Cable cars are taking Latin America by a storm

A cable car above Caracas. Image: Getty.

Cable cars are a transportation system composed of a series of cars suspended from thick cables supported by large, widely spaced towers. The name can be confusing in an American context, where it generally refers to cable-drawn rail cars such as the trolleys of San Francisco; instead, such systems are often referred to as “chairlifts”, or (this is cute) “gondola lifts”.

Whatever you call them, the technology has long been used at ski lifts, and they’re a favourite attraction at amusement parks as well. But recently, they’ve found a new application: public transport.

This new wave of urban chairlift construction kicked off in Medellín, Colombia, which introduced the new system to serve underprivileged hilltop neighbourhoods. Each line was given a letter and colour, in a move which deliberately echoed the branding of the city’s existing metro system.

Construction of the new system, the Metrocable Medellín, was completed in 2004. Soon, the idea caught on across Latin America, and cable cars began hauling passengers in major cities such as Caracas, Manizales, Rio de Janeiro, and most recently La Paz, Bolivia.

The official map of Medellín's tranpsort network, showing traditional metros, cable cars and bus rapid transit lines.

It’s easy to understand why these systems draw so much attention. Unlike buses, which grumble along at street level, and subways which are buried out of sight, cable cars soar majestically above the cityscape, offering dramatic views to riders.

But the reason they’ve taken off in Latin America, and especially in mountainous cities where informal developments tend to concentrate on hilltops, is for their ease of construction over steep terrain. Bus-based public transit is often unreliable or unavailable to slum dwellers, and in hilly neighbourhoods buses are slowed by twisting streets. Cable cars, by contrast, glide effortlessly over these areas.

Such systems have in many cases been created with the express purpose of making life better for people living in slums, while showing respect for the autonomy of such communities. Arturo Brillembourg, an architect with Urban Think Tank and one of the developers of the Caracas Metrocable, said in an interview with Architonic: “Our concept is based in architecture that has the ability to change according to the transformation of the informal city and the dynamics among its inhabitants. We only provide the framework for future adaptation.”

These noble ideas of community empowerment are echoed by the writing on the cars themselves, emblazoned with bold slogans like “social ethics”, “participation”, and “love” (also, simply “Venezuela”). Cars in Medellín aren’t so outspoken, but their human representatives are. A headline from the website El Colombiano proclaims: “The Metrocable is quality of life”.

But the cars are not without their technical drawbacks. First, their capacity is much lower than conventional mass transit: a system designed for high capacity can typically haul 3,000 people per hour in each direction, which sounds like a lot until you consider that the same number of people can be carried by just three subway trains. They’re also slower than conventional transit, ambling along at 10 mph (16 kmh), the speed of a leisurely bike ride. And then there’s the safety issue. While proponents maintain that chairlifts are statistically very safe, the idea of dangling in a car suspended hundreds of feet above the ground from a cable no thicker than your wrist is still enough to make many riders squeamish.

The public response to these systems has varied. In Medellin, it’s been one of almost unanimous support: proponents boast of sharp drops in crime and increases in investment, crediting it as one of the keys to the “Medellin miracle” in which the city turned itself around after widespread drug-related violence in the 80s and 90s. In Caracas, the cable cars have become so much a part of daily life that users angrily lashed out after an unannounced closure in late 2012. La Paz’s system seems to be doing well, too; despite initial concerns about price, a report last month found the system to be a success.

Those in Rio de Janeiro have been somewhat less successful, however. A report from the website Rio on Watch noted that ridership was lacklustre, despite the fact that the line has worked well for some residents of the Complexo do Alemão favela that it serves. It also cited transportation specialist Raul Lisboa, who claimed that system in its current state does not effectively cover all areas of the favela.

The biggest failure in the use of cable cars isn’t anywhere in Latin America: it’s in London, where the Emirates Air Line across the Thames was constructed in 2012 to much fanfare in the lead-up to the Olympics. Today, the line serves a fraction of the people who took it during the games; the Evening Standard reports that the line only gets four regular commuters per day.

Urban cable cars are relatively new – but even from their short track record, it’s clear that they excel in some situations but fail in others. Let’s hope that the planners take this into account, before the next wave arrives.

Credit for image of Metrocable cars above a Medellín street: Jorge Gobbi, via Flickr, reused under creative commons.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.