A High Wire Act – Public Transit in Medellin

By | January 29, 2014

I was compiling the list of things to do during our five days in Medellin, Colombia and I came across a source that recommended riding the metro. Sure, but to go where? No, just ride the metro. The point of the blog was that the above-ground train offered an attractive tour of the city for the easy price of 85¢. I was suspicious: had the author of the blog just run out of things to write about? Perhaps he hadn’t even been there and just made the whole thing up (as really did happen with the Lonely Planet’s Colombia researcher back in 2009)?But then I found another recommendation for the metro, and yet another. So I took the bait. I put the metro on the top of our list, rationalizing that we could take the chance with such a small investment.

It turned out that we were going to ride the train a lot in those five days regardless of any recommendation. There wasn’t much in the way of diversions near our hotel, so anytime we did anything, it started and ended with a train ride. Line A is the main north-south route that we walked to and from every day, sometimes more than once. It cuts through the center of the city and the short hop from our stop north of the center to the downtown stations convincingly made the case for calling the train a tour bus on rolling stock. There were great views of several guidebook attractions: the Botero sculpture plaza, the Plaza of Light, the bustling pedestrian malls. I felt vindicated as they got more than 85¢ worth of oohs and ahhs from me and my wife.

Continuing south, the train passes through a stretch of the city that my internet sources had been less enamored with. One called it nondescript, another called it boring. I felt otherwise. The relentless traffic entranced me. We watched the motorbikes buzz around the larger vehicles like gnats around a cow’s head. There was the staggeringly gaudy strip mall advertising to wonder at. We watched the river go by, morphing often from churning whitewater into more languid stretches, speckled with egrets and people washing clothes. The train was a rolling window onto Medellin’s chaos.

The Cubs of Elevated Rail Lines

Our natural point of comparison for Medellin’s metro is Chicago’s elevated line, a competition Medellin wins on just about every point. It is not a fair comparison. The oldest segments of Chicago’s train lines have been in use for 120 years; Medellin’s still have the proverbial new car smell, entering into service just 18 years ago. Nonetheless, the first thing a Chicagoan notices on a Medellin train is that it doesn’t periodically stop for no reason. The train leaves the station, accelerates to 30 or 40 miles per hour, continues at that speed for a minute or two, then slows down and comes to stop only once it reaches the next station. We were living in a fairy tale.

In other comparisons, which Chicago also loses, this time without the excuse of an uneven playing field, I never saw anyone put a backpack in the adjoining seat and then pretend not to see the person standing in front of him, and I never saw a single instance where someone’s butt needed two seats.

Medellin’s train passengers are unfailingly polite, Even in the most crowded trains our two kids who can walk were always offered seats. I carry our one-year-old in a backpack and, to my great embarrassment, was often offered a seat by an elderly woman (which, I shouldn’t have to mention, I declined).

The recorded announcements about when the train would be leaving and where it was headed were often broadcast in both Spanish and then English. But whatever information we might pick up came mostly from the Spanish announcement. The second version we recognized as being in English, but it was so heavily accented we could only make out every third or fourth word. During our stay in Colombia we came across very few people who spoke English. So either the woman who did the announcement was the best they could find, or when she applied for the announcer job, there was no one around who was qualified to say, “wait a minute, she can’t speak English!”

A Mass-Transit Petri Dish

There are 3.5 million people in greater Medellin. That is half the size of greater Chicago, but it feels larger, probably because Medellin sits in a river valley, hemmed in by mountains on both sides. There is some development up the steep slopes of the mountains, but my unresearched hunch is that when Medellin goes through a growth spurt it just grows up on top of itself; it doesn’t have Illinois’ miles and miles of amber waves of grain that can be turned into subdivisions.

Medellin’s high density is fertile ground for a metro rail system. The city also roughly follows the Medellin River, which makes it longer than it is wide. The rail system benefits from this because one main north-south line and one east-west spur line can cover the majority of the city’s economic hotspots.

Line B is the spur that departs from San Antonio, the main downtown station, and heads five kilometers west, ending at San Javier. Upon our arrival at the San Javier station we got off and headed up the stairs, excited. Just a moment, you might be wondering. Excited? Stairs? My apologies; I have been less than forthright about my intentions. The real reason Medellin’s metro system is a destination in and of itself (and, it must be said, the reason I am writing this) is the Metrocables. These are three gondola lines that ferry commuters up the steep sides of Medellin’s mountains. Yes, one can wax lyrical about public transport and sustainability and new urbanism, but they are still just trains. But now, now we were about to get into a box dangling from a wire that would carry us up the side of a mountain. We were excited.

Up

Even the Colombians think a gondola public transportation system is a big deal. In the boarding area several groups of people were chattering in Spanish and taking pictures of themselves both in front of the cable cars and next to the signs that read “Metrocable” with an arrow pointing the way.

The transfer from the train line is easy and free. We got in line and soon were corralling the kids into our first gondola. As soon as the cable car leaves the station it heads sharply upward. My naive faith in the honesty of a bunch of anonymous internet reviews paid off. We immediately had a great view of the city, which only improved as we kept going up. Our cable car hugged the steep contour of the mountain – at times we were as close as 100 feet to the houses below. It felt a little voyeurish looking into everyone’s top floor as we passed.

The neighborhoods we were flying over were poor. One of the reviews of the Metrocable that I had read called the level of poverty on display here “staggering”, but that was overdoing it a little. Most of the houses were concrete block with corrugated tin roofs, but there was a wide range of quality. The roads were mostly paved and there were busses servicing the area (especially impressive, given the steepness of the road and the tight switchbacks). There were places to buy groceries. There was very little litter. I didn’t walk through the neighborhoods and I didn’t audit the tax returns of anyone who lived there, so I am no expert, but it simply looked poor, it didn’t look miserable. Later in the trip we spoke to a woman who had grown up in Medellin, and then moved to the US after high school. Since her take on the situation jibed with what I had seen and felt in the city, I will parrot her opinions until someone convinces me otherwise. She told us, yes, there are people in Medellin who are poor, but they aren’t necessarily unhappy. They might be happy, or they might not, the same as anywhere else. Her counterfactual proof was the number of unhappy, affluent people she knew in the US.

Sitting in our gondola as it swung through the turnaround at the La Aurora station, two more people got in, a mom and her teenage son. They were friendly, and were able to verify something we had read about the Metrocables, but had set off our government propaganda warning sensors. Starting with the facts: just like all matter, the money in Medellin follows gravity into the flat river valley. The neighborhoods hanging precariously on the steep mountainsides are considerably poorer and enjoy fewer city services than the flatlanders below. What we had read was that the Metrocables were a deliberate attempt to provide the residents of these neighborhoods with easier access to the jobs and opportunities in the city center. The line we were on was completed only four years earlier, in 2009, so we asked our companions if it had made much difference for them. We didn’t need great Spanish skills to understand the answer. The way the mother grimaced at the recollection of the time before the Metrocable said much more than her spoken answer, which was that “things are easier now”.

Each gondola could hold six people easily, eight people comfortably, and perhaps ten people if you were willing to get to know your neighbors pretty well. There was something about the small and enclosed space that set off in me a defensive feeling every time someone joined us: This is my flying cubicle and you can’t have it! This was ridiculous. Every person we shared a ride with was friendly, and in one case, helped us out quite a bit when a passing storm forced a temporary closure of the Metrocable line. I’m not sure if was just me or if it’s an American reaction I was having, the urge to buy land and put up a fence around it.

Safety First. And Second.

There is another Metrocable line on the north side of the city, the K line, which ends at the Santo Domingo station. According to several sources, the neighborhoods serviced by the K line experienced dramatic drops in crime after the Metrocable’s completion in 2004. The reasons listed for the security improvement include the new economic opportunities available to Santo Domingans once they could reach the city center easily, as well as a newfound civic pride instilled by the Metrocable. Those things are probably true, but the sign that the city is committed to making the Metrocable safe, and the entire rail system for that matter, is the number of security officers on display at the stations. They are posted by the ticket window, the turnstiles, and they walk laps on the platforms. In our experience, they were unfailingly polite, sometimes too much so. If I spent more than five seconds looking at a map on the wall, one of them would be at my side asking if he could help me find something. Perhaps they were just looking for an opportunity to practice their English, but it was a level of helpfulness that bordered on car salesmanship.

I had only one negative encounter with a security officer during our travels on the metro system. I was standing by the back wall of the station with our three-year-old son. One of the security officers walked over and said something stern to me in Spanish. I understood nothing. He repeated his command a couple more times, with growing insistence. I still had no idea what I had done, but I could pick out over and over the word “mano”. I was about to put my hands in the air and surrender when my wife walked over and said, “He’s telling you that the train is coming into the station.” Then, pointing at our son, she continued, “He wants you to hold his hand.”

Arvi There Yet?

At the Santo Domingo station we transferred to the third Metrocable line. The L line is a little different. It travels direct from Santo Domingo to Parque Arvi, a national park perched in the mountains beyond the city. In the city’s literature it is called a “tourist line”. That moniker naturally brings to mind a vision of Americans talking too loudly about how you can’t find a good cup of coffee in Colombia (a gripe that is actually valid), but the tourists for whom the L Line was built are actually the residents of Medellin. Prior to the Metrocable, the fastest route to the park was a two-hour drive around the mountain. The L line suddenly made the park accessible to everyone.

We piled into another cable car and up we went. Within a minute or two we were out of the city. We passed a few small subsistence farms carved into the steep hillsides. Halfway to the park we crested a ridge and were now travelling horizontally across a plateau. We had obviously entered park airspace as there was nothing but forest beneath us. But not far beneath us – we were cruising close to the treetops and had a great view of the flora. At the end of the line we hopped off into the crisp mountain air and put on long sleeves for the first and only time during our trip.

It’s Hard to Say Good-bye

In the end, we were convinced that the people recommending Medellin’s metro system as a tourist destination had, in fact, visited Colombia and weren’t making the whole thing up. We congratulated ourselves for being so cheap and sticking to our public transit guns for our entire stay. The only instance where we opted for a taxi instead of the metro was our trip to the domestic airport. The host at the hotel looked at us, and then at our bags, and shook his head. You’re not going to be able to fit on the train at rush hour, he told us. So we had to bid our adieu to the Medellin public transit system from the cab as we drove under it. We’ll never forget you, train that doesn’t stop between stops.

[whohit]Medellin[/whohit]

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