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Can Latin America Integrate Its Poor?

Some Global South cities are using escalators and cable cars to connect their hill slums with city centers, showcasing how imaginative infrastructure can improve life for residents in isolated areas.

Medellin, Colombia, has built a multi-line Metrocable network of aerial tramways, or cable cars, that cost $71 million and today carries 16 million riders.
Latin America has been urbanizing with shocking speed over the past few decades. One type of growth pattern has been the informal settlements, often built on hills, that the poor occupy illegally. These slums house large percentages of the urban population and become notorious for crime and lack of sanitation. But while traveling the region these last few months, I saw efforts to connect them to central areas using metrocables. The city of Medellin, in Colombia, is the pioneer, but its experiment is spreading elsewhere, quickly becoming a Latin American best practice.

The cause of these slums is complicated, but the general narrative is that poor rural migrants come to cities for opportunity, can't find housing, and often "invade public lands" (as it's colloquially said) to build makeshift settlements. In Brazil, for example, the earliest documented favelas date to the early 1900s, when veterans settled in the hills outside Rio de Janeiro. Now Brazil has thousands of favelas housing 12 million people, or over 5 percent of the population. Every other Latin American country has these slums, too, although they’re called different names (but for the point of brevity we’ll use favela as the catchall).

While not all favelas are built on hills, that is a common location, and because governments don’t build decent roads there, favelas are difficult to traverse. Compound this with the fact that many are gang-controlled, and they become isolated communities — unsafe to enter or leave.

But several Latin American cities are working to reopen their favelas through transportation. Most famous is what Medellin did with Comuna 13 and its many other favelas. According to the Centre for Public Impact, the ones in Medellin were largely dependent on unreliable buses and access to the city center was prohibitive. They also were victims of severe violence, existing among the worst parts of what was, in the 1990s, the world’s murder capital.

To revive them, the government spearheaded some urban redevelopment projects along with hard-core policing to topple the slum drug cartels. But the city also connected these areas better with the larger public transit system. It built a multi-line Metrocable network of aerial tramways, or cable cars, that cost $71 million and today carries 16 million riders.

The first Comuna 13 Metrocable line opened in 2004 and extends over several hills, jumping from one working-class barrio to the next. One hill in Comuna 13 also has escalators built in. The city installed the sheltered-roof structures in 2011 for $6.7 million to shorten the trip uphill and downhill, which is the equivalent of walking 28 floors. Local artists and entrepreneurs built businesses and painted murals along the escalators.
Escalators used as hill transit in Medellín.
(Alexander Canas Arango/Shutterstock)
Bogota, Colombia’s largest city, now has a cable route linking its impoverished comuna of Bolivar to the city’s famed TransMilenio rapid bus system. Rio de Janeiro has built metrocables as part of a larger attempt to “pacify” favelas, which house a quarter of the city’s population. As in Medellin, this entailed a consistent, often militarized police detachment, focused first on removing drug cartels and then maintaining a community presence. But it also used metrocables to improve mobility over famously convoluted favela street networks. The first line, in Alemao, reduced the end-to-end trip from 1.5 hours to 16 minutes.

But the current status of Rio’s favelas and cable car access is somewhat mixed. One line was dismantled after the 2016 Olympics. Some residents have attacked the strategy as prioritizing tourist-centric investments, and insist that it hasn't worked particularly well, since a vast majority of Rio's favelas are still not safe for outsiders anyway.

Observers in Medellin, though, are more sanguine. Harvard researchers surveyed Comuna 13 residents and found that the Metrocable network was viewed favorably. In my own visit, I saw a clear delineation between the escalators, which drew tourists, and the Metrocable, which was for working-class commuters and was connected to a rail system. Those I interviewed during my ride insisted that the neighborhood was safe, which cannot be said of less-accessible favelas.

It’ll be interesting to see whether more cities with hill neighborhoods — slum or otherwise — adopt this infrastructure. Metrocables exist sporadically around the world, from Hong Kong to Portland, Ore. But they are particularly ripe for mass adoption across Latin America. Caracas, Venezuela, despite a long-standing fiscal emergency, built a $300 million cable system.

In the U.S, there have been a number of proposals for metrocables, including in Boston, Albany, N.Y., and Los Angeles. They’re often focused on short connections to event-centered destinations, such as the proposed gondolas that would connect L.A.’s Union Station with Dodger Stadium. A similar project, Roosevelt Island Tramway, connects that island with Midtown Manhattan. The system transports over 2 million passengers annually, while Portland’s Aerial Tram moves slightly more. However, most U.S. cities may not have the density to match these ridership numbers, and even then, the numbers pale in comparison to metrocable ridership in Latin America.

Latin America is a particularly fitting place for these systems, given its urban density, mountainous terrain and the severe poverty of those living in the mountains.

The region’s cable networks are a case study in how imaginative infrastructure can improve life for residents in poor, isolated areas. The model is useful in any dense neighborhoods separated by foreboding geography — be it hills, valleys or bodies of water — that can’t be served by more conventional transit.

This article featured additional reporting from Market Urbanism Report content staffer Ethan Finlan.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

A journalist who focuses on American urban issues. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @sbcrosscountry.
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