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Clean, cheap travel for ordinary Bolivians

The new La Paz-El Alto cable car will slash travel costs for thousands of ordinary Bolivians. Could it be the way forward? (Photo: Eneas De Troya via Wikimedia Commons)
The new La Paz-El Alto cable car will slash travel costs for thousands of ordinary Bolivians. Could it be the way forward? (Photo: Eneas De Troya via Wikimedia Commons)

A new cable car system connecting La Paz to nearby El Alto will slash journey times for commuters and cut prices almost in two, making travel cheap for ordinary Bolivians. It's clean, will cut congestion – and give passengers a fabulous view over the mountains. Could more developing nations benefit from such stellar solutions? asks Isabelle in this week's guest blog.

A quiet, safe and fast aerial route is now available to citizens and tourists in Bolivia. The world’s highest urban cable car system – over 4,000 metres above sea level – is in place, running from the capital La Paz to the neighbouring city of El Alto.

Although it has been in operation since late May 2014, there was only one accessible line. Since the third line opened December, the service has been thriving, and funding has already been prepared for five more.

Why drive when you can fly?

Financed by the Bolivian government and built by Doppelmayr, an Austrian company, the cable cars enable tens of thousands of commuters to travel between the cities each day. This is a huge step for Bolivia, which is one of the poorest nations in South America. Minibuses – a common public transport in the country – are usually dirty, packed (often with pickpockets), and some are run by drivers who overcharge as well as turn away elderly people or those with children.

Traffic congestion, which is a common problem in overpopulated cities worldwide, poses multiple hazards for travellers. Even though there are only around 10 kilometres between La Paz and El Alto, the commute can take more than an hour. Sometimes there are not enough public vehicles for returning workers, especially during the evenings.

Furthermore, not only do they have to face noise and air pollution from blaring horns and vehicle emissions, but it is also difficult and dangerous for people to travel the winding route to the mountainous El Alto, which is one of the highest metropolises in the world. This is where the airborne cable cars come in.

Better for Bolivians

The busy streets of La Paz
The streets of La Paz are clogged with cars and buses – the cable car will reduce congestion and save passengers a tedious journey through the traffic (Photo: Marcalandavis via Wikimedia Commons)
Called “Mi Teleférico” (My Cable Car), the system significantly reduces road traffic; a single ride takes less than 10 minutes, and eliminates the two or three bus trips that people would otherwise have to endure on the ground. It runs on electricity, and while this raises energy expenditure, it has the potential to decrease harmful fumes from cars, buses, and trucks.

Each cabin can hold up to 10 people; although limited in passenger numbers compared to the metro, the cable cars are still the greenest and cleanest transport between La Paz and El Alto. A ticket costs just three bolivianos, the equivalent of around £0.28 or $0.43. This is an inexpensive option for El Alto residents, who can pay up to five bolivianos for regular transport.

This “subway in the sky” offers another, less discernible benefit, one which may be unique to this particular situation. According to the New York Times, La Paz – the urban seat of the government – is home to those who are considered ‘elite’: wealthier and lighter-skinned residents. Whereas in El Alto, the majority of the population are migrants from the countryside: younger, poorer, and darker-skinned. The social divide between the two cities has been further emphasised through public transport.

However the sleek and modern cable cars, with the affordable fare, appeal to everyone. They have already been breaking down barriers between groups. Not only does the transport physically connect them, but many commuters say that it has the potential to link the two cultures and challenge discriminatory attitudes.

Overcoming obstacles

In an article by The Guardian, César Dockweiler, Chief Executive of Mi Teleférico, suggests that such unity and equality, arising out of the construction and use of the cable cars, could help the two cities work together to overcome issues related to transport, rubbish, sewage, landfill, and crime.

Of course, the system has not gone without any hitches. The BBC reported that in July 2014, an incident occurred where passengers were delayed in mid-air for 25 minutes due to a signal failure. Furthermore, with the picturesque view of the Andes Mountains, the cable railway line might become a tourist attraction. This could create crowding and send up ticket prices, which would undermine the value for working residents, who rely on its affordability and availability. Additionally, a fear of heights could prevent many from going up in the cabins. Yet these are trivial issues when compared to the advantages.

Leading the way

To the surprise of citizens, the cable cars were established less than two years after being authorised. Dockweiler explains how this quick and efficient completion came about:

“First, there was a very clear political will behind the project. President Morales took the decision and it started to happen straight away. Second, we were very, very thorough when it came to researching and budgeting. Third, we found the right company after checking them all out and seeing which ones deliver on time and on budget – there was a lot of internet detective work. The fourth element was the Bolivian workforce: we had 1,200 people working on it full time and we showed that Bolivians can do this kind of thing.”

For the residents of La Paz and El Alto, this scenic and convenient transit system will contribute to social, economic, and environmental stability. With more lines being built, it could prove to be a very effective mode of transportation – one that other developing nations could benefit from.

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