Infrastructure notes: Bolivia soars, Venezuela, well, hmm

Screen Shot 2014-04-27 at 11.08.43 AMThanks to a series of tweets last night by Omar I learned that La Paz, Bolivia has opened the world’s longest teleferico, part of a new 10-km, three-line system of “metrocables” to connect the higher parts of the city with the lower. La Paz joins Medellín, Rio de Janeiro and Caracas in using metrocables to connect the hills, which in all four cities are poorer areas, with the job-rich center. Urban thinkers love metrocables*. They are like helicopters for poor people, leaping the staircases, highways and gang wars that once cut hill-dwellers off from the crystal palaces of downtown. They’re fun to ride and are relatively cheap, compared to subways or helicopters.

Did I say relatively cheap? Yes, that’s one of the selling points. The urban part of Medellín’s system cost something like $71 million for 4.7 km. (The documents on this are eluding me after hours of searching Colombian government web sites, which is a bit suspicious, but this online rant has the highest numbers I’ve seen, so let’s go with it.) That’s $15,106 per meter. According to these technical specifications, La Paz is building its 10,377-meter system for $235 million, or $22,615 per meter. Caracas built its 1.8-km San Agustín system for $257 million, or $142,777 per meter. That was 55 times more than the 10 billion old bolivars ($4.6 million) originally planned. The Caracas system overruns were in part because of gold-plating — check out the oversized, marble-floored stations — and quite likely in part because of corruption, though no, I don’t have the goods on that. Congratulations Country X.

That’s not to say that Venezuela can’t do anything fast and cheap. When I was there in December, I was surprised to see the national government building a new bridge over the Güaire river to connect the congested La Mercedes neighborhood with the freeway on the other side of the river. It was a very odd project, as the bridge was being built with minimal foundations at each end and was just a series of cheap trusses with a bit of asphalt on top — military campaign bridges pressed into service for heavy urban use. The turning radiuses to get on the bridge seemed horribly tight and it all looked like a recipe for yet more congestion in Las Mercedes, but who am I to complain — Caracas certainly needs more connectivity.

Well, turns out that my concerns about congestion and turning radii were off base. The bridge opened in early December. Yesterday, this happened. So it goes.

* Personally, I think Metrocables are great stop-gap transportation systems, but should not be seen as long-term solutions. Capacity is relatively inflexible; you can speed up the cable a bit and make the cars a bit bigger, but the maximum capacity per direction in these systems is always on the order of 3,000 passengers per hour. That’s very small. By comparison Hyderabad is building a rail system that will start out able to carry 12,000 passengers an hour per direction but can boost train length and cut headways to expand capacity to 60,000 an hour. Express trains are impossible on a metrocable. Worst of all, a breakdown can stop the whole line, stranding some passengers in the air, unable to transfer to a bus without extraordinary measures, as New Yorkers might recall from the 2006 breakdown of the (more primitive) Roosevelt Island tram. (I was once stranded atop Venezuela’s Pico Bolívar during a teleferico breakdown, thankfully not one of the dozens of passengers who were stuck for hours without food or bathrooms, hundreds of feet above the ground.) Longer term, the support columns will need occasional replacement, which could require shutting down the system for weeks or months at a time. Metrocable, in other words, is a nice way to boost mobility for hill-dwellers quickly and relatively cheaply, but it’s not a great long-term solution.