Soaring Above the City

29 Oct, 2017 | Matthew Grace

Urban living and Enterprise & Industry

Photos: Iván Rodriguez - Matthew Grace

Orgullo Paceño for the Ultramodern Cable-Car Mass-Transit System

On September 29, the newest line of La Paz’s state-of-the-art cable-car system – el teleférico – was inaugurated in a raucous celebration in Plaza Villarroel in the Miraflores neighbourhood, just north of the center of the city. Thousands of paceños thronged the public square. The new teleférico station shone in the strong spring sunlight; vendors taking advantage of the festive crowd hawked choripan, sodas and trinkets; and children waved Bolivian flags while musicians entertained the celebrants from a large stage set up under the gossamer cables upon which the new orange cable cars dangled.

The Línea Naranja is the newest addition to the teleférico system, which now comprises five lines – the Amarilla, which connects working-class southern El Alto with the upscale neighbourhood of Sopocachi; the Verde, linking Sopocachi with the even more upscale Zona Sur district; the Azul, which connects the dusty northern El Alto neighbourhood of Río Seco with La Ceja, on the edge of the canyon in which the city of La Paz rests; the Roja, linking the Azul line to central La Paz; and now the Naranja, which joins the Azul and the Roja lines from Miraflores.

Mi Teleférico, the governmental transit agency, runs the largest urban cable-car system in the world – and it’s not even half-built yet, with six more lines due to open by 2019, when el teleférico will officially be at full capacity. It’s being constructed by the Austrian cable-car firm Doppelmayr, which arrived in Bolivia five years ago with only three employees. Today, there are 100 Doppelmayr architects and civil and industrial engineers involved in the design and planning of the cable-car system, along with an additional 800 to 900 other employees engaged in construction, maintenance and training – but not for long. According to Torsten Bäuerlen, the coordinating manager at Doppelmayr in Bolivia, the company’s contract includes all construction and on-site operational management for a year after each line is completed. After that, Mi Teleférico takes over fully. In fact, that’s already happened with the system’s oldest lines – the Línea Amarilla, for example, having opened in May 2014, is now already a strictly Bolivian-run enterprise. And, according to Bäuerlen, it’s running better than expected.

At first, Bäuerlen says, ‘We were a little worried’ about constructing such a high-tech system and handing it over to the Bolivian agency. While Austria has employed cable-car systems successfully for decades – think of all those ski resorts in the Alps – in Bolivia, which has a stunted infrastructure and little technological capacity, such a transit system was a quantum leap into the future. But, says Bäuerlen, the Mi Teleférico agency ‘does a really good job; they’re really good operators and maintenance technicians.’

Bäuerlen conveys a sense of pride about his role in establishing el teleférico in La Paz and sharing a bit of his country’s technological patrimony with another country that, while similar in topography to his own, is so culturally distinct. Paceños, too, express pride when speaking about el teléferico. Edgar Sánchez, a celebrant at the Línea Naranja’s inauguration ceremony, said, ‘It’s 21st-century progress. It allows us to travel as rapidly as possible. It’s an example at the international level.’

Although the topography of La Paz adds to the city’s beauty, it also contributes to its pollution and traffic congestion. Extremely rugged hills and impenetrable rocky peaks create magnificent vistas, yet they also form bottlenecks for ground travel – not to mention trapping in car exhaust. Few roads connect the city of El Alto, which is on the altiplano and has a population of nearly a million, with La Paz, a city equal in size but more rugged in terrain. Light rail, subways, even articulated buses are unable to tackle the extremes of elevation here, leaving transit, until now, a mishmash of minivans and the occasional larger Pumakatari bus – a relatively new transit solution.

Now, however, it’s possible to travel quickly without suffering traffic snarl-ups, far above the choking pollution that frequently fills the canyon in which La Paz sits. In only three years, La Paz and sister city El Alto have seen a modern transit system grow from an incipient idea to a nearly fully realised functioning network. But not without a price.

Because Mi Teleférico is a federal agency, with the backing of the central government, communication with municipal authorities can be fraught. ‘It was difficult to work at first with Mi Teleférico on the first three lines,’ says Marcelo Arroyo, the city’s secretary of planning for development. ‘The company was allowed to intervene directly and expropriate as a national priority without taking into account [the municipality’s] planning model. That’s why many of the stations of the first three lines weren’t conceived with such an integral vision. They weren’t linked with the Pumakatari [bus] stops, for instance,’ he adds. Arroyo does, however, acknowledge that communication between the two parties has improved. They’ve now created a joint commission so new lines can be planned in a more coherent way with other urban development projects.

Still, el teleférico has its critics, even if the objections are less than full-throated. Gastón Gallardo Dávila, dean of the department of architecture at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, says, ‘El teleférico is modernity. This city has always been one of the less known in South America. Now it has a teleférico and it’s a very modern city in America.’ That said, Gallardo believes that el teleférico is essentially ‘not a good mass-transit system. It transports very few people,’ he says. He argues that Mi Teleférico inflates the numbers of people that use the system, and that the figure is much less than what’s publicised. ‘But,’ he adds, ‘paceños are proud to have a teleférico because it’s modern.’

And not just because it’s modern. Some paceños love its convenience. Gonzalo Rivero, who was attending the Línea Naranja opening ceremony on 29 September, said, ‘Here in La Paz there is a lot of traffic, blockades, strikes – things that create problems. El teleférico is safer, quicker, more reliable.’ And safety is exactly what Doppelmayr’s Bäuerlen likes to emphasise. He says that the teleférico system was designed to be redundant in its safety mechanisms. According to Bäuerlen, it is designed and built to provide hospital-grade protections in case of a natural disaster – for example, in the unlikely event of an earthquake. ‘We have calculated all foundations with maximum earthquake acceleration in mind,’ says Bäuerlen. ‘In fact, it’s statistically safer than plane travel. You are more likely to die from getting stung by a bee,’ he says, adding that el teleférico was built to conform to maximum industry safety standards.

It’s 21st-century progress. It allows us to travel as rapidly as possible. It’s an example at the international level.’

—Edgar Sánchez, celebrating the opening of the Línea Naranja

With two years until el teleférico is fully completed, it seems to have won out already with the people who live near it and use it frequently. The final verdict, however, will come once its disparate lines are connected into a coherent whole. At the moment, vast swaths of the cities of La Paz and El Alto are unaffected by the new cable-car system – the routes simply do not go where lugareños want to go. But work is starting on a new line in El Alto to link the north and the south of that city together, and the Línea Blanca, which will connect north-central La Paz to Sopocachi is largely completed. An inflection point, at which travel convenience pushes a critical mass of people to use the system, could be just over the horizon. As Cristina, who lives on the periphery of El Alto in the remote neighbourhood of Río Seco and works in La Ceja, on the edge of La Paz, says, ‘It’s a very good service, it helps us travel very rapidly.’

It’s possible to travel quickly without suffering traffic snarl-ups, far above the choking pollution that frequently fills the canyon in which La Paz sits.

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