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In Mexico City, public transit takes to the air

Aerial trams aren't just for tourists anymore. In Mexico's capital, they're a lifeline for some of the city's poorest residents.

By Adina Solomon

Wearing a black dress with bright pink flowers and black, high-heeled ankle boots, Alma Huerta looks out the window as she glides above hilly terrain on her way home in Mexico City. The ground below is dense with houses and shops. People and cars pass beneath her. The sounds of street noise drift in: Dogs bark, music plays, people talk, roosters crow. Brightly painted buildings, covered with murals of butterflies, create a patchwork of colors. Mountains stand through the haze in the distance.

Huerta lives in Iztapalapa, the most populous borough of Mexico City. As she has done once or twice a week for the past year, she takes Line 2 of the city’s aerial cable car system, dubbed the Cablebus. Often, Huerta uses the line to shop for her business and to visit family. This time, she’s returning home from court in Centro Histórico, the heart of Mexico City — and marveling about how the aerial tram has transformed her cross-town travel from an arduous journey on the ground to a simpler trip partially through midair. By bus, Huerta says, it used to take her an hour and a half to reach the nearest metro station. With the Cablebus, she can get there in 40 minutes.

“It’s faster,” Huerta says in Spanish. “It made it easier for many people to get around.”

Mexico City is a vast megacity — the largest, by population, on the North American continent, with nearly 22 million people in the metro area. It has notoriously slow traffic, and the city’s subway system doesn’t reach most of Iztapalapa. This leaves most of the borough’s 1.8 million residents to take buses to get around, which end up being even slower because of the hills.

Enter the aerial cable car — often associated with tourism and luxury ski resorts, but increasingly adopted for public transit. About 20 cities worldwide — many in Latin American countries such as Bolivia, Colombia, and Mexico — use cable car systems as part of their urban infrastructure. Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum promised to build the Cablebus during her political campaign in 2018. In summer 2021, the city opened two cable car lines, in Iztapalapa and Gustavo A. Madero, a hilly borough north of the city.

Now, as governments around the world see the successes of cities with aerial trams, other regions are beginning to explore this option. One opened in Haifa, Israel, in April. Toulouse, France, opened its own in May. Paris plans on building a cable car line by 2025 that will link the southeastern suburbs of Créteil and Villeneuve-Saint-Georges with the metro train system.

“There have always been innovative ways to get people across difficult terrain,” says Sara Wadia-Fascetti, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University and the founder of the university’s Beyond Traffic Innovation Center, which researches infrastructure. She points to the Monongahela Incline in Pittsburgh, a funicular built in 1870 to transport industrial workers up and down a steep hill. It still operates today. “What’s interesting about the aerial tram is that it can span far greater distances and a variety of terrains that would be very difficult to build by road,” she says.

Questions remain about whether this is a transportation solution that could be scaled up or adopted globally. Cable cars can provide a faster ride across difficult geographies such as mountains or waterways. They create less noise pollution and require less land, according to architectural firm UNStudio, which has designed aerial trams. Still, compared to street-level transit such as buses, a tram can be more difficult to maintain and harder for riders to board since they need to get to a station.

But don’t tell that to the riders of the Cablebus, who have taken up this new form of transit with enthusiasm, and appreciate it for more than just its speed. In Mexico City, the impossible might be happening: a transit system that also brings a shot of daily joy.

Riding on a Cablebus car feels markedly different from boarding a subway: Each ride is not an underground escape from the city’s sights and smells so much as a way to view the city from a new perspective. Mexico City’s Cablebus car typically fits eight to 10 people. As it stops at each of the seven stations along Line 2, station staff check the car and, if necessary, reshuffle where people sit to make sure the weight distribution is correct and the car remains stable.

The windows at the top of the car gape open to relieve some of the heat. The wind whistling in mingles with the smell of fresh popcorn. On a recent ride, a boy in a green tracksuit played with two stuffed monkeys in a nearby seat.

When it opened, the 6.5-mile Iztapalapa line became the longest cable car route in Latin America, with the capacity to transport 90,000 people each day. Just a few weeks after the line was inaugurated, the Mexico City government reported it had 48,000 daily users, the latest passenger numbers available. Transportation experts say people have generally been happy with the new transit mode as it helps cut commute times across the borough.

“It helps me get to work on time, and I feel like I’m calmer.”

Cristina Miguel, a Mexico City commuter who rides the Cablebus

“It’s been a positive project for the mobility of the city overall and especially these places, these areas of the city that are hard to reach,” says Bernardo Baranda, the Mexico City-based Latin America director at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

And with better transit connections, Baranda says, comes the chance for a better standard of living. Most of the legacy transit infrastructure in Mexico City was built in the central core and west of the city, he notes, while eastern boroughs like Iztapalapa were often left out. Persistent economic challenges may have been a consequence. In Iztapalapa, more than 40% of residents live in poverty — among the highest proportions in the entire country, according to data from the Mexican government’s National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy. Basic necessities aren’t a given: Almost 15% of residents say they lack regular access to piped water.

Transit projects like the Cablebus can change that, Baranda says. The city government projected when Line 2 opened that it would create 1,475 new businesses and 4,200 new jobs in Iztapalapa. The government hasn’t announced whether these numbers have come true, but Baranda says ease of movement has clear benefits. “Public transport is a way to enable people to gain more access to jobs, education, and social activities,” he says.

But public transit is about more than efficiency. Israel Palaceos takes the Cablebus every day from his home in Iztapalapa to get to and from his job selling candy in bustling Centro. He only saves 10 minutes compared to taking the bus, but it’s a more comfortable ride. Like those thousands of other passengers, Palaceos can look out at the mountains and the city life below. Many of the flat-topped buildings have striking murals of butterflies, hummingbirds and people. It’s by design. To beautify the neighborhood as the Cablebus was constructed, Mexico City’s government hired 40 artists to paint 100 murals on rooftops in Iztapalapa. More than 3,400 houses are also painted in shades of yellows, pinks, blues, and greens, creating a colorful scene when riding in the Cablebus above the borough. People can not only get around, but do so in style.

It’s one of the many ways a good aerial tram system can affect other aspects of city life, Baranda says. The system in Medellín, Colombia, started service in 2004 and now has six lines across the hilly city. As part of the project, the government of Medellín improved the areas around the stations. Now, these public spaces have city-provided resources such as libraries and soccer fields.

Not all aerial trams work out. Rio de Janeiro established a system for the 2016 Olympics, but because of mismanaged finances and poor engagement during the planning process, it shut down after only a few months.

And Baranda says cities should study a location to see if the topography merits having an aerial tram rather than another transit mode: Does the city truly need a cable car? “Decisionmakers like shiny new transport technologies,” he says.

In general, Baranda prefers street-level transportation because it’s less complicated than building something in the air, easier to maintain, and easier for passengers to reach. Having a dedicated bus lane or tramway on the road is also a powerful symbol of a city’s commitment to transit, Baranda says.

But in Mexico City, the trams have been successful enough that the city plans to build two more Cablebus lines. A proposed line 3, scheduled to open in September 2023, would have 11 stations, span seven miles, and cross numerous neighborhoods and Bosque de Chapultepec, an expansive city park twice the size of New York City’s Central Park.

Meanwhile, the existing Cablebus sees steady traffic. Cristina Miguel rides the Cablebus in Iztapalapa to get to her job in the city, where she makes hardware for telecommunications cables. It’s hot in the car, so she ties her red hair into a ponytail to cool off a little.

She used to take multiple buses just to get to the closest metro station, a journey of 80 minutes. Now, the same trip takes her an hour. Plus, she only needs to pay the 7 pesos for the Cablebus ride instead of paying for multiple trips on the bus.

“It helps me get to work on time,” she says, “and I feel like I’m calmer.”

Her journey continues. Outside the car, the buildings of Iztapalapa spread out for miles. And beyond stand the mountains, watching over the neighborhood.

Ricardo Garrido Martinez contributed to this article as a Spanish-English interpreter.

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Adina Solomon is a writer based in Mexico City. She has written for The Washington PostThe Guardian, and National Geographic.


Top photo: Cable cars travel between the Campos Revolucion and Tlalpexco stations. Photo by Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press


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