Multimodal Medellín

Editor’s note: dear friend and accomplished transportation planner Derek Cheah joined us in Salento and Medellín and was kind enough to contribute the following post on transportation to and within that city. Take it away, Derek!

Our journey to Medellín began in the outskirts of the charming town of Salento. After packing up our belongings and half-questioning whether the stick of butter we had leftover would survive the trip, we bade farewell to Casa El Porvenir and set out for one last muddy walk into town. 15 minutes later, we arrived at the parking lot plus couple of freestanding huts that was known as the bus terminal, and boarded our chariot to Medellín, a 17-seater minibus that did not seem as “loose in the joints” as Sara and Drew’s ride to Salento one week prior.

Our trip included two pitstops, the first of which was in Pereira, about an hour into the journey. This bus terminal was far better-provisioned than the one in Salento, which should come as no surprise given its status as a main transport hub for the entire Eje Cafetero and beyond. As I wandered amid the various food vendors and newsstands, I had to remind myself that I was actually in a bus terminal, not a shopping mall (this experience is not unlike the one I had at the main bus terminal in my hometown, Kuala Lumpur). Now, if only the Oakland Greyhound “station” could have anything approaching this level of amenity and vibrancy, but I digress. Our second pitstop was for lunch at a rest stop that seemed to cater exclusively to our bus company (Flota Occidental). It featured excellent views of the *lush* surrounding greenery, along with a robust buffet of curry chicken, plantains, and other delights.

Four hours after lunch, we arrived at Medellín’s Terminal del Sur only a little worse for the wear, which again played the part of shopping mall that has some bus bays attached to it. This bus terminal also had the notable distinction of being adjacent to the Olaya Herrera airport, used for domestic flights. The mobility hub potential of this potent airport-bus terminal duo was intriguing–while the two weren’t quite as proximate to each other as, say, some European airports that have intercity rail stations built into their terminals, it seemed like one could still quite seamlessly fly in from the coast, walk five minutes to the bus terminal, and get on their way to the southern highlands.

For my one full day in Medellín, we embarked on a multimodal voyage through Medellín. It being a Sunday, we had hoped to participate in one of the ciclovias happening throughout town, but for various reasons got a late start and had to settle for watching people walk their bikes home from a nearby ciclovia as we ate eggs and carbs (no rice, sadly) on a cafe patio. Of note, however, was that the city’s bikeshare system shuts down on Sundays for reasons seemingly unknown. Perhaps the need to rebalance bikes is too great for the city/operator to handle during an event with such geographically concentrated demand, but I still found it odd that the city’s largest source of public bikes for rent would be unavailable during an event that explicitly seeks to promote biking (and walking and scootering and other fun things too, I guess).

Locked up bikeshare bicycles on Ciclovia day

Ciclovia hopes dashed, we proceeded with the next phase of our mission: a ride on the public transit system up to Parque Arví, a hilltop park and nature reserve to the northeast of downtown. We started at the Estadio station on Line B of the Metro, the elevated nature of which brought back fond memories of public transit in some of my previous cities, namely Chicago and Kuala Lumpur. After a smooth transfer to Line A and a less smooth and ultimately failed first attempt to disembark at Acevedo station due to construction closing half the platform, we found ourselves at the lower terminal of Metrocable Line K.

As the name implies, Metrocable is a form of gondola- or cable car-based transit. While gondolas in urban areas are not as rare as you might think, they are often built and operated as tourist attractions or a standalone means of getting to/from an isolated destination (see: TelefériQo in Quito and the Portland, OR Aerial Tram, among others). In sprawling, mountainous South American cities, however, gondolas have come to be seen as integral parts of their respective public transit systems, starting, I believe, with
Medellín in 2004. There’s certainly a novelty factor at play here, but several aspects of these systems struck a chord with my inner transportation geek, based on my informal observations here and in La Paz last year:

  • Among their primary objectives is to improve transit accessibility and service quality for the predominantly low-income residents in the various cities’ mountainous regions. In many cases, a gondola trip represented a significant travel time and reliability improvement over a slow bus ride on winding, congested roads up the mountains, without a concomitant increase in out-of-pocket cost (at least in La Paz).
    • That said, I found the optics of riding a shiny new gondola over tin roofs and houses with missing walls to be somewhat jarring, though overall this seems to be a relatively minor consequence.
  • The speed with which gondola lines have been planned and constructed is staggering: Medellín has opened four in the last fifteen years, with two more under construction, and arguably more impressively, La Paz’s Mi Teleférico has gone from an initial three-line system in 2014 to a comprehensive nine-line network by the end of 2018.
  • The gondola lines are very well connected with each other and/or the rest of the public transit system. At Acevedo, the current Metrocable Line K terminal is directly above the northern half of the Metro Line A station, and the future Metrocable Line P terminal will be atop the southern half of the Metro station. In La Paz, purpose-built interchange stations allow passengers to transfer from one line to another under one roof, in some cases just by walking across the “platform”.
  • For lines with one or more intermediate stops, while I thought a more hands-on approach to managing boarding at the termini would help ensure that those seeking to board at the intermediate stops could do so, for the most part the current informal approach seems to work out just fine. The demand at most of these stops appears to be fairly low, planned as such or not.

Anyways, after several minutes of gawking at the city views, we arrived at the Santo Domingo Savio station, about halfway up the mountain. There, we encountered a roadblock: Line L, which carries people up the second half of the mountain, was no longer accepting uphill passengers, for reasons unknown. Our second (partially) failed mission of the day did not deter us; we swiftly reboarded Line K for the downhill trip and carried on with our exploration of Medellín’s more built-up areas.

View from Metrocable Line K

My time in Medellín all too quickly came to an end the following day. Sadly, the main international airport is located in a parallel valley to the east of the city, and did not have any interesting and/or reasonable public transit options for getting there in time for an early morning flight, so I settled for a normal taxi. The trip was unremarkable, save for passing a surprisingly large number of recreational bicyclists on the steep and heavily car-traveled road out of town; soon I found myself boarding my flight back home and eagerly awaiting a return to spend more time in such a beautiful, dynamic city.

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