Urban Mobility in Quito by Ananda Paez

by tuftsigl
Jul 17

I initially became interested in urban mobility because I believe it is an extremely important, yet often neglected, factor in development. In a city like Quito, it is evident that in many cases, the ability to work one’s way out of poverty is highly correlated with the ease with which one can move. It may seem far-fetched, but I do believe that social mobility starts with urban mobility, and how easily someone from the poorer suburbs can travel to a better-paying job in the city center. This is especially true in Quito, where the city is divided along social lines. The North is where the high and high-middle classes live, the downtown area is where the middle class lives, the South is where the low class lives, and the suburbs is where the poor generally live. It is important to note that low class and poor are not the same thing, but do often overlap.

I worked on a couple of projects/initiatives that seek to improve the quality and availability of mobility between different areas of the city and thus allow for a more integral and unified path to development. The first one is the regularization of informal transport from the suburbs to the city. Because there is almost no way for people to move from the suburbs to the city in public transport, many “illegal” companies of taxis, vans, and pickup trucks have showed up to fulfill that demand. The problem is that regularized forms of transportation, in particular “legal” taxis aren’t happy about that because they claim that “illegal” companies shrink their demand and are unfairly allowed to operate without having to pay regularization costs or fulfill government requirements (like having a panic button inside every taxi).

Looking at the statistics, and from talking to the owners of these irregular modes of transportation, I was shocked to find that their main customers are people that use them every day to go to work and women. Their number of passengers per day is also surprisingly high considering these forms of transportation charge somewhere between 4 and 20 times more than regularized forms of transport do. The fact that people are using these companies to go to work in the city every day shows that increasingly, people from the suburbs are trying to move towards the city which in itself implies a myriad of opportunities for that person’s family (such as education). It also means that if there were a regularized form of transportation that charged the legal tariff of 25 cents (Ecuador’s currency is the American dollar), there would probably be more movement, and therefore more social mobility, between the suburbs and the city. The fact that about half of their customers are women shows that women are willing to pay more for a safe ride to the city, especially after sunset. This also indicates that poor women from the suburbs are being disproportionately affected by the lack of transportation, and that if there was transportation, maybe less women would be unemployed or underemployed.

Thus, I was excited to be a part of the “regularization” negotiations with all the stakeholders since this is an issue that affects so many. I was one of few women in the Secretariat, and it was not uncommon for me to be the only woman in the room. I therefore often felt that issues related to women, such as safety in public transportation, were unintentionally overlooked, and so this was one of the few initiatives from which I felt women were going to benefit directly. As a side note, I believe that the one way in which I truly contributed to the Secretariat (because honestly, internships are all about learning) was by constantly brining up issues related to women. It shocked me how, for example, there is a huge emphasis on making public transportation accessible to people with disabilities (obviously, this is very important too), but no one addressed the fact that after sunset, women, who make up more than 50% of the city’s population, were unable to use public transport because of safety reasons.

Another highlight for me so far, has been how much urban design-or lack thereof- goes on behind the scenes of urban mobility, and the infinite possibilities for development that that entails.  The Vice Mayor of Quito has developed an interest for mobility and design and so at her request, a team was formed to evaluate which high-risk and priority locations in the city could be improved through urban design. Members of the same team are also involved in a more long-term project to prioritize non-motorized forms of transport in the city, another project that is also taking place under the Vice Mayor’s supervision. I had the opportunity to work on both initiatives and was fascinated to find how a small change in the design of a street can significantly improve traffic and in many cases, even save lives.

The first team, that was looking at high-risk and priority locations in the city, was comprised of experts from the Metropolitan Transit Agency (with who I already worked closely to coordinate the Papal visit and protest-related operations), Metropolitan Police, Secretariat of Urbanism and EPMMOP, the Municipal public company in charge of public works. Each expert suggested 10 points that their units considered were problematic, and between all of us we decided to pick the 10 most relevant locations. To decide which locations to pick, we looked at a map of deaths caused by traffic-related accidents in the city and traffic flow maps, and decided to pick points where there was either a high mortality or accident rate, or points with a high flow of traffic, such as the intersections of main artery avenues.

In some of the selected points, major changes were required. However, there were others that only required simple, yet very effective, changes. For example, the intersection of streets Venezuela and Chile, right in front of independence square which is arguably the center of the city, was one of the first points where we implemented small changes with large effects. Chile is a highly congested street, and for a block before it intersects with Chile, Venezuela is a pedestrian street. A lot of people would jaywalk and cause even further traffic jams because the crosswalk was not along the same line as the pedestrian street, but to the right of it. By moving the crosswalk to be in line with Venezuela street, and by increasing the frequency of street light color change, we managed to reduce traffic in that intersection significantly.  

So far, my internship at the Secretariat has made me aware of how much planning and design goes on behind what I thought were simple things like traffic lights or intersections. Most of Quito (except for downtown) is very poorly planned, and so I have had the opportunity to learn how smart designs can make people’s lives better and easier. I am very excited to be able not only to see the design phase of these projects, but also the implementation, and how these initiatives have very real impacts on people’s lives. 

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