Quito blog 2: The mobility challenges of an Andean city

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_ARTIKEL_ door Abel Coenen

With almost 2 million inhabitants Quito is a big city. Its dense historical centre proves to be the perfect location for a tourist visit. Many people move around through the city by car or taxi but, as Dutch as I am, I’d rather go for a walk. When one day I almost got run over by a car I realized that the culture of car driving is rather special here.

This is the second blogpost in the series about Quito, Ecuador. The first contribution can be found here.

The banana-shaped city of Quito stretches 70 kilometres in length, but not more than 4 kilometres in width. For this reason, the quiteños do not speak of a west or east side of the city, but only of “north” and “south”. North is the wealthier side of the city and south contains the poorer neighbourhoods – although I also saw some exceptions to this rule.

Quito is located within the Andes and consists of a few adjacent mountain valleys. The historical centre has the archetypical grid structure of a colonial city in Latin America. The rough mountain topography with steep hills and deep valleys on the other hand has always strongly steered the development of the urban landscape. Landfills and equalization has given the city a flatter surface. Through the years the “constant struggle between grid and ground”, as described by architect and urbanist Felipe Correa (2012), has created the current spatial layout of the city.

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Figure 1: The constant struggle between grid and ground: the street pattern (in red) of the historical centre laid over a topography map (adapted from Correa 2013).

Traffic in Quito
Throughout the city, the main infrastructural lines go from north to south and a few, recently redeveloped highways provide fast connections to the outer parts. At peak hours, some of these roads tend to clog up, as well as the main roads within the city. Friday afternoons can therefore be really crazy.

One of the policies that should solve the infrastructural congestions is to restrict car driving in and around Quito. This is done by a system called Pico y Placa which translates as something like “peak hour and [license] plate”. The idea is that the last digit of the license plate of a vehicle refers to the moment that it is not allowed to drive, mostly one day per week. This is a successful system because it keeps cars off the street, although I also understood that people who can afford it for this reason buy two cars to be sure they can always drive one. Concerning environmental impact I would say this is not the best system.

Figure 2: Quito’s situation in a large mountain valley (seen from the east).

Figure 2: Quito’s situation in a large mountain valley (seen from the east).

An obvious solution of course is to stimulate other forms of transport such as public transport or cycling. I realize that this is easy to say for someone who grew up in a country where walking and cycling is deeply embedded in its culture. In the daily life in Quito it is very common to take the car or taxi for everything: for work, shopping, leisure, even for a lunch. Compared to other forms of transport the car is much safer because you cannot get robbed, it is easier because it brings you from door to door, and it is also very cheap. A litre of gas costs not even 60 dollar cents and taking a cab usually costs only a few dollars. Busses also go frequently but they are hard to rely on and are known to be unsafe.

Cycling is seen as a type of sport rather than a mode of transport. The country is famous for its mountain bike trails and tours. To stimulate cycling, every Sunday, one of the main routes crossing the city is reserved only for cyclists and skaters. This great initiative, organized by a local group called Ciclopaseo, creates a huge contrast with the busy streetscapes of weekdays. A very successful project but unfortunately just effective for one day.

Figure 3: On Sundays, some streets are reserved for cyclists and skaters.

Figure 3: On Sundays, some streets are reserved for cyclists and skaters.

I am lucky that I can walk from my apartment to my work, to my Spanish classes and to the supermarket, all within half an hour. But because the cars are so dominant here, this is often not an easy job: sidewalks can be not so pedestrian-friendly with overhanging trees, big holes and cracks in the pavement, and the very steep topography. To cross the main roads in the city is a dangerous and time-consuming activity. Especially when walking west-east through the city, one has to cross many main roads which can take you double the time only because of waiting to cross the streets. In a recent article for De Correspondent, Arjen van Veelen described the poor situation of the pedestrian in St. Louis, USA where the car still is the most important mode of traffic. But I dare to say that in some parts of Quito the situation of the pedestrian is even worse.

Figure 4: One of the main avenidas through the city, not very easy to cross.

Figure 4: One of the main avenidas through the city, not very easy to cross.

Besides that, I experienced that car drivers can be very ignorant of pedestrians, when I almost got overrun by one. Giving priority to pedestrians or being aware of a certain responsibility in traffic seems to be not common at all. The car is everywhere in Quito and, unfortunately, many people seem to own a big American model and do not turn out to be such skilled drivers. On top of that, most cars include a car alarm that goes off for no reason a few times a day – besides the barking dogs one of the most heard sounds in the city.

Please don’t get me wrong: I think Quito is a great city, and offers very nice places and atmospheres; it has many beautiful historical plazas, parks and streets. But I recognize that the city lacks a strong mobility network that is both functional for cars and busses, but also pleasant for slow traffic like pedestrians and bicycles.

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Figure 5: Successful public spaces: Parque El Ejido (left) and famous street La Ronda in the Historical Centre (right).

Changing the city
One of the main challenges today to make Quito a more attractive city is to reduce the use of cars and to stimulate walking or using other modes of transport. This concerns not only spatial matters like bus connections and safer walking routes, but also a cultural change. The car can be routed over main roads with sufficient capacity and should be made an unwelcome guest in other places, especially in the residential neighbourhoods.

The best practical example of this is the neighbourhood Guapulo, which main connection to the city basically consists of one steep curving road with cobblestones. As for many people this road is a direct connection to the city, during peak hours the road is full of cars, often stationary, waiting in a row. Understandably, the inhabitants of Guapulo dislike this situation and protest against the presence of cars. “Guapulo es barrio, no autopista” the handmade posters say, “Guapulo is a neighbourhood, not a highway”.

A comparable situation happens within my own neighbourhood, La Floresta. On a saturday morning a group called Mécanicos Urbanos initiated a design workshop. With the name #MiCalle (“My Street”) they aim for a discussion around themes like gentrification, place-making and walkability in the neighbourhood. All inhabitants of La Floresta have been invited to help think about how their own neighbourhood can be improved, with a specific focus on street layout; sidewalks, parking spaces, greenery, zebras, litter and even dog poo are part of the discussion. Where can street space be exchanged for social spaces? How can the speed of cars be decreased and the walkability be increased? Which parts of the neighbourhood can be given a safer atmosphere?

Inspired by works of Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl and examples from Brooklyn and Europe, the workshop tries to find answers to these questions. The discussion is playfully triggered by using drawn maps and on-scale design elements such as benches and rows of trees that can be placed on these maps. This “board game of streets” evokes strong reactions with the participants and is therefore a very smart idea to build up such a workshop.

Figure 6: In the workshop #MiCalle many diverse topics are discussed using detailed maps like a board game.

Figure 6: In the workshop #MiCalle many diverse topics are discussed using detailed maps like a board game.

As far as I experienced, the workshop did not result in many concrete ideas or a better street design. I think it is always hard in such meetings to come to shared ideas and conclusions, especially when the topics are so diverse. Some participants are mostly concerned about cars, others only want to talk about the tree that blocks their view. I believe the main benefit of #MiCalle is not so much the outcome but rather the involvement of the participants within their neighbourhood and the themes of the discussion.

Even though they are small initiatives, the examples of Guapulo and #MiCalle prove that the cultural change in thinking about mobility in Quito has already started. Within the city, more and more people are concerned with the dominant role of cars and strive for a more pedestrian friendly public space. In that sense, the new struggle between ground and people is becoming more and more relevant.

Correa, F. (2012) ‘Quito: the section as an instigator of urbanism’, in Correa, F. (ed.), Cities by design II reader, Harvard University, available: http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1045812.files/CBD%20Weeks%2002-03_Quito.pdf.

Correa, F. (2013) A line in the Andes, Una línea en los Andes, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, p.39-41.

van Veelen, A. (2015) ‘Waarom sommige Amerikanen veel te veel lopen (en ik te weinig)’, De Correspondent [online], 7 April, available: https://decorrespondent.nl/2659/Waarom-sommige-Amerikanen-veel-te-veel-lopen-en-ik-te-weinig/202515045172-c178d408 [accessed 1 May 2015]

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