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Breaking Social Boundaries: Innovative Transport for the Poor in Colombia

by Jemma Williams
The gondola glides smoothly up into the Andean hills on the outskirts of Medellín, Colombia, as I peer through its clean glass windows in fascination at the world below. Slums sprawl over rugged green hills, with informal settlements stretching further and further up into the steep slopes of the mountains. Makeshift houses atop hillsides mesh into one another and the streets are full of activity. Women sit in groups outside brightly coloured houses and barefoot children run over unsteady bridges above dirty streams. The faint beat of salsa music drifts into the skies until it is just barely audible. The contrast between the clean, quiet, and comfortable carriage in the sky and the lively disarray below is dizzying. These cable cars, known as the Metrocable, were built to serve as mass public transport for the communities in the region. Yet they appear not only to have revolutionised public transport for the poor, but are also a powerful symbol of social inclusion in the city.

The Metrocable, installed in 2004, aims to provide effective transport for these hillside areas where steep slopes, long distances, and dangerous communities make movement difficult. Establishing such an innovative system to overcome difficulties using regular forms of transport was a rare political initiative, one that was even more remarkable considering the largely informal origins of these communities and their widespread poverty. Perhaps because of its novelty, the Metrocable attracts travellers like myself, intrigued by Medellín’s rapid recovery from the violence and social divisions that it has left behind.

The settlements that are now serviced by the Metrocable were established when displaced peoples from towns and smaller cities in the region fled conflict between guerrilla groups and paramilitaries. However, there was still no escape from violence. These poor and isolated areas of the city were often the location of brutal confrontations between the drug cartels of Medellín during the 1980s and 1990s, when the city was one of the most violent in the world.

As I look down on the hillside communities, it is the symbolism of the Metrocable system that strikes me. While the settlements do look poor, there is a different sentiment here. The walls of the houses are painted vividly, splashing bright colours over the hillsides. Graffiti art shouts from the rooftops to the transport system above. It seems to me that, suddenly visible, these communities are declaring their existence and demanding their inclusion. Whether or not the Metrocable has decreased violence and helped to rebuild trust, it has certainly been a powerful social symbol. Innovative and graceful technology, implemented in the middle of such a marginalised area, appears to have given these communities a sense of dignity, or maybe even pride.

It has now been eight years since the first line of the Metrocable was constructed, and these communities still face problems associated with poverty and exclusion. Yet it seemed inevitable to me that such huge changes in infrastructure would have dramatic consequences for the people of Medellín. I asked resident Carolina Munoz, and she says that the Metrocable has succeeded in “connecting the poorest communities in Medellín to the centre.” Freddy Herrera agrees, and emphasises that these suburbs had been previously “isolated and inaccessible.”

Servicing an average of 67,000 people per day, it is clear that the Metrocable has been a successful extension of the public transport network in the city. Perhaps more importantly, it seems to have inspired a rethinking of the city’s spaces. Ana María Roldán emphasises the importance of having “just one system for connecting the city.” With singular ticketing for the Metrocable as well as the wider Metro network of the city, these areas are included not only in the geographical maps of the city, but are also symbolically included as part of the greater Medellín society. According to Roldán, the integrated transport has “made the city feel safer.”

It is unclear whether this sentiment of increased safety in the city can be attributed to the Metrocable, but Roldán was among a number of city residents to make the observation. One mainstream Colombian newspaper, El Tiempo, recently published an article that reported the level of homicides in Medellin to have been reduced as a result of the Metrocable. A thorough study on social attitudes and violence conducted by Cerdá et al. in 2008 compared the levels of violence before and after the system’s installation. After assessing a range of Medellín’s poorest communities, they found that there was a 66 percent greater decline in homicides in communities serviced by the Metrocable, as well as increased trust between neighbours and greater confidence in the police. While the study is not conclusive, it seems that the benefits of the project have extended beyond their original scope.

As the cable car stops at the top of one of the hills, a thin, neatly dressed lady who lives in the area below boards. She smiles brightly and greets everyone as she takes her seat, introducing herself as Carolina. I am already sharing the small car with a couple of Colombians from a different area who, like myself, have taken the ride up into the mountains out of curiosity. The arrival of Carolina sparks a lively conversation. One of the other passengers asks her about the conditions of life in the communities below. With a smile, she explains that while there is no running water, her community is lucky to have electricity. She tells us that she owns her own house and is the proud mother of eleven children. “The house is small, but it is ours,” she says, smiling. Carolina is on her way into the city, where she attends classes, and explains that today she is running late.

As we arrive at the final station, one of the Colombian passengers hands her some money. “Take a taxi to your class so that you arrive on time,” he says. This small exchange of curiosity, kindness, and generosity demonstrates the power of the Metrocable to bring people together. Through opening up city spaces for all residents, traditional social boundaries are challenged and overcome. The formal recognition of these communities through inclusion within the city’s greater transport network has initiated the slow process of social acceptance for these neighbourhoods that have long been tainted by fear, suspicion, and stigma. Perhaps it is this simple process of social inclusion which has the potential to break the cycle of violence, through promoting understanding, destroying fears, and rebuilding social relationships.

About the Author: Jemma Williams grew up in a small town on Australia’s North Coast, and has since travelled, lived and worked around the world. She writes about social justice issues and is motivated by the personal stories of marginalised people around the globe. Jemma holds a Bachelor of International Studies from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, and specialises in international development. She is completing a thesis exploring the issues of fear, underdevelopment and violence in Latin America.

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