How do metro systems cope with whopping great hills?

Barcelona has hills of the sort that are a right pain when you're planning a metro system. Image: Hedwig Storch/Wikimedia Commons.

Sudden steep hills are a bit of a pain in the arse  an engineering challenge for yer bog standard metro system.

Obviously you don't want too many steps between underground platforms and a station entrance. But long lifts will constrain the number of people who can get in and out, and could lead to over-crowding during peak hours; while escalators, nifty as they are, require a lot of space that isn't necessarily available.

So, how do you get people from the top of a hill to an underground train and back? Cities have come up with a variety of solutions to link their metro networks up with their more mountainous areas. Here are three.

1. The funicular

In Paris, the metro lines skip the top of Montmatre altogether, and deposit passengers in the streets below. If you really want to visit Sacré-Cœur without climbing a whopping great hill, there's this:

The Montmatre Funicular. Image: Anthony Atkielski/Wikimedia Commons.

Funiculars, for those who haven't had the pleasure, are cable-pulled cares clinging to the sides of steep slopes. As the cable winches one car up the tracks, it simultaneously lowers another, which provides a counter balance and reduces the energy the system needs. It's the sort of thing English resort towns use to carry old people up cliffs, and it's rather clever.

That said, in Paris the base station isn't anywhere near a metro station either, which is a bit off. Other cities make more effort to integrate their funiculars with the rest of their transport system. In Barcelona, the funicular that carries passengers up Montjuïc starts from what is essentially a platform within Paral·lel Metro station:

The lower platform. Image: YMblanter/Wikimedia Commons.

How it looks on the metro map. Image: TMB.

Naples has no fewer than four funiculars, three of which connected at a single station, Vanvitelli. The largest of these, the central funicular, carries over 10m passengers a year through its four stations. (By way of comparison, London's smallest tube line, our old mate the Waterloo & City, carries 15m.)

2. The cable car

Cable cars have picked up a bit of a rubbish reputation in certain western cities (can't think why).

In many hilly Latin American cities, though, they've proved really handy. They're relatively cheap and easy to construct, and bother quicker and less prone to disruption than buses.  Consequently they've popped up, in Medellin:

Image: Raul Arboleda/Getty.

In Caracas:

Image: AFP/Getty.

And in Rio:

Image: Mario Tama/Getty.

Oh, and you can use them as an alternative way of Barcelona’s Montjuïc, should you so wish.

There's one big downside to both cable cars and funiculars, though: they're not that big. Look at the size of the cars. They simply can't carry that many people compared to a traditional metro system.

So that leaves:

3. Clever station design

Okay, this isn't always an option, for all sorts of reasons. But some metro stations have been designed specifically to deal with the fact they're buried under massive great hills

Take Casco Viejo station, in the middle of Bilbao. It serves both a main line station, to the east, and the medieval heart of the city to the west (the name literally means “old city”). Between those two destinations lies the lower slopes of a huge hill which leads up to the Parque Etxebarria.

It'd obviously be pretty impractical to stick the station itself in the park, and get everyone to walk down. So instead, the metro platforms are buried deep under the hill, and connected to the world either side through long tunnels containing moving-walkways. You can just see the western one in the background here. It’s the big dark tunnel:

Image: Google Streetview.

El Coll–La Teixonera, in Barcelona’s hilly northern suburbs, does something similar. The deepest station on the network, it contains no fewer than 12 moving walkways, giving passengers a choice of slopes to pop out on. The eastern entrance to the station is a whole quarter of a mile away from the western one.

Then, to help locals with the last climb to their house, it offers outdoor escalators like this:

Image: Jonn Elledge.

Or, I guess, you could walk.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He tweets as @jonnelledge.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.