The debate about building an elevated or underground metro, like the one that is taking place in Bogotá, has already been settled in several Latin American cities.
Photo: Iván Erre Jota
LatinAmerican Post | David García Pedraza
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The metro is a flagship means of transport in cities with medium or high population density. Currently, it is an essential requirement for mobility in the capitals of developed and developing countries. Even so, this transport system has not been exempt from political, economic and social debates.
In 2023, one of the megaprojects in Latin America is the construction of the Bogotá metro. This is a state debt from decades ago for the capital of Colombia, which has a population of approximately eight million inhabitants in its urban area. If its metropolitan area is counted, it exceeds ten million. This Andean city currently has a bus system that, according to mobility experts, does not meet the needs of the city.
Bogotá: the Megalopolis that Advances Without a Metro
After too many political debates, government promises and egos between parties and ideologies, in October 2020 the act that began the design, construction, and operation of the elevated subway line was signed. The decision on whether the metro should be underground or elevated was largely debated between the former mayor and current president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, and the mayor in 2019, Enrique Peñalosa. The elevated metro project is maintained to this day.
However, in recent weeks, Petro has once again stated that the underground metro is the best option for Bogotá. Despite the fact that the contracts with China Harbor Engineering Company Limited and Xi'An Rail Transportation Group Company Limited stipulate that the first line will be elevated, the presidency seeks to modify it. The Petro administration has contracted, for 119 million pesos (more than 25 thousand dollars), a law firm to analyze the changes that would be made to the design of this first subway layout.
This government decision to study the contract has not gone down well in the economic circles of the city. According to the economic newspaper Portafolio, from 1957 to 2019, the city has spent close to 190 billion pesos (more than 265 million dollars) on metro studies, but not a single line has been built. Executing another study, to see the feasibility of building at least one small underground corridor in Bogotá, would increase the costs of carrying it out by 10 billion pesos. Even so, the national government will only have 15 days to learn about the legal implications of a possible contract change. For now, Bogotá is expected to debut its long-awaited metro in 2028.
Where Are the Metros in Latin America?
The 20th and 21st centuries have marked a great demographic change due to migration from the countryside to the cities in Latin countries, so an efficient transport system must be an obligation in urban areas.
Throughout the region, there are 23 metro systems. The one in Buenos Aires is the oldest, since it was inaugurated in 1913, and is 70 km long. The one in Quito is the youngest and was put into operation in December 2022, with almost 23 km on its first line. In addition to these two metro systems, the metros of Brasília, Caracas, Mexico City, Panama City, Lima – El Callao, San Juan, Santiago de Chile and Santo Domingo join as the Latin American capitals that have this system.
In the intermediate cities with a metro system, you can find Belo Horizonte, Fortaleza, Porto Alegre, Recife, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador de Bahía and São Paulo in Brazil; Medellín in Colombia; Guadalajara and Monterrey in Mexico; and Los Teques, Maracaibo and Valencia in Venezuela.
Is the Construction of Elevated Metro or Underground Metro a Common Discussion in the Region?
Of the 23 metro systems in Latin America, only the one in Medellín is clearly elevated. By contrast, those of Quito, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and most of Valencia are Underground. The subway lines built in Fortaleza, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre, Recife, and Los Teques are elevated. Finally, the remaining thirteen (highlighting those of Mexico City, Lima – El Callao, Santiago de Chile and Guadalajara) have their lines combined between elevated, surface and underground.
In seismically active countries like Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Mexico it is remarkable to see that this transportation system, or most of it, goes underground. This is largely due to the fact that if the structures were elevated, they would cause more havoc than is normally evidenced.
For the cases where the metro systems go on the surface, they were adapted this way due to the financing of their respective governments. This model occurs mostly in secondary cities, but with a need for efficient transportation due to their population density.