Medellin’s Amazing Metro System: Colombia Uses Public Transport To Drive Societal Change

by Jorge Madrid

The public transportation system in Medellin, Colombia, is one of the most successful in the world. It is successful for promoting not just environmental sustainability, but social equity as well.

In 2012, it was named one of the top transport systems in the world by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), a global consortium of organizations founded in 1985 to promote sustainable transportation worldwide:

“The city [of Medillin] transformed violence and despair into hope and opportunity, using sustainable transport as one of the key levers to drive change,” said ITDP board member Holger Dalkmann.

The crown jewel of the city’s transportation system is the Metro de Medellín, a network of clean and efficient metro cars that serves over half a million (553,000) passengers every day. This project was financed by a public-private partnership led by the city; construction took ten years, with the last major expansion completed in 2006. The system saves 175,000 tons of C02 every year, the equivalent of planting 380,000 trees that would occupy 11% of the city’s land mass. Metro calculates that it saves the city $1.5 billion in respiratory health costs every year, and $4 billion in reduced traffic accidents and congestion.


Perhaps the most impressive feature of the metro system is the world renowned metro cablé system, a network of 9 cable car systems that take passengers up steep mountainsides that line the Valley of Medellin. The lines were completed in 2010 with plans for future expansion. The metro cable system has revolutionized mobility and accessibility for residents of Colombia’s second largest city, particularly the poorest — and often most violent — communities that line the valley of Medellin’s mountainous region.

Prior to the development of the metro cable system, residents of the “favelas” (squatter communities along the mountainside) had to brave a treacherous journey down the mountainside, which could take hours on foot or infrequent and unreliable buses. Getting basic access to commerce, education, healthcare, and other necessities could take all day — sometimes making it impossible for people of these communities.

Today, a fare of $1,800 pesos (about $0.60 U.S.) buys you a comfortable and scenic 25 minute ride down the mountainside and a transfer to the metro cars below. Plans are in place to link the city’s numerous privately-owned bus lines to this one-time fare (“Metroplús”), further extending mobility and accessibility for all of the city’s residents.

The benefits of the metro cable system work both ways, as more accessibility to the mountainside communities has infused a new stream of commerce, services, and tourism to the favelas. New nodes of transit hubs have revitalized some communities that were once terrorized by “narco” drug lords, violence, and armed conflict.

Transit Oriented Development in the favelas is alive and well. Upon stepping off of a metro cable station, one encounters a thriving environment of locally-owned restaurants and shops selling chocolate, textiles, and other artisan products. (The city certifies local vendors).


Finally, the transit hubs have spurred new investment in infrastructure, services, and amenities. Favela residents enjoy new parks, schools, hospitals, and police services — many integrated into the infrastructure of the metro system itself.

Other strategies to increase sustainability in Medellin’s transit system include:

  • The “Urbano Integral” project that connects public spaces and pedestrian routes to green space and parks (picture, right). So far, Metro has created 320,000 sq. meters of green space throughout the city, the equivalent of 40 professional soccer fields.
  • A digital portal “” which allows users to calculate their carbon, commute time, and monetary savings of using the metro system.
  • “EnCicla,” a public bicycle sharing program that connects universities to mass transit, along with other key destinations in the city.
  • “Comparte tu carro,” a ridesharing/carpooling program, which currently includes 171 institutions and growing.
  • Plans are in place to improve vehicle exhaust emission controls and sulfur content and transition the city’s entire fleet of taxis to natural gas fuel.

The lesson of Medellin is an important one for all communities to consider. Well-designed public transportation systems are about more than just getting people around in a more environmentally friendly way — they can also be positive drivers for social and economic change.

Jorge Madrid is a Research Associate on the energy team at the Center for American Progress.