The Gondola Revolution
by Steven Dale
There is a small revolution brewing among the northern coastal countries of South America. This revolution has been swift and is spreading fast. It’s crossing borders with impunity and is slowly making inroads into North America. It’s coming quick.
Here in South America, they’re using ski lift gondolas as public transit. And it’s working beyond anyone’s expectations.
The Gondola Revolution began ten years ago in the impoverished barrio of Santo Domingo in Medellin, Colombia.
all photos by Steven Dale
Since the early 1980s Medellin had been the headquarters and stomping ground of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel. Desperate to expand his empire, Escobar waged virtual war upon the Colombian and Medellin governments. What officials and officers he couldn’t bribe, he assassinated. Bombings of public buildings and cars became a constant fact of life.
After Escobar was apprehended and killed by United States troops in 1993, Medellin’s narcotics industry separated into several factions vying for turf and market share. Medellin now had several less powerful, but no-less-lethal enemies warring with each other and the city at large.
This war continued for a decade and many of the “troops” in this war came from Santo Domingo, one of the most lethal barrios in Medellin.
Santo Domingo now thrives with life and commerce.
Santo Domingo is like most South American barrios: it’s an unplanned and disorganized slew of clay brick homes with sheet metal roofs, stray dogs, and poor infrastructure clutching dirt hillsides. There is no formal economy to speak of and little connection to the rest of the city.
What little commerce and business that did exist in Santo Domingo was under the sway of organized crime. Banks didn’t dare open shop in the area and landlords offered apartments at zero rent, just so long as tenants would pay for land taxes and utilities.
Violence in Santo Domingo was more the rule than the exception. Residents of neighboring barrios didn’t dare cross through Santo Domingo, even if it was the shortest option. Locals didn’t go outside after dark and police didn’t enter the barrio at all. To get from Santo Domingo to downtown Medellin required 2.5 hours by transit.
Santo Domingo existed, essentially, as an island.
Metrocable, Linea J opened in 2008 and is having similar impacts on the community.
In 2000, with limited financial resources and a challenging topography to contend with, transit planners at Metro Medellin (the city’s transit authority) realized they could use a cable gondola system to connect the barrio with the Metro line. The line would be two kilometers long and have multiple intermediary stations. It was a revolutionary idea that everyone from government thought was laughably naive.
Even the locals were suspicious. It sounded like just another plan to garner votes, nothing more.
Yet Metro Medellin was persistent. After four years of organizing community support and government resources, construction began on Metrocable Linea K, the world’s first fully-integrated Cable Propelled Transit (CPT) system. Linea K began operation in 2006 and became an overnight success, opening to double the ridership the system could handle.
Crime in Santo Domingo plummeted. Residents along the Metrocable route began decorating and painting their homes in an effort to make the barrio more attractive to locals and visitors alike. Investment in Santo Domingo increased and job creation soared by 300%. Rents that used to be $0 were now $500 per month and three major banks have opened in the area. Tourists can routinely be seen in the barrio and a trip from Santo Domingo to downtown Medellin has been shaved to a lean 30 minutes by transit.
The newest Metrocable line, Linea L, opened in 2010. It is a 5 kilometer extension
of Linea K that connects Medellin with a nearby national park.
Medellin’s experience with cable transit and Santo Domingo was so positive they’ve opened a new Metrocable line every two years since, all to equal acclaim.
Theo Kruk, a Metro Medellin civil engineer, pointed out during a recent interview that the Metrocable accomplished with the same amount of money what the Colombian military could not.
A few years ago in another crime-ridden Medellin barrio, the Colombian government spent 20 million U.S. dollars on a week-long military incursion to rid the barrio of drugs and crime. The operation failed to produce results even close to that which was witnessed in Santo Domingo.
It’s a classic case of how leading with a carrot is more effective than forcing with a stick.
It would be wrong to say that all of Medellin’s troubles have been erased or that those that have can all be attributed to the Metrocable. The original Metro itself (an excellent fusion of commuter and subway technology, which began operation in 1995) likely had far more to do with Medellin’s turnaround than the Metrocable. However, the dramatic, concentrated and almost instantaneous social change the Metrocable caused in Santo Domingo is a convenient shorthand, a symbol, for the quick turnaround that’s occurred in Medellin. And other cities in Latin America have picked up on that symbol.
The Caracas Metrocable opened in 2010. It is the world’s newest Cable Propelled Transit line and boasts two 90 degree turns.
Caracas, Venezuela just recently opened their first Metrocable line. Like those in Medellin, it operates at five meters per second, is fully-integrated into the existing metro system, offers capacity of 3,000 pphpd (persons per hour per direction), and services poor barrios outside the city centre. Also like Medellin’s, the Caracas system has been tremendously popular. Several other South American cities, meanwhile, are planning cable propelled transit systems of their own and Caracas and Medellin are working on plans to implement a half-dozen new ones. In fact, Caracas is so enamored with the technology the city is now building a bottom-supported cable system to ease transfers between two distant lines of their metro.
A new cable propelled cable liner system, is under construction in Caracas. It will link two distant Metro lines.
Ten years ago Medellin began to rewrite the book on transit planning; never before had gondolas been used to such an extent in an urban public transit. And yet, despite initial opposition, the idea has flourished. And why wouldn’t it? It’s a cheap, fast and safe technology that doesn’t have to contend with cars, pedestrians or cyclists. There’s no traffic 25 feet in the air, after all.
Thanks to Medellin’s ingenuity, Cable Propelled Transit is now a proven option within urban public transit. The success in Medellin has meanwhile spurred the cable industry to improve upon their technology. Since 2006, gondola systems have increased their maximum speed by 50% and their maximum capacity by 100%. Metro Medellin’s success, meanwhile, speaks for itself.
The Gondola Revolution continues unabated. As Cable Propelled Transit sweeps across Latin America, we in North America are confronted with a question: Do we want to watch this revolution pass us by, or do we want to become active participants?