The public transportation system in Medellín, Colombia, has proven to be one of the most successful transit systems in the world. It not only reduces the city’s energy consumption and carbon footprint, making the city more environmentally sustainable, but also drives positive social and economic change for Medellín as a whole.
Medellín received the 2012 Sustainable Transport Award from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. ITDP is a global consortium of organizations that works with cities worldwide, mainly in developing countries, to provide solutions for their public transportation systems, tackling carbon emissions, poverty, and social inequality. The previous award winners are Guangzhou, China, in 2011 and Ahmedabad, India, in 2010.
The Metro de Medellín system was funded by a public/private partnership led by the city and took 10 years to complete, with the last major expansion finishing in 2006. The Metro serves as the core of the city’s public transportation system, and its network of clean and efficient cars carries 553,000 passengers daily. It is estimated that the Metro system saves 175,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually, equivalent to planting 380,000 trees on 11 percent of the city’s land. The system also saves the city US$1.5 billion annually in respiratory health costs due to improved air quality, and $4 billion in avoided traffic accidents and congestion.
The most important characteristic of the Metro system is that it triggers positive social and economic change by revitalizing the poorest and least-safe communities (favelas) along the city’s mountainsides. Before the implementation of the new system, residents of favelas used to travel down the mountains on foot or depend on infrequent buses to access commerce, education, healthcare, and other basic necessities. The journey could take up to a day, making it impossible for many local citizens to travel to the city and receive these services.
Now, a network of nine cable cars takes passengers up and down the steep mountainsides via the Valley of Medellín line. The line was completed in 2010 with plans for future expansion. A passenger pays 1,800 pesos (about $0.60) for a 25-minute ride down the mountain and a transfer to the Metro cars below. The city’s various privately owned bus lines are also linked to this one-time fare (Metroplus), which further improves the accessibility and convenience for the citizens of Medellín.
The new Metro system not only provides easy access to public systems for the residents of the favelas, enabling them to enjoy new parks, restaurants, malls, schools and hospitals, but also motivates public and private investment in infrastructure, services, and amenities for the city.
Additional strategies have been implemented to improve the environmental sustainability of Medellín’s public transit system. The Urbano Integral project provides people with easy access to 320,000 square meters of green space. A website, Miaportemetro.com, was designed to help users estimate their carbon savings, commute time, and monetary savings from using the new Metro system. The city developed a public bike-sharing program, EnCicla, that connects universities to mass transit, along with other key destinations in the city. A growing carpooling program, comparte tu carro, was initiated that currently includes 171 institutions. Also, the city plans to improve vehicle exhaust and sulfur emission control and to transition the taxi fleet to a natural gas fuel base.
Medellín’s public transit successes have taught a valuable lesson: that the new Metro system is not just a vehicle for sustainable transportation, but also a beneficial tool for social and economic development in the city.
Chenxiao Yang is a member of the Climate and Energy team at the Worldwatch Institute.