Katrina Wheelan reports for the Valley News:
Column: In Bolivia, Commuters Take Elevated Route
Almost every major city in the world is clogged with traffic. Usually residents take buses that weave through the traffic or subways that run underneath it. In La Paz, commuters can float right over the packed roads.
Bolivia’s capital city is home to the world’s longest and highest cable car system. It stretches more than 6 miles at 13,000 thousand feet above sea level. The system is reminiscent of the Killington ski gondola; the individual cars glide along cables and between support poles.
The cable car stations function much like the New York Subway. I bought a ticket (for about 50 cents), passed through a turnstile, and walked upstairs to the platform. Then an official ushered me into a car quite unlike the subway. The car launched off the platform and zipped across the city. I had an extraordinary bird’s-eye view of buildings, soccer fields and mountains as I dangled over the world’s highest capital.
The transport system, called “Mi Teleferico”, was built two years ago. Although it is still too early to make a judgment on the efficacy of the system, riders and government officials alike are optimistic. The city plans to implement eight new lines before 2020.
The main purpose of the existing three lines (red, green, and yellow) is to unite La Paz with El Alto, a city on the outskirts of the capital. The commute from El Alto to central La Paz is about an hour on the roads. It is only 30 minutes by cable car. Lorena Gamarra, a woman riding the green line on a Sunday afternoon, told me, “It’s much better now.” Gamarra rides the Teleferico every weekend and several weekdays.
The unique transportation system is well-suited for La Paz’s geography. The city is mountainous, and the outskirts lie far up on the hilltops. The hills, winding roads and dense existing development render a subway system fairly implausible. Jorge Derpic, a Ph.D. candidate who has researched the transport system in La Paz, explains, “An elevated or subterranean train, for instance, would definitely be more expensive and probably impossible to build.”
The Teleferico has united the El Alto population with that of La Paz physically and culturally. El Alto has the largest Amerindian population of any city in the world. Eighty-five percent of the population is Aymara or Quechua. I had a hard time reading the station names on the green line because they were in the Aymara language first, and in Spanish underneath.
Susan Ellison, an anthropology professor who has worked with Derpic, explains one goal of the Teleferico is “to address the economic concerns of a growing indigenous middle class.” Many El Alto residents work in La Paz, and the Teleferico is a convenient way to commute to work.
When the Teleferico was first built, many bus and taxi drivers feared that they would lose business to the cable cars. However, the sheer number of people who need transportation in the two cities seems to have ensured that the drivers remain on the roads.
The drivers have adjusted their routes instead of abandoning them. Ellison explains, “There is a lot of competition for the ‘connective tissue.’ ” Buses and taxis gather outside the Teleferico stations to take passengers the last mile. The drivers will likely adjust as La Paz increases the number and span of the Teleferico stations.
The cable cars have a significant advantage over the buses underneath. The Teleferico is not hindered by traffic or disruptions on the ground. In the words of Ellison, the cable cars let you “leapfrog over the city.”
It is still too early to determine whether the cable cars were worth the multimillion-dollar investment. The government must conduct more research on the volume of passengers and their transportation preferences.
Eight new colored lines will extend the existing system by 12 miles. The government plans to build the newer stations in more densely-populated and central areas. As the Teleferico’s scope increases, the government hopes ridership will increase as well.
For now, the government and its citizens are quite bullish about their brand new cable cars. Carlos Quinajo Quipse, an employee of the Teleferico company, told me proudly that Mi Teleferico is “the first public transportation for the people (of La Paz and El Alto) that is safe and fast.” It is certainly the most innovative.
Katrina Wheelan is a Hanover High graduate who is spending a gap year in South America.