Caracas Mount Avila

05
Oct

2015

Medellin/Caracas, Part 1

Last week I travelled to Medellin, Colombia and Caracas, Venezuela to tour five of the most important CPT systems in the world. This is Part 1 of a photo essay on those systems. In this part, a brief overview of the history of cable transit in this part of the world will be explained. Image by Steven Dale.

HISTORY

Modern Cable Propelled Transit started in Caracas, Venezuela with the Mount Avila Gondola. This system was originally built in the middle of the last century to carry people from Caracas to the top of Mount Avila where the luxurious Hotel Humboldt had been built. Political and economic strife caused the government to leave for neglect both the hotel and gondola. The gondola itself was not reopened until 1999, after a successful rebuild.

The Avila Mountain Gondola In Caracas. Image by Steven Dale.

An Avila Mountain Gondola From Below. Image by Steven Dale.

A gondola passes over two original and well-preserved antique gondola cars at the Mount Avila Caracas Terminal. Image by Steven Dale.

The Avila gondola cannot, however, be truly classed as cable transit. It lacks integration to the local transit network and really exists more for tourists, not local commuters. It did, however, indirectly inspire the nearby city of Medellin, Colombia to pursue a fully-integrated CPT system to serve the impoverished and dangerous barrio of Santo Domingo. The system would take almost 5 years to open, from conception to fruition and would be the world’s first true CPT system. They would name it The Metrocable. The first line, consistent with the city’s existing Metro system, would be named Linea K.

A Linea K Metrocable Car in Medellin, Colombia. Image by Steven Dale.

The Metrocable over top the Santo Domingo barrio. Image by Steven Dale.

Gondolas depart a Linea J Metrocable station. Image by Steven Dale.

Metrocable Linea K would be an enormous success. Crime rates in Santo Domingo plunged and area investment skyrocketed. In the four years since Linea K opened, crime in Santo Domingo virtually disappeared, jobs have increased 300% and 3 banks have opened along the Metrocable route. With such an obvious success story, Metro officials had little trouble convincing decision-makers to open Linea J.

Unlike Linea K, Linea J would connect several smaller barrios in the western end of the city. These barrios suffered from similar economic conditions but did not have the population density that Linea K had. This was considered a good thing as Linea K suffered from overcrowding almost immediately upon opening, a situation not witnessed on Linea J.

A Linea J gondola. Image by Steven Dale.

Meanwhile, Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela was not to be undone. The opening of the second Metrocable line in Medellin made Chavez lust after a similar system in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. Within 2 years, Chavez’s dream would be realized with Caracas opening their own cable transit system in early 2010. It was also to be named The Metrocable.

Like the Medellin systems before it, the Caracas Metrocable would provide transit to under-serviced barrios with a history of crime and poverty. But unlike the Medellin systems, Caracas would feature enormous stations that included social facilities such as gymnasiums, police stations, community centres and markets. The Caracas Metrocable would also be the first in the world to feature extreme 90 degree turning radii at stations.

Gondolas enter and exit a station in Caracas. Image by Steven Dale.

The Caracas Metrocable. Image by Steven Dale.

The Metrocable loop between Medellin and Venezuela came full circle in early 2010. While Chavez was opening his first system in Caracas, Medellin was opening their third Metrocable line. But this time, the line looked more similar to the original Mount Avila system from Venezuela circa 1999.

While still fully-integrated into the Medellin Metro, the new Linea L services the Parque Arvi at the top of a nearby mountain in Medellin and requires an additional fare of 1,550 Colombian Pesos (roughly $1 US dollar). Linea L would give quick, affordable access to wilderness and parkland facilities that had previously only been accessible to wealthy land-owners in Medellin. This was a welcome change, given Colombia’s historically wide gap between rich and poor.

A Linea L gondola. Image by Steven Dale.

Medellin as seen from the Linea L, Parque Arvi nature preserve. Image by Steven Dale.

Both cities are engaged in major plans to expand their Metrocable offerings and cities throughout Latin America are embarking upon cable transit plans of their own.

Read Part 2.

25
Mar

2010

Medellin/Caracas, Part 7

Two weeks ago I travelled to Medellin, Colombia and Caracas, Venezuela to tour five of the most important CPT systems in the world. This is Part 7 where I discuss the social mandate that underlies the Caracas Metocable. Image by Steven Dale.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably noticed something problematic about the Caracas Metrocable: The stations are enormous. We’re not talking about just “big” here. We’re talking about “big enough for Cirque du Soleil to perform in.”

This is because the stations themselves are not really stations at all. Whut? Exactly.

In actuality, the Caracas Metrocable stations are full-service community centres with multiple neighborhood facilities all under one roof including a Cable Propelled Transit line. Most of these facilities are not yet complete and as such the stations have an eery empty quality thus far. The plan, however, is to have gymnasiums, markets, dental offices, police stations, medical clinics, theatres, libraries and all other manner of social services located within the 5 stations united by the Metrocable.

The idea is to have each station host one or two such facilities. As each station is linked to the other via Metrocable, those within the poor barrios can travel quickly and cheaply between those services in a way that simply would not have been possible before the Metrocable. When you consider this component of the plan, the Metrocable is less a transit line and more the connective tissue that holds together a network of social services.

Whether or not you agree with the political ideology behind Hugo Chavez’s plan, you have to admit it’s bold and unique. It’s also costly. The price of the Metrocable including stations/community centres has been reported as $265 million USD and I’ve heard numbers as high as $300 million USD. Considering the system is only 1.8 kilometers long, you could practically build a subway for that price.

The price of the gondola system, however, was modest. Everything necessary for the gondola system (the “electro-mechanical” cost in industry-speak) was only $18 million USD.

Consider that for a moment: Only 6-7 % of the total cost of the Metrocable went to the transit system and infrastructure itself. The rest was spent on the stations/community centres and land expropriation costs.

I want to state this plainly so that no one opposed to the concept of cable transit can use Caracas as an example of how expensive the technology is: The Caracas Metrocable did not cost $300 million. It cost $18 million. The additional monies spent were on community centre facilities and land expropriation costs that were separate from the transit system itself.

Once again (because the internet is great at taking people out of context): The Caracas Metrocable did not cost $300 million. It cost $18 million. The additional monies spent were on community centre facilities and land expropriation costs that were separate from the transit system itself.

Should some of those additional monies be allocated to station costs? Yes, but not the vast majority of it. The Medellin Metrocable (which uses similar MDG technology) Linea K cost $26 million USD in 2006; that included 1.8 kms of length and 4 stations. Linea J cost $50 million USD in 2008; that included 2.7 km and 4 stations. Linea L cost $25 million USD in 2010; that included 4.8 km and 2 stations. It would be fair to allocate an additional $10 – $20 million dollars to the cost of the Metrocable itself, but no more than that.

Perched high atop hills, the Caracas Metrocable stations are one small component of a much bigger network of community centres and social services. Image by Steven Dale

As a social experiment, it will be interesting to see how the Caracas Metrocable pans out. I, for one, am hopeful. Caracas needs these kinds of services, particularly in the barrios. One thing, however, I’m not certain of is the overt social message of the Metrocable. Many cabins are adorned with single word imperatives suggesting qualities which those in the barrio should aspire to and exemplify:

Sacrificio . . . Moral . . . Libertad . . . Equidad . . . Humanismo . . . Amor . . .

It’s an odd design choice that has nothing to do with the technology itself. But as one rides the Metrocable or sees them glide overhead, one can’t escape this blatant messaging. Granted, it’s hard to argue with the message: Sacrifice, Morals, Liberty, Equality, Humanity, Love. But at the same time, is it a transit agencies job to suggest how to behave? Maybe, maybe not.

In the western world we’re used to being told how to ride our transit. Hold the handrail. Exit by the rear doors. Don’t spit. Don’t litter. Give up your seat for the elderly. Mind the gap. These instructions transit agencies force upon us are nothing more than the practical application of the emotional instructions the Caracas Metrocable forces upon its riders.

Maybe we wouldn’t need so many rules and instructions in our transit systems if we simply had signs that read “Love” or “Equality.” Or not, I don’t know. It’s something I’ve wrestled with a lot since seeing it. Is it propaganda? No. But it veers pretty close to it and that’s what makes me uncomfortable. The message plays so blatantly upon emotions and that’s problematic. But at the same time, the sweet naiveté of the gesture is charming enough, innocent enough to catch even the most cynical observer off-guard.

I honestly don’t know. I’d love to know what everyone else thinks about this matter. Take a look at the images below and form your own opinion: Are the messages on the Caracas Metrocable propaganda? Are they amusing and pleasant? Are they harmless? Are they dangerous? What do you think?

Libertad. Image by Steven Dale.

Moral. Image by Steven Dale.

Sacrificio. Image by Steven Dale.

Amor & Humanismo. Image by Steven Dale.

Equidad. Image by Steven Dale.

Return to Part 6.

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