new development comes about in an orderly and regulated fashion. Upon arrival, large numbers of impoverished rural migrants found that Medellín lacked affordable formal housing options, opting to create informal settlements on the steep hillside terrain above the Aburra Valley.
The Impacts of Lacking Transport Infrastructure
For decades, the underserved residents of the Santo Domingo barrio felt geographically and socially distant from the city they could so visibly see in the Aburra Valley below. This stunted the barrio’s economic prospects and crime became rampant. Medellín city officials eventually came to believe that, to spur revitalization, Santo Domingo required greater accessibility to the city in the Aburra Valley. But, the rugged hillside terrain and high population density made robust road infrastructure impractical, and besides, a bus ride down to the valley was a lengthy trip.
Cable-Propelled Mass Public Transit is Born
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and in terms of public transit, the only practical way to transport people in a relatively straight line from steep hillsides to the valley below is with cable-propelled transit (CPT). Tourist settings and entertainment venues, such as ski resorts and fairs, had long used CPT. However, CPT was never used for the purpose of mass public transportation. Medellín changed this with the introduction in 2004 of its MetroCable CPT system.
The Medellín MetroCable system consists of two main cable lines — one on the east side of the city and one on the west side — that connect to the metro system in the valley. Tens of thousands of people depend on the MetroCable for their daily transportation needs, and fortunately, it does not cost them much at just 2,000 COP (currently equal to $0.53) per trip. The MetroCable is also Medellín’s number one tourist attraction. For an additional fee of 4,600 COP, passengers can continue past Santo Domingo into Parque Arvi National Park. This gives the local Santo Domingo residents access to outdoor recreation and to tourist dollars as people travel through.
MetroCable’s Transformative Role
MetroCable plays a transformative role in the low-income hillside neighborhoods it now serves, including the Santo Domingo barrio. Residents of these communities can now reach jobs in the city valley more quickly, safely and dependably since they no longer need to take buses down narrow, winding and poorly managed roads. These residents can now see a vested interest in their once marginalized communities on the part of the government.
The results are more civically engaged citizens and an influx of outside investment into the area. Banking locations and thriving businesses nearby the stations help anchor the communities’ economies. Noting the introduction of MetroCable to provide safe, efficient and affordable transportation to some of Medellín’s most impoverished citizens, other cities in Latin America followed suit with similar CPT systems.
La Paz/El Alto, Bolivia
Mi Teleférico is the world’s highest elevation CPT system as well as its longest. It opened in 2014 and connects La Paz (the capital of Bolivia; elevation 3,650 meters) to the city of El Alto (elevation 4,000 meters). The Mi Teleférico CPT system helps give El Alto citizens, including the indigenous Aymaran people who make up a majority of El Alto’s citizenry, greater access to job opportunities in the much wealthier city of La Paz. Hundreds of thousands of passengers use the system daily at a rate of about $0.43 per one-way trip. Those with disabilities, the elderly and students pay about half that amount, making the system accessible to all.
In the capital city of Bogota, Colombia, officials used a loan from the International Finance Corporation to help fund the development of Bogota’s CPT system, TransMiCable. Reaching completion in 2018, TransMiCable connects the low-income Ciudad Bolivar hillside district to the city down below. A flat fee of 2,500 COP (roughly $0.67) allows users to use not only TransMiCable but also the city’s rapid bus transit system, TransMilenio.
CPT Project Failures
The United Nations says, “participatory planning can play an important role” in building “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” cities. In the aforementioned CPT success stories, city planners chose to engage with locals to obtain their input prior to implementation. Unfortunately, this was not the case in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, when the city built a CPT system to serve the hillside favelas of Morros da Providência and Complexo do Alemao as part of an infrastructure push prior to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
The citizens of these favelas did not welcome the expensive project, citing a failure on the part of Rio officials to gauge the true needs of the residents. Residents saw the project as yet another misuse of funds, considering they did not have dependable access to clean water or sanitation. As a result, ridership of the Rio de Janeiro CPT system has remained low.
Empowering the Impoverished
With the correct implementation and engagement, cable-propelled transit systems can empower impoverished and marginalized hillside communities that crave greater accessibility to nearby commercial centers. With greater connection, communities are able to unify and collaborate for the greater good of all — such is the power of public transportation.
– Jeramiah Jordan
Photo: Wikimedia Commons