Cable cars reach new heights in Bolivia’s capital

Bolivia is now home to the world’s largest urban cable car system, connecting two of the world’s highest major cities, and transforming the lives of tens of thousands of commuters.

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If the altitude of the world’s highest capital city, Bolivia’s La Paz, isn’t enough to make you feel dizzy, then the city’s latest revolution taking commuters even further into the skies at around 4,000 metres above sea level should suffice. Cable cars are transforming the lives of residents of South America’s poorest nation, as an innovative means of addressing the steep and often dangerous slopes that separate the capital from its neighbouring satellite city, El Alto.

Situated on the altiplano highlands above La Paz, El Alto is often cited as the highest metropolis in the world, at an altitude of around 4,100m. Its population has also soared in recent decades, even outstripping that of La Paz, as people flock from the countryside to the peripheries of the capital in search of better job prospects.

However, while El Alto is less than ten miles from La Paz, the journey that thousands upon thousands of its inhabitants have to make each day to the capital’s centre can take several hours, as buses struggle to negotiate the winding roads that plunge from the cliff that houses El Alto into the cradle of La Paz.

As the population of both cities has swelled in time with the emerging Bolivian economy, reaching a combined total of close to two million people, congestion among the cities’ (practically non-existent) public transport has become a major issue, leading to increases in pollution levels as well as infuriating travel times for commuters.

At 3,600m above sea level, La Paz is the world’s highest capital city. The snowcapped Mt. Illimani is in the background to the south of the city, while steep slopes to the north of the city lead to neighbouring El Alto, the highest major conurbation in the world at around 4,100m. Photo courtesy of Mark Goble via Flickr.

This is where the new cable car system comes in. Inaugurated in May this year, the publicly-owned Mi Teleférico consists of three lines connecting El Alto with central La Paz. Built at a cost of around US$250m, it is already capable of carrying up to 10,000 passengers in each direction per hour. A journey from central La Paz to El Alto’s world-famous 16 de Julio street market now takes a mere ten minutes.

It has also surpassed initial expectations, carrying more than two million passengers in its first two months, making US$1.2m in the process. New lines are being built and planned, with the hope that it will soon consist of ten lines and stretch almost 11km.

More importantly, it has provided at least a partial solution to the problems commuters faced in travelling between the two cities. It is hoped that once the planned extensions are finished, Mi Teleférico will be able to cater for around 30% of the inter-city commute.

On top of this, it constitutes a public transport system that comes without the congestion of bus systems or the complex logistics of an underground (or even overground) metro rail network. With the cable cars being run on electricity they are also environmentally sustainable, with a low carbon footprint compared to other forms of public transport.

Yet perhaps the most significant aspect is the way it has connected some of South America’s poorest urban communities with the centre of a national capital. Tickets for the cable car cost three bolivianos, or about US$0.45, meaning that the system is well within the reach of most residents, and still competitive with the hitherto main method of public transport, microbuses.

Furthermore, with modern terminal stations and quick journeys out in the open, it is a much safer mode of transport than attempting to negotiate La Paz’s steep slopes and more isolated side-streets, especially at night.

The first line opened in May, with President Evo Morales taking a trip at its inauguration. Photo courtesy of AP via the BBC.

These latter arguments in favour of a metro cable car system will be familiar to residents of Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city. During the 1980s and 1990s, Medellín became a byword for violence and chaos at the hands of the powerful drug cartels that practically ran the city. However, the installation of a metro cable car system has proven to be one of the most palpable symbols of its transformation from murder capital of the world to a blueprint for urban sustainability in Latin America.

This turnaround, with residents of Medellín now able to take advantage of its cable car transport system and enjoy a quick and safe way of getting around town, has inspired similar copycat attempts across the region, with La Paz merely the latest in a string of Latin American cities to turn to cable cars as a potential solution to public transport and safety issues.

Other cities to build urban cable cars include Río de Janeiro and Caracas, but the La Paz system is set to become the largest in the world once its planned extensions are completed. Of course, there are one or two criticisms and downsides. Cable car systems are unlikely to ever be able to compete with metro trains, for example, when it comes to passenger capacity.

For others, the idea of dangling in a metal box high above a city will be enough to send shivers down the spine. Yet experts insist that cable car systems are incredibly safe, while the dazzling heights involved in the La Paz network only serve to underline the rise of this mode of public transport. In a major developing-world urban centre, for what the project has cost and the ease with which it has been implemented so far, Mi Teleférico has made a remarkable difference already.

The Metrocable in Medellín, Colombia’s second city, which is said to have inspired other similar urban cable car systems across Latin America, with La Paz merely the latest to jump on the bandwagon. Photo courtesy of 100 Resilient Cities.