Prof. Julio Dávila: The Transformative Power of the Cable Car in Medellín, Colombia

Labelled ‘the most dangerous city in the world’ by TIME magazine in 1988, Medellín has since become known as ‘the most innovative’ for its successes in urban development. Once home to Pablo Escobar’s infamous Medellín Cartel, tourists now flock to Colombia’s second- largest city to see its art museums, botanical gardens and most bizarrely, its transport system. In 2004, Medellín opened the Metrocable, a cable car system made with the purpose of connecting the poorer hillside communities with the city centre and its opportunities. This proved to be a great success and Medellín has since inspired many other cities around the world to do the same in order to tackle issues concerning poverty and crime. Julio D Dávila (Professor of Urban Policy and International Development, and Director of the Development Planning Unit, UCL) began his research on cable car systems in 2008, and is now one of the world’s leading experts on the subject. Julio D Dávila talks to Flora Davies about the importance of Medellín’s Metrocable, the possibilities of the cable car system in urban development projects around the world and the future of Medellín, ‘the city of eternal spring’. 

What is it that is so special about Medellin’s cable car system? These systems have been introduced in various cities across Latin America as well as in New York, Portland and London. Why has the Medellín cable car been so successful and gained so much media coverage? 

Medellín was the first city to launch an intraurban, commuter cable car that wasn’t for tourists. It got a lot of media coverage partly because it was the first one, but also because it was actually successful at doing what it was meant to do (which was bringing the poor closer to the city and its opportunities). It was particularly interesting because it was specifically geared towards the poor. In other countries, you may have commuter cable cars but they don’t fill a gap in the way that the Medellín Metrocable did You could tell it did because it became quite busy very quickly after it opened – there were long queues in the morning going into the city and long queues in the evening going back out. That’s a sign of success as there was huge demand and it was clearly meeting people’s needs. So that’s why it’s successful and that’s why it has so much media coverage – and that was just the first line. More lines have opened since. Our work gave the Metrocable visibility in the academic world, but I think beyond that too as I’ve been interviewed several times by different media outlets because of this work. 

The local culture has a very strong work ethic, there’s a strong sense of independence and autonomy and that is reflected in the particularly strong local institutions. They were very good at getting funding for the metro system in the 1990s and the government bankrolled the municipality for the first (and so far the only) metro system in Colombia. They’ve been very good at building local expertise and young graduates from good universities have pride in working for the municipality. They see it as an extension of themselves and of local culture. So there’s a sense of purpose and people working towards a common goal. 

What other areas could benefit from a cable car system like Medellín’s? Particularly places with similar issues in that which concern links between the topography and poverty? 

There are other areas that could benefit from a similar system. The Andes, of course, and also parts of Mexico. Mexico City is building at least two cable car systems around the periphery of the city. There are cable cars being built now in other parts of the world. There’s a cable car system in Algeria, in a city called Constantine, which was created at around the same time as that of Medellin, but not with the same spirit. 

Tbilisi in Georgia used to have a whole network of cable cars and in Soviet times they were part of a bigger network but most of them were designed specifically for the workers to complement existing mass transit systems, or to take them, for leisure, up to parks as the city is surrounded by mountains – the topography there works. They had at least ten lines and they’re now trying to revive them but apparently their revival is gearing them more towards tourists and the rich, rather than the workers. 

That’s what is so specific about Medellín – it is geared at the poor and the workers as opposed to the rich and the tourists. The commuter lines in Medellín aim to integrate the poor into the bigger labour force and give them benefits. They’re also designed to be attractive. Generally speaking, a lot of the infrastructure investment that goes into the poor is ugly – it may be functional but it isn’t attractive. Medellín’s system sends a message to these communities that the city values them, it’s a way of inverting the pyramid. 

The Metrocable has become a popular tourist attraction. Do you think that this is a positive benefit of the cable car system, in that it attracts tourists and therefore cultural interest and money to the hillside comunas? 

I think it’s a good thing. Medellín was in a terrible state as a city. When the first line was being built, the city was coming out of a decade of violence where Pablo Escobar had his presence felt through terrible violence, and there were also urban guerrillas, so in many ways it was a city under siege. 

The city had lost its pre-eminence within the manufacturing industry in Colombia due to the liberalisation process and so a lot of industries, especially those in the garments and textiles trades, went bankrupt. Mass lay-offs and large unemployment coincided with the boom in the illegal drug business. It was a dark period and the metro system came at a time when the city needed to reinvent itself. It’s a beautiful city and the people are very nice, but I’m sure that some tourists are attracted to it because they find a certain thrill in being in a place where there has been so much violence. 

Despite that, locals like the fact that tourists from outside Colombia want to visit – that brings enormous pride. We measured people’s reactions to tourism, and they were very happy that after feeling that they were seen as scum, foreigners were visiting them. They felt they had come a long way. Tourist visits are largely restricted to a couple of lines, but it is still a source of pride and in many ways it’s a positive thing. 

While Medellín has developed greatly in recent years due to the transport system, some of its problems are out of the municipality’s control. What do you think the future of Medellín looks like, given wider issues in the country, such as armed groups and drug trafficking? 

A lot of the problems that Medellín had in the 1990s and early 2000s have now moved to Mexico, Guatemala and other places. The drug cartels are much weaker now in Medellín and also have a much lower profile, so the state has become much stronger and more able to deal with these issues. I’m not going to say that problems don’t exist as of course they do, but they’re probably overstated in the international media. 

The local government is very pragmatic and they know that there are some parts of the city that are still in the hands of these gangsters, but they’re managing them. However, until demand for drugs drops, the problems are still going to be there. I understand that there are more and more synthetic drugs being produced in Europe and Mexico which reduces the pressure on Colombia which produces more cocaine than any other country. 

Overall, I’m optimistic but the drug-trafficking problems aren’t going to go away until there’s less demand for the drug. I’m just hoping that the lockdowns around the world will reduce the demand and that these groups will go bankrupt. We’ll see how COVID affects even issues like these; I think things will change a little bit, but I’m not sure in which direction.

Interview with Prof. Julio Dávila by Flora Davies. Prof. Julio Dávila’s Twitter is @DavilaJulio