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Visiting Ecuador’s very first metro

Sameh Wahba's picture
It’s easy for me to take public transport for granted: a mere 5 minutes’ walk from my office at the World Bank Headquarters, I have access to 2 metro stations served by 4 different lines that offer easy connections to many parts of the Washington DC area. There is a sense of comfort in knowing that, despite the occasional hiccups that we all love to complain about, metro provides a safe and reliable way for me to commute to work every day.
 
In Quito, Ecuador, many people don’t have that luxury. Granted, there is the notable Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) that operates high-frequency services on dedicated lanes and has significantly reduced travel time. But the system is already crowded, and has exceeded its capacity: during peak hours, each bus carries an average 175 passengers, well above the 165 maximum capacity leading to overcrowding due to a huge flow of passengers.
 
According to 2010 figures, Ecuadorians owned 71 vehicles per 1,000 inhabitants, significantly higher than countries like Bolivia, Nicaragua, Egypt, and Angola, which were respectively at 68, 57, 45, and 31 vehicles per 1,000 inhabitants. In 2010, the government introduced Road Space Rationing, a plan that aims to reduce traffic by limiting the number of vehicles on the road within a certain area based on license plate numbers. These are great initiatives, but more is needed in view of how fast Quito is growing.

As we know, cities are dynamic and booming economic centers, and account for more than 80% of the global GDP. Urbanization growth rates have gone up exponentially, with over half of the world’s population—3.9 billion people—living in cities today, and an additional 2.5 billion people expected to move to cities by 2050. People flock to cities looking for employment and opportunities for a better life, yet the majority end up in precarious situations: 1 billion people in developing countries still live in urban slums, have limited access to jobs, and, in most cases, are poorly linked to economic ecosystems.
 
The idea behind the Quito Metro Line One project is precisely to tackle those issues by linking more residents to opportunities and improving their quality of life: reduce travel times, decrease operational costs, improve connectivity, security and comfort, and reduce emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases. When fully operational (expected by 2020), Quito Metro trains will run at an average commercial speed of 37.5 km/h—faster than driving a car or taking the BRT—saving riders a total of 300,000 hours every day.
 
In an ever-growing linear city, constrained by the mountainous topography (approximately 30 km in length by 3 to 5 km in width), the metro is a logical choice. The metro will not only provide 150,000 people with transportation every day (and 350,000 in its second year of operation), it will also create 5,000 direct and 50,000 indirect jobs. More generally, it will also greatly improve access to other employment opportunities, as an estimated 760,000 jobs are located in the zone of the Quito Metro area of influence.
 
The construction is well under way. 90% of the workforce is Ecuadorian, and the rest are Spanish and Brazilian technical experts. The design of metro stations will incorporate references to Ecuador’s cultural heritage, for which the project has contracted an Ecuadorian firm. During the recent Habitat III conference in Quito, World Bank Senior VP Mahmoud Mohieldin, together with representatives from the co-financing Multilateral Development Banks, Andean Development Corporation, European Investment Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank, visited one of the metro stops under construction.
 
A unique aspect of the metro design is that it will address the needs of women. This is particularly important, because, as explained during the site visit, 1/3 of women who use the city’s existing public transport system have reported some form of abuse. The project aims to improve women’s comfort and security through a gender-sensitive design that includes adequate lighting in platforms, stations, and surrounding areas, child-friendly access, and safe facilities. Additionally, instead of creating “segregated” carriages for women and children as done in some other countries, the Quito Metro will have open carriages allowing any person who feels unsafe to walk through to another car. This is expected to reduce the number of abuses by the mere fact that the open space will intimidate an attacker, and will make it easier for anyone feeling endangered to move cars or solicit help from other passengers. 
 
Apart from connectivity and safety, an equally important key feature is accessibility. The Quito Metro will be groundbreaking in that the entire system will provide universal accessibility: all stops will be equipped with ramps and elevators, tactile surfaces, and signs in Braille. Moreover, the metro will provide affordable, safe, and reliable transport for all to access jobs, housing, community life, public facilities, as well as essential health and education services.
 
Finally, the project, the first of its kind in Ecuador, has already set high standards in a number of areas, including plans to connect half the metro stations with BRT lines, and to unify the transport card systems into one access card.  In terms of environmental and social considerations, I was encouraged to learn that the Quito Metro Line One Project has established a high standard of health and safety with zero deaths or severe injuries during construction. In addition, the local authorities have consulted extensively with the communities impacted by the project and set up a mobile application system to facilitate grievance redress.
 
If you find yourself in Quito in 2018, make sure to visit and take a ride on the very first metro in Ecuador!

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