How giant outdoor escalators transformed a Colombian neighborhood

Published 14th December 2015
Medellin, Colombia (CNN) — You'd expect to see them in a shopping mall. But on a Colombian hillside?
Surprisingly, escalators are one of the innovative transport solutions that have helped transform life in a place once known as one of the world's most dangerous cities.
In the 1980s and 90s, Medellin, in northern Colombia, was plagued by violence between drug traffickers and paramilitary groups, while poverty ostracized large segments of the community.
Now the colorful city, Colombia's second largest, is part of an altogether brighter picture. A rigorous peace effort has quelled the armed conflict, while a recent report ranked it as the fastest-growing metropolitan economy in Latin America.
Comuna 13 has undergone a major transformation in the Colombian city of Medellín.
Inventive city planning is one reason behind this surge. High up on the city's hillside, Comuna 13 is an area that had been plagued with violence and was once a stronghold for guerrillas and drug traffickers.
Its 12,000 residents had to hike the equivalent of 28 stories home after scraping their living in the city. Steep roads made it impossible for vehicles to access this poor neighborhood, leaving the community isolated and impenetrable.
The solution? A giant 384-meter orange-roofed escalator that scales the mountain in six sections, with a journey taking just six minutes. Opened in 2011, the development has become a model for urban planning around the world.
More importantly, the simple innovation is credited with helping to bring peace and pride to a community once plagued with violence.
Architect Carlos Escobar came up with the idea. "Nobody trusted that this project would be possible. Before, this area was under the control of gangs," he said. "Right now, this area [has] become a neutral zone. The control is in the community's hands.
"It is really beautiful because [since] the construction, we [have] never heard anything about violence in this place. It has increased the pride of the community."

'The great uniting force'

As tourists and residents from across Medellin now visit the neighborhood, it's an ingenious example of how transport can unite social classes. And it's not the only example of innovative transport in Medellin.
A cable car system -- more commonly associated with ski resorts -- was built in 2004, linking other parts of Medellin's underdeveloped suburbs to the city center.
Known by locals as Metrocable, it was the first time gondolas had been installed exclusively for public transportation and has been replicated in cities from Brazil's Rio de Janeiro and Caracas in Venezuela, to Ankara, Turkey, and La Paz in Bolivia.
Now there are three cable car lines carrying 20,000 passengers a day, turning a tiring trek into an effortless ride for thousands of "Medellinenses."
And the city's newest mode of transport -- expected to come on line in 2016 -- is the Tranvia streetcar.
With a bullet-train appearance and equipped with rubber tires, it is made specifically for Medellin's hilly terrain. It's the pride and joy of outgoing Mayor Anibal Gaviria.
"The transportation system of Medellin is the great uniting force," said Gaviria. "It doesn't just unite the city geographically but also unites different social strata. It eliminates barrios and generates a sense of belonging within the Medellin citizens."
He says Medellin puts so much emphasis on transportation because that's where people spend so much of their time, and by bringing the same level of services to all citizens, it creates equality.
Gaviria added: "The places where we have cable cars, the Tranvia, the escalators, these are places that today are more peaceful with lower poverty levels and inequality."