When it comes to bold transit, Quito is a city to watch.
The capital of Ecuador is building a 15-station underground metro that will complement an existing system of bus rapid transit (BRT), transit lanes and cycletracks. This makes sense for the traffic-clogged city of 2.5 million, situated in a narrow valley at 9,300 feet -- a city looking for ways to combat sprawl and become more equitable.
During my visit a few months ago I found impressive transit and progress toward focusing urban development around the new subway infrastructure.
Cities in Colombia and Brazil have attracted international attention for decades because of their BRT systems, where passengers pay their fare before entering the bus platform and where buses travel in dedicated rights of way. With the combination of BRT and subway, Quito also merits attention for its transit (not to mention its great climate and chocolate).
Transit critics often point to BRT as a better alternative to expensive trains, though few U.S. cities have succeeded in implementing it well. In fact, the debate over which mode is better is pretty silly unless the real goal is delay or prevent significant transit expansion. Unlike almost anywhere in the U.S., Quito's subway should dramatically add capacity, provide vastly improved mobility and long-term cultural benefits.
Quito's transit is especially stunning in comparison to the high cost and gradual results in much wealthier U.S. cities. For example, Washington, D.C. this week opened a five-station extension of its Metro system deeper into the Virginia suburbs -- after two decades of discussion and $2.9 billion sunk so far. Seattle is building a light rail system that avoids key destinations, is slowed by at-grade street crossings and marred by inefficient design. For example, light rail stations aren't convenient to buses and there's minimal coordination with zoning. Both systems fall short of their potential as catalysts for more sustainable urban areas.
In contrast, the first $1.5 billion phase of Quito's subway will fundamentally alter the city when it opens in 2017. A single line is projected to carry 380,000 riders per day, partly by attracting people who won't take overcrowded buses and partly by providing mobility to increasingly dense parts of the city. The line zig-zags across the valley connecting existing parallel BRT lines.
The subway can be seen as part of recent, larger public investments aimied at alleviating poverty and improving public heath and education. At a new public community center in a poor neighborhood near downtown Quito, an interactive map of the region shows future transit routes and their impact on the city. The center, a striking building with play and fitness areas as well as classrooms, is itself a sign of how infrastructure spending in the country seems targeted at common citizens.
In addition to potential future subway lines, Quito's transit to-do list is long. Existing BRT lines are fast and logical -- traits many U.S. transit systems could learn! -- but also overcrowded and dirty. It seems like every Quiteño has a story of brazen pickpocketers on the buses. Though the system has dedicated lanes and signal priority, additional investment in bus-only flyovers to overcome congested intersections would help a lot.
Of course, there's local criticism of the subway project, mostly along the lines that it's not cost effective. However the subway project was unchanged during a handover in political power following Ecuador's local elections in February. Voters protested President Rafael Correa's ruling partry nationwide by installing opposition mayors in numerous cities, including Quito. Yet the popular subway moves forward.
While Latin America has had subways in places like Mexico City for years, analysts have suggested that the future in fast-growing cities is buses. Yet Panama City, a major financial hub, opened Central America's first subway line in March with strong ridership. Quito, which should be the region's next metro, is likely to provide an example of how bold investments pay off.