More Paisa than the metro

One part of the integration process in a new city is learning to get around like a local. You figure out which available option is best for which occasion, how to get on and off and negotiating and paying the right fare. There are plenty of options; the metro, metrocable, electric trams and metrobuses, other public and private buses, shared taxi’s, Uber or Cabify-taxi’s or just yellow cabs. And of course the famous escalators of San Javier. But even with all these options, getting from a to b is sometimes still a crime. But not as bad as it used to be.

The context

valley of challenges

The outlay of the city is to blame for this, mainly. The city is built in the Aburrá valley along the Medellin River, and surrounded by mountains. When the city tripled in size in the 50s and 60s, newcomers built slums on the hillsides. Long walks and bus rides over windy roads separated them from friends, hospitals or jobs, resulting in poor slums that remained mentally and physically separated from the rest of the city. This also provided the fertile breeding grounds for crime in the 80s and 90s.

As the population increased, the highway that runs north to south along the river got more and more congested. This caused horrible rush hours and air pollution. Both socially, environmentally and economically, Medellin was in need for a change. 

social innovation 

the metro


And change it did. Since the 90s, The city introduced viable alternatives that drastically cut travelling times around the city. This started with the opening of the first line of the Medellin Metro in 1995, connecting the wealthy El Poblado neighbourhood with poor Niquía. 3 years after the death of Escobar, the Medellin Metro was received by the citizens as a symbol of hope: a symbol of the city that awaited them; a clean, fast, safe, and inclusive city. The metro network has expanded almost every year since its opening. An intersecting line was built to connect the comunas of San Javier in the west and Villa Hermosa in the east, running through the city center and Laureles, where we live.

All of the stops on the metro lines provide transfer options; to the updated network of electric trams (tranvía) or the metrobus, public buses, or sometimes to the bicycle sharing program, EnCicla. Travellers can use one card, the Tarjeta Civica, to combine the different modes, just as the Oyster card in London or OV chip card in the Netherlands. In 2018, close to a million people a day use the Metro to get to their jobs, friends and services. Not bad, especially in a place with such a troubled past.

Up in the air

As the metro’s success became obvious and newly connected comunas started to flourish, the government wanted to connect more of them. However, the comunas that were in biggest need of improvement were just too high up the hills to reach with the metro. This made the government decide in 2004 to start building the ‘metrocable’. 5 lines of cable carts connect metro stops downtown with 48 stations in some of the poorest uphill neighbourhoods. The metrocable cut travel times by sometimes over an hour single way, both for slum dwellers and visitors. Many small businesses are being opened at the metro stops, boosting social and economic development of the comunas. San Javier for example, turned from the third most dangerous neighbourhood of the world, to a tourist destination offering graffiti tours. In many cities it may feel like too much of an effort or too unsafe for visitors to take a bus to poorer, up-hill residential areas. In Medellin, it is a safe and fun cable cart ride.

Februari this year, La Sierra in the east of the city was connected with the 5th line, and currently a 6th line is being constructed to Picacho in the North West. The metrocable was the first in Latin America, but has won several prices and was copied many times since in cities such as Bogota, Caracas, La Paz and Mexico City.


the bikes

going dutch

To get more people out of their cars Medellin also invested in a bicycle infrastructure. Over the last couple of years, 120 km of bicycle paths were built and new lines are opened every month. An extensive bike sharing program EnCicla was rolled out (inspired by originally the White Bicycle Plan of the Dutch activist group Provo’s in the 60s). 1300 bikes can be rented for free, and returned within the hour to any of the 60 EnCicla stations. Stations are situated at public transport stops but also at hospitals, universities, parks and shopping malls. Having so many stations around is a major benefit when compared to the Dutch OV fiets system, which has more bikes but focuses more on biking to and from public transit.

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Investing in biking and walking is one of the most successful strategies to improve a city. It’s cheap for both user and for the city, space efficient, clean and healthy. In Colombia this is not different. My favourite documentary Bogota Change (youtube) shows how two former Bogota Mayors, Enrique Peñalosa and Antanas Mockus (a Philosophy professor turned unconventional mayor) creatively changed the culture of Colombia’s capital around biking, public transport and citizen behaviour. In Medellin, the efforts are paying off and biking is getting more popular. Ok, some bike trips may still feel like an arcade game; avoiding holes and cracks or simply a sudden end of the bike path, and dodging pedestrians or cars that seem unaware of the existence of bike paths in general. All while you wipe the sweat out of your eyes, because it’s hot. But for us that’s a fair price to pay for the freedom of getting anywhere at anytime, and avoiding the packed metro during rush hour or getting stuck in traffic with a taxi.

We’re combining projects like these with Spanish classes and other projects here and at home, to make ourselves useful. Does it pay the bills? Not yet, but we are confident it will. And hey, we have to integrate, right? A Paisa no se vara.

urban innovation?

Improving the way people get around their city might not sound like the most sexy, innovative feat. But Medellin shows it actually is. Their efforts in improving the ways people get around their city have been a way to incorporate the comunas into the city, to provide a symbol of hope in a city that was in need of one and a way to reduce traffic congestion and pollution. Public transport is one of the essential pillars of the cities transformation.

Taking the metro or the metrocable is a must do when you visit the city. Generally, taking the metro might be featured in the ‘getting around’-part of your guidebook, but here it has made the top of the highlights section. And more importantly, the metro has gotten into the hearts of the people of Medellin, the Paisas. 

Ask a Paisa where he’s from, and he’ll probably tell you; “I’m more Paisa than the Arepa and the Metro”.

get innovative

Developing interventions to get into the hearts of the people, how would you do it?