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Monday, May 26, 2014

Mi Teleférico

Mi Teléferico 

by William Doe

Up at 3500m, surrounded by some of the most stunning snow capped mountains in the world, one shouldn't be surprised to find cable cars drifting across the skyline. However in contrast to the alpine luxury of a ski-lift, this extraordinary piece of engineering is to be one of the greatest arteries linking two of the largest cities in Bolivia; La Paz and El Alto. Stretching across the city at just under eleven kilometres long this is the longest urban cable-car in the world. Currently there are urban cable-car transport systems operating in Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela, linking low income areas to the more affluent city centres.

Currently transport between the two cities is by minibus along smog choked streets, blaring horns and a flood of pedestrians flowing through the standstill traffic. The ride is bumpy, hot and very cramped. Blood pressure rises as everyday paceños and alteños take the gamble of arriving to work on time. Commuting from La Paz to El Alto can take anything up to two and a half hours. The teleférico is set to cut journey time by half, gliding serenely across the desperate rat-race in ten person cabins. The design is perfectly suited to the harsh nature of the Andean terrain, designed by the Austrian company Doppelmeyr; it is able to deal with the extreme changes in altitude and incredibly steep climbs with ease (something the dilapidated old busses struggle with). Combine this with the tiny footprint that each suspension tower occupies makes this an ideal way of providing transport to the hundreds of thousands of commuters in such a densely populated city.

Three lines are to connect the affluent Zona Sur through eleven stations up to the lofty heights of El Alto; La Linea Verde, La Linea Amarilla and La Linea Roja, the three colours of Bolivia’s Flag. Unsurprisingly the government is very keen to showcase the project as a Bolivian investment, in Bolivia, for Bolivians. Advertising for the teleférico is evident throughout the city emphasising the fact that it is for all Bolivians, regardless of sex, age or race. The catchphrase ‘Uniendo Nuestras Vidas’ speaks volumes; ‘Uniting Our Lives’. The link between the two cities is vital for social mobility with easier access to jobs and greater earning potential. Another catchphrase ‘Nada nos Detiene’ reinforces the Bolivian drive for development, ‘Nothing will hold us back’. Though Doppelmeyr has won the contract, the operators, technicians and builders are Bolivian.

With over four hundred cabins moving at 18km/h the capacity is huge; 18,000 passengers per hour. However the volume of humanity on the move is incredible: 440,000 commuters catch mini-buses between the two cities each day. I wonder how much impact it will have on congestion, pollution and ease of travel. When I add the price tag into the mix I’m left rather on the fence. At a massive £140 million the project will struggle to bring returns. Considering the cost of a mini-bus from central La Paz to El Alto (25p), the teleférico must be affordable to the population. The Bolivian broadsheet La Razón claims that the teleférico will generate £415m from fares in 40 years. This is very encouraging that the long term investment by the Bolivian government will have strong financial returns.

Finally, we are most comfortable with what we know, and for all the faults of the mini-bus chaos it is incredibly convenient. There are no such things as bus stops, timetables or tickets. You simply get on and when you see a suitable location shout “Voy a bajar!” and the bus stops. Delivery to your destination is really easy to get used to. Payment is easy, passing a few coins through the window. The teleférico will have stations, payment is through Smartcard sensors and passengers will have to disembark a short distance from their destination and walk. While this is a small sacrifice compared to the ease of travel, we have yet to see how much of a success this will be.

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