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Transport / Pedestrians

Can escalators and elevators solve the last-mile problem?

Vigo’s perpendicular modifications are a striking example of the mass mobility trend reshaping many of Spain’s urban cores.

an outdoor elevator in Vigo, Spain
Outdoor elevators like this colourful one in Vigo, Spain, can be a cost-efficient solution to urban transportation’s last-mile problem. (Photo courtesy of the office of Mayor Abel Caballero)

Churchgoing residents of the Travesia neighbourhood in the port city of Vigo, Spain, used to face a weekly dilemma: travel 2km along a flat road or climb 50m up a steep set of outdoor stairs. Until recently, most chose to attend the more distant church. For the approximately 400,000 residents of Spain’s sixth-largest city, social and business life had always been organised by topography, and avoiding steep climbs was routine.

Vigo’s dilemma was emblematic of the first- and last-mile problem: public transport was limited, and walking wasn’t always the fastest option. The car often became the default mode of transportation. But over the past few years, Vertical Vigo, a programme to reconnect neighbourhoods with public elevators, escalators and electric walkways, has been eliminating barriers to commerce and community.

“Vertical Vigo allows us to recover spaces. It is making the city more compact and is connecting areas that were never connected before,” says Abel Caballero, the city’s longtime mayor and the driving force behind the municipal programme. “Cars and buses run around and around the mountain to get up and down, but vertical travel cuts down travel time immensely. Soon you won’t need to use cars or buses because we’re connecting two sides of the mountain, or about 3km, by a network of elevators and escalators.”

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Vigo’s perpendicular modifications may be the most striking example of an under-reported trend for mass mobility that is reshaping many of Spain’s urban cores. Lately, strategies like Barcelona’s pedestrian “superblocks” have garnered the most international attention from urban connoisseurs. But also noteworthy are the rest of the country’s urban reforms that have positioned outdoor public up and down climbs at their centres. Thus cities are easing traffic and reducing pollution while also improving accessibility and bringing new life to adjacent businesses.

Outdoor escalators in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain
Outdoor escalators like this one in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, have increased access to the Basque capital’s medieval quarter. (Photo courtesy of Thyssenkrupp Elevator Innovation Center)

“Escalators, moving walkways and accelerated moving walkways are cost-efficient means of transportation in the last mile. They can continuously move a higher amount of people, require very little or no civil works in comparison to metros and are more sustainable that traditional cars or buses,” explains Javier Sesma, general manager of the Thyssenkrupp Elevator Innovation Center in Gijon, Spain. “When you integrate these mobility systems into a city’s infrastructure, you can eliminate architectural barriers and integrate neighbourhoods, giving accessibility to all citizens.”

Emerging, then, is a distinctly Spanish model of “mobility as a service”. At the forefront of this movement have been places like Helsinki, Amsterdam and New York that have linked their public transit with private modes like bikes and scooters. This combination has been lauded for harnessing means of transport to decrease the need for cars within cities. The Spanish model does something somewhat different; outdoor escalators and elevators are making already dense settlements even more closely packed. The increased foot traffic funnelled towards this infrastructure has been creating some popular new public spaces. Previously unapproachable promontories are now becoming newly valued green spaces and locations for new development.

“We are analysing where and when individuals of different backgrounds come together through geotagged data,” says Carlo Ratti, director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab. “Our findings show that squares and public spaces well connected through mobility systems with the rest of the city perform a key role in facilitating interaction between different social groups. Every transportation network connecting public spaces performs a similar function and fosters social integration.”

Inclined elevator in Bilbao
Functional and playful, this inclined elevator in Bilbao, Spain, connects three neighbourhoods to the metro station. (Photo courtesy of ThuyssenKrupp Elevator Innovation Center)

Public escalators and elevators are nothing new. Indeed, they are the most popular daily form of mass transit, used by over a billion people each day. Cities as varied as Hong Kong, Lisbon and Medellín have included giant public escalators as a central form of mass transit. In Spain, the growth of this means of transportation can be traced to Barcelona’s 1992 Olympics and Seville’s 1992 World Expo. Since then, Spanish cities seem to have embraced this kind of journeying with more enthusiasm than similarly dense and topographically challenged cities in other countries. Whereas France has only two outdoor public escalators, in Paris and Beausoleil, a town on the Côte d’Azur, Spain has nearly 100 outdoor public escalators and elevators not linked to public transit stations.

What is different about the Spanish use of outdoor public electric networks (or OPEN transport, a term I’m introducing here) is that these modes aren’t owned by consortiums or necessarily connected to transit stops. Rather, their purpose is to reduce the need for any private transport and encourage pedestrianism. In the past decade or so, over a dozen Spanish cities, including Santander, Bilbao and Victoria, have installed such conveyances. Hilly non-Spanish cities are also experimenting with escalators and public elevators. Spain is now the world’s fifth-largest market for elevators.

In Toledo, for example, the installation of two outdoor public escalators has been credited with breathing new life into that city’s historic centre, explains Nazareth Franco, an architect from that city. “These elements have enriched the city in urban and landscape terms,” she says. “Their integration into Toledo, which is characterised by its valuable architectural ensemble, stands out. The entire historic centre has been stimulated by its appearance since they allow a simple, direct and accessible connection, and therefore encourage activity.”

Residents seem to approve of the trend.

“What’s particularly interesting about pedestrian cities is the kind of strong support it generates with local residents. The explosive growth of e-scooters has provoked backlashes among city dwellers, emphasising the difference among early adopters or generational accessibility to new means of mobility,” says Thyssenkrupp’s Sesma. “[But] residents, independently of age or social status, seem to like elevators and escalators, especially older residents for whom city developments, urbanisation or simply the city orography might have created access barriers to local commerce or basic city services.”

These forms of transit are particularly suited to a city like Vigo. Built on the slopes of three mountains within about a kilometre, the city rises more than 800 feet above its bustling port, home to Europe’s largest commercial fishing fleet. While the main part of Vigo is spread around a smaller mountain only about 400 feet high, traversing from top to bottom had been no easy feat. A commuter’s map would look something like a Snakes and Ladders game board: by bus or car, along tight switchback roads, travelling a couple of kilometres could take a half hour. Getting to work in the morning on foot has meant descending the city’s hundreds of zigzagging staircases chiselled without much breathing space between buildings. In the evening, for residents with apartments near the summit, the same upward journey home could mean ascending the equivalent of a 40-storey building.

Outdoor escalator in Vigo, Spain
Opening day of the plant-filled Gran Via de Vigo, one of 12 outdoor escalators installed last year. (Photo courtesy of the office of Mayor Abel Caballero)

About 12 escalator and elevator routes in Vigo have been finished; another dozen are planned for 2021. The most impressive one opened just before Christmas – it’s a five-block-long covered electric walkway that mounts a nearly 20% gradient along the Gran Via, one of the main roads into Vigo’s city centre and runs 24 hours a day. The cost of the project was around €4m.

Riding the walkway is something like moving through a botanical garden in the middle of a city. The impact on pedestrian circulation within the city has been immediate. Foot traffic in the past several weeks has been greater than in any month since the city began using sensors to count pedestrian flow. There is strong evidence that residents on the other side of the mountain are forgoing buses or cars to ride walkways.

“Vertical Vigo hasn’t just improved access, it’s making the city a more interesting and accessible tourist attraction,” says Javier Martinez, a partner with Possible, a software development firm that produces urban tech solutions. “You see people coming just to ride the walkways, which are packed. Businesses in neighbourhoods that never had much foot traffic are now seeing a lot more. It’s been really positive because it’s raising the profile of our city.”

The next couple of years will see the unveiling of even more impressive local networks. Designed by architect Thom Mayne, a new rail station nearing completion will have a series of terraced urban parks on rooftops. Escalators linking to, and running through, the station will allow pedestrians to walk from the lower city to a neighbourhood about 100 feet above. Previously, that scramble might have taken 20 to 30 minutes; when the station opens, the travel time will compress to under five minutes. A new 50,000m² park on a the flank of a precipitous neighbourhood that previously had no green space is also being planned. It will be linked to the centre through a six-storey outdoor elevator.

“Vigo is a modern city without the kind of big squares you see in other Spanish cities,” says Caballero. “The consequence of Vertical Vigo isn’t just more choices for residents but the creation of new kinds of public green space.”

Dorn Townsend is freelance reporter founder of Citiscope.io, an urban tech software startup based in Helsinki.

Dorn Townsend is a freelance reporter and urban tech software designer based in Helsinki.