Opinion, by Michael Kerlin

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – At the five-year mark before it opens its Summer Olympics, Rio de Janeiro is celebrating the one month birthday of a new alpine gondola system fit for the Winter Olympics. From a pure cost-benefit standpoint, it’s far too early to say whether the Complexo do Alemão gondola system will be one of the greatest triumphs or one of the greatest follies of infrastructure in Rio’s favelas.

Michael D. Kerlin is an international management consultant who began working in Rio’s favelas fifteen years ago.
Michael D. Kerlin is an international management consultant who began working in Rio’s favelas fifteen years ago.

30,000 people per day at full operation, 3,000 people per hour, six gondola stations, 152 gondola cars, end-to-end journeys cut from fifty to sixteen minutes, 210 million reais, other potential PAC projects left unfunded, four months of delays—those are the hard numbers of Rio’s first major gondola system.

What most outsiders forget to include in the equation are the psychological benefits of what they call a teleférico here. In the old days, gondolas were for rich people and tourists climbing up Pão de Açucar to take in the sunset. Sure, people from the favelas could visit Pão de Açucar, but few would feel comfortable. In the eyes of many of Brazil’s ricos, they were the gente baixa. They belonged up in the hills, other hills, often in the favelas of Rio’s North Zone.

Now, those same favela residents can ride up and down their local hills easily and proudly, and perhaps won’t feel so out of place the next time they visit Pão de Açucar. The real action these days is up in the hills close to home, anyway.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” one resident said to me, as he looked out from the roof of his brick shack onto the glistening white and pastel gondola system.

“We’re finally on the Rio tourist map,” another said.  “Why pay twenty reais for two rides down at Pão de Açucar when you can pay a few reais for six rides up in the Complexo?”

“You’ll have to bring all your friends and show them the teleférico,” one young man told me.

“They skipped our hill when they were planning station stops, but I still think it’s exciting for all of us,” another said.

To be sure, the efficiency and public health benefits are many, and are not lost on Complexo do Alemão residents. “Going up and down the hill every day is wearing on my knees, so the gondolas will definitely help,” one sixty year-old resident told me. Younger, working residents will waste fewer productive hours sweating their way up and down the hill when they could be earning money. Students can spend more time studying, and everyone can link more efficiently to the rest of the city, thanks to the teleférico’s rail links.

The gondolas’ psychological impact isn’t just another check mark on this benefits side of the equation. It’s a source of self-respect, deep at the root of quality life in Rio’s favelas. With self-respect come more education and entrepreneurship, less violence, and boosts in physical and mental health.

The psychology of the gondolas can also inform smart policies in the future.

Without sufficient maintenance, the gondolas could suffer breakdowns and become a source of frustration, at best, or cynicism and embarrassment, at worst. The gondola operators shouldn’t be shy about charging more for the transport. That will help pay for ongoing maintenance, and it will ensure people continue to value the gondolas.

Public officials should also resist temptations to mix the transportation and community connectivity roles of the gondola system with larger public security projects.  It may have been handy to set up military pacification force outposts in the not-yet-active gondola stations after last November’s military invasion of the Complexo. But security systems and public transit systems should remain separate. One favela resident took me up to see an unopened gondola station back in March, but suggested we leave after too many soldiers began filing into the station.

The greatest measure of psychological benefit, of course, will be the activity level of the gondolas. If the local ridership numbers stay up, then pride is running high.  If they drop, then pride may be running out. Of course, pride and utility tie together tightly. Even if a resident doesn’t use the gondola herself, she’ll feel better if she thinks it’s useful to her neighbors.

If the ridership numbers stay up, perhaps it’s time to speed up gondola investments in other favelas, if the quantitative cost-benefit analysis also comes through positive. If they don’t, then let’s be prepared to double-down on making the gondolas work for Complexo do Alemão residents, and perhaps slow and revamp plans in other areas.

Just like everyone else in the world, favela residents vote with their feet, even when they’re floating in a cable car. For now, many are enjoying just that—floating high above the rest of their problems, while they enjoy the views of the Cidade Maravilhosa, and finally become part of the views themselves.

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Michael D. Kerlin began working in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas fifteen years ago. An international management consultant, he has written about economic development in the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Philadelphia Inquirer, and several other publications.

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