Minor investments, maximum flexibility: Urban cable cars are an efficient addition to metropolitan infrastructures. And they can plug social gaps, like they do in South America. A promising blueprint and export for the rest of the globe?

It is one of those million-dollar questions: What do Caracas, London, Medellín, Singapore, and Vancouver have in common? The answer: All of them connect their citizens with urban cable cars. And we are not talking Alpine gondolas filled with ski pass-wearing tourists, but no-nonsense flying busses.

Contemporary cable cars move thousands of passengers per hour. They also require little in the way of infrastructure – all it takes are a few pylons and stations placed between (or even on top of) existing buildings. In South America, inner-city cable cars have long become a common and incredibly efficient mode of transport, connecting districts and social strata alike.

Metropolises as patients

Some barrios show up on no map. In Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, a motorway might be all that separates palatial houses from the slums that cover the city’s hills like a proliferation of corrugated metal, timber, cement, and rocks. Hut upon hut, their residents stack hopes for a better life – sometime.

Since the construction boom of the 1950s, migrant workers have been settling on these steep escarpments, without access to drains or heating. More often than not, it took them hours to reach the center of town via a network of stairs and alleyways; on their way to find work – and then all the way back, laden with food and supplies.

Early January 2010 proved a major turning point: Since the launch of the Caracas Metro Cable, the line’s bright red cabins have been floating across the barrios to link more and more slums with the center of town. Now five stops, from San Agustín to Parque Central, connect favela dwellers with a regular metro station. A little over a mile of steel cable joins entire worlds via a vertiginous route, steel pylons, and stops on stilts that overshadow a sea of corrugated roofs like elevated lifeguard stations.

These beacons of change were conjured up by the Austrian-Venezuelan architectural bureau Urban Think Tank and the minds behind it all, Hubert Klumpner (49) and his partner Alfredo Brillembourg (53), have been teaching city planning in Zurich since 2010. It is their ambitious vision to completely redefine their profession: away from luxurious flights of fancy towards more pragmatic, hands-on solutions.

“Mega cities are laboratories and proving grounds for the type of innovations that are currently no longer conceivable in Europe,” the duo declared back in 2011. A statement reflected in their designs when they dissect the city’s physique with a medical mind to install bypasses or even try their hand at emergency tracheotomies – willing to do anything to ensure their patient’s survival.

The Brillembourg and Klumpner method

In this spirit, the two architects did not wait for calls for proposals, but simply took to the streets, talked to barrio representatives, and presented the perplexed city administration with the fait accompli of finished plans. Their tack proved successful: The municipality of Caracas invested $300 m in Caracas Metro Cable – a two-line project that moves 3,000 passengers per hour and direction in cabins with room for ten.

The world’s first cable-bound public transport system also uses deflection pulleys that allow cars to change direction at angles of up to 90 degrees. So, if the traffic situation requires it, cabins could even switch lines at the central hub and go back straight away.

So, what is the expert verdict? Heiner Monheim, professor of spatial development and land use planning at Trier University, is a great proponent of urban cable car systems. They “don’t require mountains or snow. All it takes is urban traffic issues and existing development deficits in public transport.”

According to him, the advantages are obvious: Obstacles can be overcome with little construction and minimal disruption. What’s more, it requires less investment than rail-bound transportation. Just a thought: A regular switchback road would have swept away almost a third of the – admittedly illegal – housing while an urban cable car simply floats above it all.

Problem solver and hit export

Caracas is a success story, not least of all since the San Agustín, El Manguito, La Ceiba, Hornos de Cal, and Parque Central stops have evolved into small urban hubs, supported by their striking and strikingly visible architecture and curved steel roofs. At the time of writing, a second facility is in the works. At 3 miles, the Metro Cable Mariche – Palo Verde is almost three times as long as the first installation.

Urban cable cars have become something of a Southern American hit export – after soccer, of course. In 2004, the Colombian city of Medellín opened a network of three lines that connects favelas and the center at a speed of 10 miles/hour.

Incidentally, Colombia’s second largest metropolis financed some of its public transport extension with UN funds from the emissions trading scheme for climate protection. The city sold certificates for 20,000 tons of CO2 reductions. Even crime rates are said to have gone down.

And the cable car success story continues: Currently, the city of La Paz is investing $234 m in a huge project, the largest project of its kind to date, spanning seven miles and designed to transport 18,000 passengers per hour.

So, why not go up, up, and away – in South America and beyond?

All the images, incl. the header image: Steven Dale, The Gondola Project