Getting Around La Paz Bolivia

I have long had an interest in regional development in South America starting back when I was a graduate student at McMaster University’s Geography Department many years ago. My interest was founded in publications on economic theory and regional disparities by authors like Gunnar Myrdal, Albert Hirschman and John Friedman.

I had a recent opportunity to realize my university aspirations, at least partially, when I travelled to La Paz, Bolivia for a two-week period in October 2016 as a Volunteer Advisor representing the Canadian Executive Services Organization. My assignment involved assisting Edgar Pacheo, Director de Investigación e Información Municipal en Gobierno Autonomo Municipal de La Paz, in the development of management systems for strategic planning and performance measurement. His group of creative staff members produces research reports and innovative information and data products for the City of La Paz. However, my blog has not much to do with my work with Señor Pacheo but instead with my own impressions with the City’s transportation system focusing on its new cable car network.

Overview of Metropolitan La Paz

The City of La Paz’ physical geography is spectacular. The city sits in a valley in the Altiplano (High Plain) plateau surrounded by the snow-capped Cordillera range of the Andes mountains with the imposing snow-capped Mt. Illimani (21,000 feet) dominating the background. At about 12,000 feet above sea level, it is the highest capital in the world. The adjacent shantytown city of El Alto is even higher at about 13,500 feet.

I put capital in italics because La Paz is not the capital of Bolivia, at least in a constitutional sense. According to Bolivia’s constitution, the capital city is Sucre. La Paz is the seat of the executive and legislative branches of the national government whereas the judicial branch is located in Sucre. As such, La Paz benefits most from its administrative or de facto capital role in terms of national government jobs, income, infrastructure, tourism and international identity. This duality is the comprising result of the struggle for political power during the turn of the 20th century between Bolivia’s Conservative Party supported by silver mine owners centred around Sucre and the Liberal Party supported by the more powerful tin mine owners.

With a population of around 2.3 million, the metropolitan area is comprised of two primary urban areas – La Paz (2016 population of 925,000) and El Alto, Bolivia’s biggest shantytown. The latter city was part of La Paz until it separated in 1985. El Alto is characterized as a great revolutionary city in Bolivia with a recent history of political turbulence, military violence and prevalent public protests.

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Homes Clinging to Mountain Side Towards El Alto – View From Downtown City Office Building

As one of the poorest and least developed countries on the continent, Bolivia, like all South American countries, has experienced rapid urbanization over recent decades largely from the migration of people from the rural areas and small towns to the large cities in search of jobs and a better quality of life.  The inflow of largely poor indigenous population has concentrated in El Alto. In 1952, the population of El Alto was 12,000 and today there are over one million inhabitants.

La Paz’ economy has failed to provide adequate, suitable or sustainable employment to absorb the large increase in poorer, less skilled rural migrants. As a result, a large segment of the population had to create their own form of work in the “informal” sector for survival. The informal sector is diverse and encompasses a wide range of activities but mostly street vendors.

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Typical Street Vendor Kiosk

Walking, and Flying, is better than Driving in La Paz

Traffic in La Paz is chaotic at best. It typically took me between 45 and 75 minutes to travel by taxi to the City’s offices in the mornings just under 3 kms from my hotel. I am also excluding the time I had to wait in the hotel lobby for the taxi to get through the traffic to pick me up.  I was able to walk back to the hotel in 40 minutes while at the same time taking in the local culture. A good part of the walk back was also up steep roads requiring frequent rest points due to the thin air and an occasional stop to check my GPS coordinates or to take cover from thunderstorms that quickly roll in from the surrounding mountains.

And forget that pedestrians have the right of way even when crossing at intersections on green lights at clearly marked crosswalks. I discovered that I still had pretty good speed when avoiding oncoming cars. Indeed, one will frequently see Dancing Traffic Zebras who help control traffic and assist pedestrians with high energy and exuberance. These Zebras were first introduced by the City in 2001 as a city improvement program targeting disadvantaged youth.  The Zebras are now recognized as a dynamic part of the city’s culture, so much so that they have recently been added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

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With very few exceptions, there are no straight streets in La Paz probably due to the topographical constraints. The narrow streets are filled with different modes of public and private transit – buses and mostly low capacity taxis, vans and mini-buses (trufis) all competing for the same road space along with pedestrians and sometimes vendors. Because unemployment is high, many people have converted their cars into taxis.  It is estimated that up to 90% of the population of La Paz and El Alto relies on some form of public or private transit.

There are two major investments in new public transit projects for the city of La Paz. First, Pumakatari (La Paz Bus) was introduced in 2014 to provide public transit services to more peripheral areas of La Paz (El Alto also started a public transit system, Sariri, in the following year). A Bus Rapid Transit is also in the planning phase. The second and more urban changing project is described below.

Mi Teleférico – La Paz’ Subway in the Sky

In 2014, the Bolivian government launched the world’s highest and longest cable car transit system or ropeway known as Mi Teleférico (My Cable Car). The $243 million (USD) flagship project consists of 3 individual lines, two of which link El Alto to La Paz. The total length of the three lines is 10 kms with 11 stations. In comparison, Ottawa’s Phase 1 LRT is 12.5 km with 13 stations with a price tag of $2.1 billion ($1.6 billion USD) or $128 million USD per km compared to $24 million per km for La Paz’ cable system.

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Heading Back Down on the Yellow Line

The system was constructed to address a number of problems, including a public transit system that could not cope with growing user demands even with the new Pumakatari, the high cost in time and money of traveling between La Paz and El Alto, heavy traffic with its subsequent environmental and noise pollution. There have been claims that the commuting time from El Alto has been cut from two hours to one half hour. Previously, El Alto was linked to La Paz by way of very few winding and congested roads.

Rides are also affordable with a one-way fee of less than $0.60 Canadian equivalent with discounts for students and seniors.

Given the topographical constraints, the cable car system was considered to be the most economically and technically viable high capacity and environmentally friendly public transit investment. With spectacular sweeping views of the city of La Paz against the backdrop of the Andes mountains, the cable system has also become a major tourist attraction.

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Map of Mi Teleférico Cable Car Lines (Green, Yellow and Red Lines are completed)

The Bolivian government plans to build 8 more lines in Phase 2 adding 23 kms of cable system for an estimated cost of $450 million (USD) for the first 6 lines which are planned to be completed in 2019. The White, Blue and Orange lines are under construction and the system could include 16 lines by 2030 within a fully integrated transportation network. One interesting feature of the White Line is that the Plaza Villarroel Station will be an underground terminal.

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Construction Underway of Underground Station at Plaza Villarroel

A crude but interesting indicator of community popularity support of Mi Teleférico is to compare its social media measures such as registered likes. The following table provides such a comparison with transit authorities in Canada’s 3 largest metropolitan areas – Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. I also threw in Ottawa. Mi Teleférico far outpaces the other three transit providers in terms of the number of Likes on Facebook as well as Instagram Followers relative to Toronto and Montreal. In contrast, the number of Twitter Followers for Mi Teleférico is well below the Canadian cities which may reflect the greater popularity of Facebook as a social media for La Paz internet users compared to Twitter.

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Social Media Indicators (February 25, 2017)

City Transects by way of Mi Teleférico

Travelling in the air along the three cable lines offers a unique way to view the changing social and physical characteristics of different neighbourhoods in La Paz. I travelled all 3 lines during my stay in La Paz.

Traveling westerly up the mountain side away from La Paz and toward El Alto on the Red Line which starts the closest to downtown and the Yellow Line which starts further south, the gondolas pass over the poorer neighbourhoods of the city as they approach their final stops at the top of the city in El Alto. The gondolas seem to almost touch the makeshift brick houses with corrugated metal roofs held in place with large stones and laundry drying in messy backyards or pet dogs sleeping on the back patios.

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Neighbourhood View Near El Alto on the Red Line

Transferring from the Yellow Line to the Green Line took me through the valley in a southwest direction. The neighbourhoods contain middle class homes and high income villas on larger lots with manicured lawns. The line ends near universities and near Calacoto, a district of medium to high socioeconomic status. The streetscape and storefronts look very different than the older more central neighbourhoods and would not seem out of place in any suburb of a large Canadian city.

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Southwest La Paz on the Green Line

Mi Teleférico and Transit Oriented Development – Economic vs Social Value of Land

One of the big selling features of public transit systems like Light Rail Transit or subways in North American cities is the intensification of urban development around transit stops (often referred to as Transit Oriented Development). Mi Teleférico’s 2016-2020 Strategic Business Plan does not include any goals or policy statements specifically related to commercial or residential development around the cable system stations.  Space has been included in the design and construction of at least some of the cable car stations to accommodate retail uses like drug stores, ATMs, newsstands etc.

There are a few examples of transit oriented development that can still be identified: the underground Plaza Villarroel Station with 11,000 sq m of public recreational space on the roof and mixed use developments around the Libertador (Chuqui Apu) station at the interchange of the Green and Yellow Lines.

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Artist Rendering of Public Space above Plaza Villarroel Underground Station

Transit oriented development also brings with it increased land values and therefore higher property assessment revenue to municipalities. Some North American cities have used “land value capture” tools to capture the incremental increase in land values generated by the improved accessibility resulting from public investments in new rapid transit systems. Ecuador’s capital city, Quito, introduced a land capture planning bylaw allowing the municipality to charge for building approvals but to use the resultant funds to pay for social housing for indigenous migrants and other marginalized groups (Philipp Horn,  “The New Urban Agenda can strengthen land policies – with some caution”: 2016).

Economic gain or profit from land development does not appear as an important priority to either City or central government authorities when rationalizing the large public investments in the new Mi Teleférico system. Instead, the priorities at the centre of urban development appear to be on environmental sustainability and the social inclusion of indigenous peoples.  There is also an emphasis on the provision of public space such as parks and people-oriented activities.

La Paz and El Alto have also evolved as two segregated cities – physically, socially, politically and economically, over the last 50 years of urbanization in Bolivia. Mi Teleférico may provide the way for integrating the two cities leading to a more functional and competitive metropolitan area.

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