It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s … the Teleferico

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s … the Teleferico

South America’s shanty towns are known for their rough terrain. Inhabitants are sometimes forced to walk the rocky hills on foot to get to major cities, as conventional transport is not always able to get to these informal settlements. THATO TINTE looks into the continent’s cable-car system as a form of urban transit.

Known for the greatest football players in the world, South America is also home to some of the most remarkable geographical features on the planet. At the risk of taking you back to high school geography, I need to mention the noteworthy and diverse topography of this continent.

From the long chain of mountains that run along the Pacific coast, to the Amazon lowlands of Brazil and the luscious agricultural region of Argentina, South America is indeed a “continent of extremes”.

With such a rich landscape, one can only imagine how tricky travelling around the hills, canyons, rivers and steep slopes must be. Although South America has sought-after cities such as Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Buenos Aires in Argentina, and Medellin in Columbia, there are also numerous poor, isolated, low-income informal settlements.

Some of these impoverished slums and shanty towns are easily found within, or on the outskirts of, the cities – notoriously known as favelas in Brazilian Portuguese. Many locals in these poverty-stricken communities have to find ways of navigating through hilly areas to get to work into the cities.

Enter the era of cable cars as part of an integrated rapid-transit system. Historically associated with ski resorts and gondola lift systems, cable cars are fast becoming an alternative transport solution for this continent.

In Medellin, Columbia, the Metrocable started operation in 2006 in the once-isolated area of Santo Domingo.

Dubbed the first city to install cable cars for mass transit purposes, the development aimed to help communities living in steep, hillside villages, which are unreachable by car or bus, to commute in and out the city.

This is how Cable Propelled Transit (CPT), or cable cars, came into effect as mass transit systems in the continent. Soon after Medellin, other cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Caracas in Venezuela and La Paz in Bolivia followed suit.

Bolivia, which has the Andes Mountains running along it, has challenges of steep terrain, high density and narrow streets. Sold to tourists as “the city that touches the clouds”, La Paz in Bolivia is the highest city in the world; impressively elevated at 3 500 to 4 000 m above sea level.

The government estimates that about 85 to 90 percent of the approximately two million people are dependent on public transport. As a result, traffic becomes a nightmare in the metropolitan area as streets are filled with fleets of minibuses and taxis.

To help alleviate this congestion, the Bolivian government has worked towards building the largest urban cable-car system in the world. With three lines already running, state company Mi Teleferico, which translates to “My Cable Car”, will be adding more lines along La Paz, thus creating a total of nine cable lines with routes growing from a radius of ten to 30 km.

With Medellin’s cable-car system said to carry more than 3 000 passengers per hour, Mi Teleferico says 27 000 passengers will be able to be ferried on completion of the nine lines. It is hoped that up to 16 lines will be completed by the year 2030.

A completion date of the project, which is being built by Austrian engineering company, Doppelmayr, is yet to be announced. It is projected to cost US$ 450 million (roughly R6,1 billion). Doppelmayr says the cost of the additional six lines is “relatively cheaper” than building underground tunnels or tram networks.

To ride on the teleferico is cheaper than other modes of Bolivian public transport; a ticket costs three Bolivian boliviano (just less than six rand). This is certainly a good price to pay for built-in WiFi, 20 to 40 minutes off your travelling time, and breathtaking views of the Andes Mountains.

Although it is popular and has received good reviews and positive public feedback, the cable-car mass-transit system has been marred with a few concerns. In all cities upgraded with the system, residents of private properties below the cable-car lines have complained about a lack of privacy, with curious commuters able to peer into their homes – an act Bolivian locals say has increased curtain sales in the city.

Other concerns have evolved around the possibility of passengers being stranded in cabins during power outages. The people of South America have, however, welcomed the cable-car system as an aid to their communities, and the world at large, with its low carbon emissions.

Cable cars today – and perhaps flying cars tomorrow? What is certain, however, is that South America is paving the way for alternate transport solutions and taking the cable car, as a form of transport, to new heights.

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