National Geographic News
An aerial tramway in Medellin, Colombia.
Medellin, Colombia was honored for its pioneering use of cable cars as a transit alternative in its low-income hilly settlements. San Francisco shared the sustainable transport award for its innovations in parking.

Photograph by Kike Calvo, National Geographic

Josie Garthwaite

For National Geographic News

Published January 25, 2012

Two cities renowned for the cable cars that traverse their hilly terrains—San Francisco, California, and Medellin, Colombia—captured this year's Sustainable Transport Award from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP).

The shared award places the two cities in an elite group of urban innovators honored over the past eight years by ITDP, an international nonprofit that works with cities to reduce greenhouse gases and improve the quality of urban life. The judges, who selected the winning cities over finalists Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Cape Town, South Africa, included experts from organizations including the Clean Air Institute for Latin America, Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (the German Society for International Cooperation, known as GIZ), and The World Resources Institute Center for Sustainable Transport, EMBARQ.

Despite the similar landscapes of the 2012 winning pair, the two cities—and their transport systems—are worlds apart.

In San Francisco, which has a cable-car system that dates back to 1873, a ride on one of the cars as it clang-clang-clangs up Powell Street is an experience enjoyed mainly by sightseers. Pulled along steel rails by an underground cable running at nine miles per hour, San Francisco's cable cars are among the slower and pricier public transit options in town.

In Medellin, Colombia, however, a gondola-style cable car system operating since 2006 provides a crucial link to city life and work for residents of poor barrios high above the city center in the Aburra Valley. The electric-powered gondola lines are efficient, affordable, integrated with the city's metro rail and new bus rapid transit (BRT) system, and part of an ongoing transformation of mobility in Medellin.

"Medellin pioneered the use of cable cars as a transit alternative in low-income informal settlements in hilly areas, moving 3,000 passengers per hour per direction," EMBARQ Director Holger Dalkmann said in a statement about Tuesday's award.

(Related: "Pictures: Twelve Car-Free City Zones")

According to a 2006 report from the United Nations' Clean Development Mechanism, Medellin's system is one of very few aerial cable car systems used for mass transit, and the first of its kind in Latin America. Environmentally, the system has helped to cut emissions of particulate matter, carbon monoxide, greenhouse gases, and other pollution by reducing usage of "outdated and badly maintained buses" on the city's steep, narrow roads.

Noting that Medellin's cable car solution is now being replicated in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Caracas, Venezuela (where an older cable car system actually operated until 1988), Dalkmann called the system "a real breakthrough." He added, "The city transformed violence and despair into hope and opportunity, using sustainable transport as one of the key levers to drive this change."

Medellin has recently become the first city in Colombia to launch a public bike-sharing system. Dubbed EnCicla, the scheme began in October as a three-month pilot program featuring 145 bicycles for university students; this month it is scheduled to open up for city residents.

San Francisco, too, is seeking to encourage cycling. By 2020, the city aims to see 20 percent of all trips completed by bicycle, and in 2011 it began to expand and upgrade bike lanes around town.

Yet where San Francisco really made its mark in 2011 was in parking reform, according to ITDP. The city not only introduced pricing schemes that vary based on time of day and real-time availability, but also traded some parking spots for public space, or "parklets," as part of its "Pavement to Parks" program.

"Parking is the next wave of powerful tools to control congestion, fight climate change, and redefine urban form," ITDP chief executive Walter Hook said in a statement. This is the first year, he said, that the Sustainable Transport Award has recognized a city's parking program.

(Related: "To Cut Down on Driving, Cities Cut Back Parking")

Among the factors that earned points for both San Francisco and Medellin, according to ITDP, is each city's use of social media and the web to provide helpful, convenient information to transit riders. Medellin also won praise for its improved response time to roadside accidents, new vehicle emission controls, and the creation of 25 parks and 11 urban promenades.

Buenos Aires and Cape Town, the cities that earned honorable mention in this year's awards, both received recognition for new bus systems and efforts to promote cycling. Buenos Aires opened Argentina's first bus rapid transit system, while also building more than 43 miles (70 kilometers) of bike lanes and launching the country's first bike-share program. The city reports that cycling increased 120 percent over the previous year.

(Related: "Pictures: Amazing Transportation Inventions")

Cape Town, meanwhile, has created a 10-mile (16-kilometer) bike path running parallel to its BRT corridor, establishing the longest continuous bikeway on the African continent at a cost of more than 300 million rand (about $37 million, or 29 million euros), according to ITDP.

Bike lanes, a cycle-hire program, and a huge bus system integrated with the city rail network were also key strengths for the winner of last year's Sustainable Transport Award, Guangzhou, China.

The "sustainability" that committee members look for when weighing transportation systems for this award is about more than the environment. As Jessica Morris, senior program director for ITDP told National Geographic News last year, when Guangzhou took top honors, the systems should benefit the city's environment and its economy, and should be open equally to all residents. "You should be able to move about your city regardless of income level," she said.

(Related: "Guangzhou, China, Wins Sustainable Transport Prize" and "On China's Roads (and Rails), A Move to Greener Transport")

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

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