Connectivity and Mobility through Bolivia's Cable Cars

September 19, 2014

Jeanette Bonifaz

The government of Bolivia has built a cable car that connects the cities of La Paz and El Alto, giving commuters a much better alternative to the long and congested path they would otherwise have to take in buses and road transportation. Together, these neighboring cities are home to about 2 million people. The cable car, which cost $234 million, was built by the Austrian company Doppelmayr and will have considerable benefits for workers and the environment, and will reduce poverty, if we can judge from precedents with cable car projects in Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil.

The World Bank notes that:

Urban poverty may be reduced through the contribution which transport makes to the efficiency of the urban economy and so to the overall growth of incomes.  Urban transport policies can also be focused more specifically on meeting the needs of the poor.  Inability to access jobs and services is an important element of the social exclusion which defines urban poverty.  Accessibility is important not only for its role in facilitating regular and stable income-earning employment, but also as a part of the social capital which maintains the social relations forming the safety net of poor people in many societies.

This is very important in a country where the national poverty rate is still 43.4 percent and extreme poverty is 21.6 percent (2012). Traffic congestion for commuters traveling between these two cities has been a real obstacle. As the World Bank asserts, “Inadequate and congested urban transport is damaging to the city economy and harms both rich and poor.”  The relationship between lacking transport and poverty has also been demonstrated and explored in academic research.

In addition, as the Bolivian Agency for Information (ABI) points out, Bolivia’s new cable car will conserve energy and time as well as reduce car accidents.  Some critics in Bolivia, like Rolando Carvajal, point out that the cable car will make only a small difference because it will serve (together with other new transportation initiatives) less than 20 percent of commuters.  Carvajal also claims that the government has been using the cable car as a palliative in an election year, even moving the inauguration of the red line closer to the elections.  But President Evo Morales has no serious challenge to his re-election, and did not need to build a $234 million cable car to assure that he would win. Polls have shown that Morales enjoys considerable support; according to a recent poll carried out by the company Equipos-Mori, Morales is leading with 54 percent and his opponent, Samuel Doria Medina, follows with only 14 percent.

The cable car is only a first step that hopefully will be followed by additional sustainable and modern modes of transportation. Clearly it is superior to the alternative of more roads, which imply displacement of people and deforestation. But let’s take a look at some of the benefits that the cable car is already bringing. It’s a long list: There is no wait time; it is faster; it allows easy access to people with disabilities; it is secure and comfortable; it costs 3 Bolivianos; it substitutes for a significant part of car traffic; it transports 180,000 passengers a day;  it is noise-free; it is environmentally friendly (reducing pollution); it reduces spending in fuel; the trip between the two cities is reduced to 15 minutes, from what would otherwise take between one hour and 90 minutes; it will connect 90 different neighborhoods; when the three lines operate, it will transport 18,000 people per hour.

The Bolivian government announced that it will introduce five additional cable car lanes with an estimated investment of $450 million. Once built, the cable car system will be the largest in the world. This past Monday, September 16, President Evo Morales inaugurated the yellow line, which has four stations and 169 cars. People from across the political spectrum and various socioeconomic backgrounds celebrated the event.

A similar example can be found in Medellín, Colombia. The construction of a cable car in 2004 brought many positive social and economic effects to the city. More jobs were created and tourists began to arrive in larger numbers. Medellín was a town with widespread violence, and still is, but violence has been reduced (the city’s mayor, Aníbal Gaviria, says the murder rate last year was 10 times lower than in the 1990s) and this decrease can in part be attributed to the new transportation system. In particular, connection to the rest of the country allows otherwise isolated towns to get increased state services and enjoy the same rights and responsibilities that other towns enjoy, which is essential to create safer societies. Medellín’s “cable car of the poor,” is also used as a tool to promote education and culture, with public libraries available to commuters at the stations.  Alejandro Echeverría, the former director of urban projects under Mayor Sergio Fajardo, has explained that the surrounding areas began to become “entrepreneurial development centers…where people can get a cheap loan if they want to start up a small café or shop.”

Cable cars have also been built in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Caracas, Venezuela. The benefits of this type of transportation infrastructure are relatively clear, which is why many countries have adopted it. However, it is very important to allocate the necessary resources to establish a systematic monitoring mechanism that can effectively measure the outcomes of this “urban acupuncture.”  Enrique Peñalosa, the former Mayor of Bogotá noted that “An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport.” This is what is happening in Bolivia.

This post was corrected on September 25, 2014 to refer to the cable car system in Rio de Janeiro, instead of Curitiba, Brazil.

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