Quito highway plan pits need to move traffic against sustainability

Verónica Ninahualpa is fighting a road project in Quito that would expand a tunnel and displace many local residents. (Johnny Magdaleno)

This story originally appeared in Next City and was republished via the Habitat III Journalism Project.

QUITO, Ecuador — Verónica Ninahualpa stands on the side of a windy mountain road and looks out at the houses and community gardens built into the green hillside descending away from her. “Look at how beautiful it is,” she says. Hundreds of feet below on a ledge in the hill, her neighbors are digging with shovels and hoes around a small plot of corn. “It really warms my heart whenever I see them sowing the crops,” she says.

She was born and raised here in Barrio Bolaños, a small village of around 240 people and 80 small homes built along a mountainside highway that heads east out of Quito. They claim their families have lived off of this near-vertical slice of land for hundreds of years.

But when the 45-year-old Ninahualpa isn’t hosting bingo night or Sunday community meetings at the adobe community hall just down the hillside from where we are standing, she’s meeting with local urbanists, architects and political activists to try and stop a road expansion project that citizens groups say would displace nearly 70 percent of the village’s population.

“Can you imagine if they broke all of this up?” she says, as she descends the barrio stairs among lush avocado, lemon and tomate de arbol trees. “We’re people of good, simple living. When people ask ‘How can you live there?’ We tell them we live in communion with our neighbors.”

Verónica Ninahualpa and her neighbors chat among clotheslines. (Johnny Magdaleno)

The road project threatening Barrio Bolaños first came to Ninahualpa’s attention in April, when the city of Quito announced it was partnering with the state-owned China Road and Bridge Corporation on a US$131 million tunnel expansion and bridge project aimed at alleviating the massive gridlock that blocks the city’s busiest passage — the Guayasamín Tunnel.

No other point of entry into Quito gets as much traffic as the Guayasamín. The tunnel currently accommodates an estimated 34,000 cars, 46 percent more than the 24,000 daily vehicles it was designed to handle. These cars pass in and out on a two-lane road and then climb down the city’s famous inclines and into the expanse of valley suburbs in Cumbayá, a growing middle- to upper-class neighborhood of 32,000 residents.

Traffic passing through the route is expected to hit 66,800 cars a day by 2024 according to a feasibility study conducted by the Chinese company. Without additional infrastructure or a change in transportation patterns, traffic would be unbearable — an urgent problem across Latin America, which has one of the fastest-growing number of car owners in the world.

In Quito, it will be drivers who pay for the expanded roadway, which is being rolled out beneath the title Solución Vial Guayasamín. Approximately US$122.5 million of the US$131 million price tag on the new China Road and Bridge Corporation tunnel is being covered by a 30-year loan from the Chinese company that the city plans on paying back by levying new tolls on those passing through it.

And now, as Quito Mayor Mauricio Rodas hosts the United Nations Habitat III event from October 17 to 20, he’s faced with a peculiar dilemma. His already-congested city must accommodate tens of thousands of visitors, all of which are coming to witness the signing of a non-binding document for smarter, more sustainable cities that prioritize public transit “over private motorized transportation.”

In other words, his city is a perfect capsule of the types of give-and-take leaders will face in the post-Habitat III world, as the inertia of past urban legacies collides with the New Urban Agenda’s push for more inclusive, conscientious metropolitan areas.

But Rodas is firm in his belief that the project is necessary. He says the tunnel expansion will also give the city a new emergency exit if it comes face-to-face with the types of natural disasters that have shattered Ecuadorian cities in the past.

“We only have a tunnel with one lane that goes out, and one lane that goes in. Meanwhile we’re exposed to a number of natural threats — earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods,” he says. “What would happen in an emergency situation today, with this being the main point of exit out of the city? That emergency vehicles would need to pass through, that would need to be treated like an evacuation route?”

“The tunnel would collapse,” he says.

Rodas describes the traffic feeding into the channel as “chaos,” and if you stand where it pours out into the city at Plaza Argentina during rush hour, you get a glimpse of what he means. In the early evenings, police officers stand along the streets, intersections and roundabouts at the tunnel’s beginning, blowing their whistles and gesturing wildly at the unending mass of honking cars. They’re sent out every night to give extra guidance to the flood of drivers, who regard the traffic signals around them like mere suggestions.

“It would be a strategic error not to allow [more space],” says Rodas.

A Robert Moses model?

The Solución will include two new bridges exiting out of the city and an underground car passageway that passes beneath Plaza Argentina in the city center. Beneath the Plaza is also where Quito’s bus lines will drop off at an underground terminal as part of a massive public transit system it’s linking together with a US$205 million loan from the World Bank.

That system includes Ecuador’s first Metro line, built across 23 kilometers and 15 stops, six of which will connect with the city’s above-ground Metrobus-Q network. Along with a new line of floating cable cars in the vein of Medellín and São Paulo, the plan is part of the city’s Integrated Mass Passenger Transportation System, which hopes to put 9 out of every 10 of Quito’s residents within 4 to 5 blocks of a public transit stop by 2019. Rodas says nearly 70 percent of his city’s budget, or approximately US$1.05 billion, is going toward transit projects like these in 2016.

But even though only 12 percent of that US$1.05 billion is going to the tunnel expansion, it’s conjured up a fierce opposition movement of activists, urban planners, architects, city officials and residents. At the heart of their concern is the fact that the plans for the project are still shrouded in uncertainty, and Rodas says that’s because studies are still in the works.

A family hitchhikes out of Quito near the entryway to the Guayasamín tunnel on a calm Saturday. Poorer residents of Bolaños or the valleys surrounding Quito often hitchhike in and out of the city because of a lack of efficient public transport. (Johnny Magdaleno)

At first, Bolaños residents were told they all faced eviction. Now the number of buildings at risk of getting demolished has been lowered to 15, according to Ninahualpa and human rights lawyer Javier Dávalos, who is representing the neighborhood in a lawsuit against the municipal government. Ninahualpa says those 15 buildings host nearly 70 percent of the barrio’s population, and every Thursday she and other activists hold demonstrations in Plaza Argentina with other members of #ErrorVialGuayasamín, a local citizens group, to highlight the small, hidden neighborhood drivers pass over as they stream in and out of the city.

Independent urbanist and ex-city employee Jaime Izurieta-Varea opposes the project because of how severely it contrasts with the globally influential, multimodal urban mobility plans that put nearby countries like Colombia and Brazil on the map. To him, it’s ironic that a city would roll out this project on the cusp of hosting one of the biggest sustainable urbanism events in the world.

“It’s just not the way a host city should do things,” says Izurieta-Varea. “You don’t build things that Robert Moses was building 60 years ago [in New York] and that every city in the world is trying to tear down right now.”

“And whatever you do, you don’t do it arbitrarily and impose it on the people — you do it with the people involved,” he adds.

With the Metro line, residents near Plaza Argentina claim they were never brought into the conversation to voice their concerns or support for the project and how it would upend their neighborhood. Quito Cables, the metro cable project, has been another hot spot for protests, as residents living underneath the cable line argue that their privacy is at risk.

But local media report that there is a considerable amount of support for the tunnel expansion. An August poll of 503 Quito residents by El Telegrafo found that 63.3 percent saw the project as necessary, though 67.4 percent thought that it wasn’t worth the cost.

With a regional country like Brazil forcibly evicting more than 20,000 families living in shanty villas in the run up to both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, evicting an estimated 170 people in Bolaños doesn’t seem to carry the same gravity. Especially when the government has made public its concerns about that neighborhood’s precarious placement on the side of a hill, in a part of the world that’s plagued by deadly earthquakes.

But after months of closed-door negotiations with local urbanists, architects and residents from the neighborhood, the city still has yet to provide a clear outline of some of the new revisions it made public after criticism led Rodas’ administration to tweak the Solución’s blueprint back in August. The government has gone back-and-forth on what will happen to the Bolaños neighborhood, where residents will get relocated, and exactly how many are at risk since the project was announced this spring, and part of the lawsuit that Dávalos and human rights lawyers Mario Carrera are currently leveraging against the city aims to settle the record on this issue.

One of those August revisions was the promise of a bus line that will service what remains of the Bolaños neighborhood, and a new massive transit system that will bring “thousands” of suburban residents from the valleys into the city center, according to Rodas. That project is separate from the tunnel expansion, but Rodas says the Solución is necessary to make it happen.

The mayor couldn’t confirm how many buses that would entail, or where exactly they’d depart from and arrive to in the city center, but he says his administration is currently undertaking studies to determine the contours of that system. (In August, he told crowds at the College of Architects of Pichincha that 20 buses would feed from a central station in Cumbayá into Quito.)

“If you only look at [the tunnel project] alone, you think we’re not advancing sustainable mobility,” Rodas says. “But if you analyze it in context with everything else we’re doing, you’ll realize that we are, but we’re also helping to circulate vehicular traffic, and we’re prioritizing public transportation, and the city’s security. Because of that, this is necessary.”

City Council Member Daniela Chacón Arias, who’s vocally opposed the plan since this summer, calls the mayor’s recent modifications “changes to form, but not to foundation.” One of those changes includes the elimination of a bridge that was originally set to pass over Plaza Argentina. She’s one of the officials that’s been pressuring the mayor to provide more information to the public on just how this project will roll out.

“Obviously this project goes under a contrary kind of logic when it comes to the vision of sustainable mobility,” she says. “What we’re trying to do is reduce the need to have your own vehicle to be mobile … and we’re questioning whether this is the best solution [for that].”

City Council Member Daniela Chacón Arias, a vocal opponent of the Solución Vial Guayasamín, sits in her office. (Johnny Magdaleno)

As part of a folder of internal government memos Arias gave to Next City, Samia Peñaherrera, the city’s secretary general of planning, sent a brief technical assessment of the plan to Empresa Pública Metropolitana de Movilidad y Obras Públicas, a state-owned mobility and public works company, on March 10. It argues that the Solución will “reduce the levels of vehicle congestion and saturation, which will lead to a reduction in contaminant emissions and noise levels.”

But the concept of making room for more cars in order to reduce emission levels immediately struck Arias, who received the documents earlier this year, as odd. And there’s still nothing in these contracts that guarantees a new public transportation line, meaning Arias and other opponents are taking the Mayor’s public transit system proposal with a grain of salt.

“I couldn’t believe what I was reading,” she says. Her office is still pressuring Rodas to illuminate the project’s many vague elements, but she says the mayor’s approach “has just been to ignore these requests … and other requests for [additional] financial, legal or technical studies.”

With construction already underway, there’s little likelihood that Quito’s administration will suddenly cease the plan. And as you walk around the city, you can easily see why nearly two-thirds of respondents to that August poll think it should happen. Quito’s car woes, it goes without saying, aren’t going to diminish anytime soon. Part of the Chinese company’s feasibility study points out the fact that even with the Solución Vial Guayasamín up and functioning by 2019, the two new bridges and road expansion will likely fail to keep up with the explosive growth of car ownership by as early as 2024.

And part of that concession demands that if the city decides to construct new transportation methods between Quito and Cumbayá, like more public bus lines, over the next 30 years, the municipality has to pay a percentage of revenue earned from those projects to the Chinese company.

Meanwhile, drivers who take the Guayasamín tunnel in and out of the city will see their toll fees rise incrementally from the current amount of 40 U. S. cents to US$1.90 by 2034, all the way until 2045.

When it comes to the New Urban Agenda that’ll get sworn in during this year’s Habitat III event, Quito faces some of the same hurdles that South American cities like Bogotá in Colombia, Buenos Aires in Argentina and São Paulo in Brazil will face as they try to accommodate growth without falling back on the unequal patterns that have defined earlier generations of urban planning, displacing low-income communities and favoring cars over people.

One of those is the flux between suburban and urban populations that Quito is dealing with right now, which Ricardo Jordán Fuchs, chief of the human settlements unit of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), says has swung back and forth across the past 70 years “like a pendulum.”

“Urbanization was an explosive process in Latin America that began during the 1940s and 1950s,” he says. As populations flooded city centers, it pushed “poverty and poor people to the outskirts of the cities,” but now we’re seeing a slight reversal of that trend largely because of the way cities in the region have turned into economic lightning rods. The region’s 198 cities with populations of 200,000 people or more contribute 60 percent of its total GDP output, putting it on par with the United States and Europe in terms of the significance of urban economies to overall productivity. Today, nearly 80 percent of Latin America’s populations currently live in urban areas, and it has the highest percentage of major metropolitan areas ranking in more than 10 million people than any other region globally, according to a 2016 General Assembly of Ministers of Housing and Urban Development of Latin America and the Caribbean (MINURVI) report that Fuchs is presenting during Habitat III.

In Quito, the city will have to first navigate its unique placement in the bed of a mountain range in order to accommodate the sustainable growth principles outlined by the New Urban Agenda. “Because of its geographical configuration, Quito has had a bit of a crazy growth pattern over the past 70 years,” says Diego Salazar, an urban architect and former director of the city’s Metropolitan Institute of Urban Planning. It occupies a valley of the Guayllabamba River Basin that’s cupped on all sides by Andes foothills and the iconic Mount Pichincha volcano giving it an oblong shape — about 70 kilometers long and 40 kilometers wide — that precludes the type of sprawl you’d see in a flat North American city like Los Angeles.

Residents of Barrio Bolaños, a small village that may be displaced to make room for a highway expansion, play football. (Johnny Magdaleno)

But city planners have long treated the suburban valleys surrounding the city as separate cities instead of lumping them together into a single metropolitan area. “The city has an annual growth rate of 1.7 percent, while the valleys are growing annually at 4.5 percent — which is enormous,” says Salazar. And as cars congest the city streets for hours each day, the city is now feeling the pressure of what happens when city planning fails to consider a growing suburban population that depends on accessing the city’s economic core.

“People need cars in Quito because of the way Quito has been designed,” says Izurieta-Varea. “We would need a huge break and change the city in such a huge way [to stop the growth of car ownership] that the adjustment period would be horrible for people. But I think it’s something that has to be done, because right now, we’re building a city that’s not for the people.”

On a recent Monday, Ninahualpa gathered with local activists and family members from the Bolaños neighborhood in a small municipal courtroom just blocks away from where the Solución Vial Guayasamín will take place. Carrera and Dávalos submitted an appeal to the local government on a lawsuit they submitted earlier this fall, claiming that the project would violate constitutional protections over human rights and the rights of nature if the local government proceeded. (Ecuador was the first country in the world to create a constitutional clause recognizing the right of nature back in 2008.)

Council Member Arias stood to present her case for halting the project until clear environmental and social feasibility studies were conducted. As she spoke, rush hour arrived. The sound of car horns and engines and police whistles fighting for space around Plaza Argentina filled the small courtroom and gradually drowned out her voice before her allotted five minutes ran out.

Ninahualpa and her lawyers aren’t optimistic that they’ll see the project halted — already the village wakes up to the sound of earth movers digging into the ground on the hills surrounding them. But she says she’ll keep pushing, even after the thousands of Habitat III visitors leave, and the world promises to build cities with poorer populations like her neighborhood in mind, and the crops on the small plot of land she grew up on come to harvest.

“I’m worried. They have the power, and I’m fearful. They have the capital, and we don’t — it’s not easy [to win court cases] when you’re poor,” she says, outside the courtroom. “But I’m hoping the judges make a decision out of consciousness.”

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Johnny Magdaleno is a Next City equitable cities fellow for 2016-2017. He is a journalist, writer and photographer who focuses on human rights issues.  Full bio

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