Why Latin American Cities Are Still Digging Subways

Building underground rail systems is a major investment, but increasingly it is one that is justified economically — and otherwise.

Sao Paulo's subway was built in the 1960s, with expansion since
Sao Paulo's subway was built in the 1960s, with expansion since
Juan Antonio Cuartero

London's inauguration, in 1863, of the world's first subway was quite literally a groundbreaking development. Since then, cities across the globe have followed suit and gone all-in on underground public transportation systems. Still, the question remains: Just how worthwhile are they?

Developed countries like Germany, China and the United States each have more than 15 cities with successfully developed subway networks, while Spain has metro systems for eight of its cities. The big industrial countries thus have a solid network of metropolitan railways, in part because of increasing sprawl in their cities.

Subways can be indispensable in large cities (those with upwards of one million residents) where services are concentrated in central districts and surface mobility is difficult. Not only do they provide a much needed public transport service, but metro systems are also, in those circumstances, cost-effective, since they need at least 10,000 travelers per hour (in either direction) to cover their high upfront investment costs.

There also also considerable social benefits: Metros improve mobility for everyone, cut harmful emissions by reducing car usage, and help free up surface spaces for city dwellers to enjoy. All of this, in turn, helps boost economic activity and productivity.

In Latin America, many of the region's big cities are familiar with these benefits, as evidenced by a gradual trend over recent decades to implant urban rail networks. The oldest — the iconic Subte, in Buenos Aries — has been around for more than a century. The Mexico City metro, which carries 1.7 billion people every year and began operating in the late 1960s, is another exemplary system, as are the metros in Sao Paulo (Brazil) and Santiago (Chile), which date back to the mid 1970s.

Subte in the Argentine capital is the star subway in Latin America — Photo: Rodrigo Quezada

The 1980s were something of a "lost decade" for subway building — only Caracas inaugurated a system — but metro plans have picked up again since the turn of the century. Lima (Peru), Panama City (Panama), Salvador de Bahía (Brazil) and Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) are just some of the cities that have inaugurated rail systems in recent years. In the meantime, the most established and widely used networks, like those in Mexico City, Santiago and Sao Paulo, have added lines, with all signs pointing to even more expansions in the future.

Pollution, traffic jams and enhanced environmental awareness, and the positive track records these systems have shown so far (once the construction nuisance is over) have convinced policymakers that metros, while expensive, are excellent, sustainable investments that enhance the mobility and lives of their constituents.

Next stop... Bogota

Perhaps nowhere has the need become more painfully obvious than in Bogota. With 8 million residents and limited space for developing new urban zones, the Colombian capital is desperately in need of a solution to its considerable mobility problems. Over the past 30 years, Bogota's population has grown more than 90%. And the impact of all that growth is visible and palpable every day in the city's endless and starling traffic jams.

The city is responding with plans for an above-grand light rail that will operate in conjunction with its already existing regular bus system and soon-to-be-expanded TransMilenio (fixed track buses) system. While these projects have so far developed separately, the city is working now on a more coordinated public transportation policy that includes all relevant actors.

The city government's transport office recently compiled a study on how transportation could evolve in the next 14 years. It found that by 2030, residents would make 10.5 million trips a day, which translates into a daily demand for the metro of 960,000 passengers — more than enough to justify construction.

The city hopes, by then, to have 25 trains, and perhaps doubled soon afterwards. These will serve 15 stations along the 31 kilometers of the metro's Line One, set to link southwestern Bogota (Portal de las Américas) to the northeastern residential districts (Caracas Avenue at 72nd Street). Line One will thus become a broad, north-south axis functioning on an elevated structure (a solution imposed by terrain geology) 12 meters above ground. Trains will run at a maximum speed of 41 km per hour along tracks measuring 1.435 meters (international track gauge).

The project's estimated cost is over $13 billion, with inauguration scheduled for 2022. A study commissioned by the Inter-American Development Bank and the professional services firm Deloitte found that the Bogota metro could bring major economic benefits for the city, including a drop in the cost of personal mobility, savings due to reduced greenhouse gases and fewer road accidents, as well as a huge reduction in the time people spend traveling (up to a billion hours saved by 2052). Commuting in the Colombian capital, it seems, will never be the same again.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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