Mass Transit That Favors the Poor: Medellin's Metrocable Is an Economic, Social and Political Anomaly

Article excerpt

They're called barrios Popular 1 and Popular 2, and many residents of Medellin, Colombia's second largest city, have been afraid to go near them.

These neighborhoods on the city's northeast side, which together have about 120,000 residents, are known as the home of sicarios, hired assassins who kill--often from the back of motorcycles--for as little as $5 a life. Built on the steep slope of one of the mountains that surround the city, the neighborhoods are composed of cardboard shacks; one- and two-bedroom, board-and-mud houses; and sturdier cement-block homes, packed tightly into crowded streets. "There's lots of dust and, according to residents of other parts of Medellin, plenty of crime.

The barrios are said to be home to gangs and paramilitary groups that have terrorized the city and each other. Jobless people, casualties of chronic high unemployment, add to the mix. Until a year ago, the air was often polluted and almost constantly choked with taxis, trucks and buses taking residents to and from jobs as domestics, factory workers and street vendors.

The barrios still have their fill of problems, but the pollution and congestion have diminished because of the Metrocable, the cable-car extension of Medellin's extraordinary mass transportation system. Metrocable, or Line K of the Metro system, is remarkable in many ways. It's thought to be the world's only cable-car system built not for tourism but for mass transit--though tourists flock to it as if it were one of the wonders of the world. (Few Americans have seen it, having bought the idea, promoted by the U.S. State Department, that Colombia is too dangerous to visit.) What's more, it appears to be among the world's best built, best maintained and after a year of operation in the city's "worst" neighborhoods, the cleanest of mass transit systems.

But the most surprising feature of the Metrocable is that contrary to what political and economic analysts would predict, the sleek, ultramodern system was built precisely to accommodate the city's poorest residents, people who have absolutely no political power.

"That's what I like most about the Metrocable," said Julian Lecuona, a longtime Medellin resident and textbook author. Mr. Lecuona, who is skeptical, if not cynical, about politicians, says it's inexplicable that such a project was undertaken for that population.

On a recent weekday afternoon, two orderly lines of approximately 50 persons each, virtually all of whom had just transferred from Metro rail cars, waited to board cable cars you would expect to see in resorts like Vail or Mont Blanc. The cars hold six persons each, and conforming to the "Metro culture" of Medellin's Metro system, visitors and tourists gladly gave way in line to residents. The procedure is to give preference to residents, who have to use the system to get back and forth to work. Tourists have all day to sightsee. Still, the cars were filled with such efficiency that the wait to board was less than five minutes.

The cars noiselessly float above the barrios, providing a glimpse of residents' lives that most nonresidents would consider too dangerous to otherwise observe firsthand. Looking beyond the poverty below, riders have a breathtaking, panoramic view of Medellin--a beautiful, modern city whose hundreds of tall buildings rise like giant palm trees from the Aburra Valley and the foothills of surrounding mountains.

Medellin's people match the loveliness of the environment in appearance and temperament. That's perhaps a contributing factor to a U.N. study showing that Colombia, despite its reputation for crime, insurgencies and drug cartels, is among the world's happiest nations.

The Metrocable, built at an approximate cost of $13 million, has carried close to 16,000 passengers a day since the start of operations a year ago. During that time, according to the government-owned corporation that runs it, the system has saved local residents about $4. …