Olympic Spotlight Shines on Rio and its Teleféricos

With the Olympics opening tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro, the world looks to a seaside metropolis with more than six million residents and the first South American city to host an Olympic Games.  While Brazil has no ski resorts, Rio features aerial lifts ranging from hundred year-old tramways to modern gondolas connecting the city’s favelas to the regional transit network.

The famous Sugarloaf Mountain twin tramways were among the world’s first cableways of any kind when they debuted in 1912.  A century later, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff championed development of a five-section Poma gondola connecting some of Rio’s largest slums, modeled after the pioneering gondola network in Medellín.  In 2013, Doppelmayr built a three-station gondola in Morro da Providência, serving more than 5,000 residents in one of Rio’s oldest favelas.  Further urban cable projects proposed for Rio have faltered as the city works to combat challenges we’ve become all too familiar with leading up to the Games.

Teleférico do Alemão

Teleférico do Alemão is one of the largest and most complex gondola systems in the world with six stations and 152 10-passenger Sigma Diamond cabins.  Built by Poma and operated by private train company SuperVia, Teleférico do Alemão opened July 7, 2011. The system is capable of transporting 3,000 passengers per hour over 2.2 miles of dense neighborhoods in 16 minutes.  The lift changes angle four times, including a 100-degree turn at Alemão Station.

Teleférico do Alemão’s striking gondola stations also serve as community centers.  Photo credit: Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz via Creative Commons

70,000 residents are eligible for two free rides daily on the gondola, which links favelas in the Complexo do Alemão to the Bonsucesso train station. Six expansive rooftop stations that feature banks, stores and social services rise above the favelas.  The gondola system cost approximately $74 million to build and serves 9,000 daily riders.  Initial ridership estimates of 30,000 per day have not been realized as Rio has struggled to attract non-residents to ride the teleférico through crime-ridden neighborhoods.  Unlike in Medellín and La Paz, residents have criticized the construction of an expensive gondola through communities that lack electricity, clean water and basic sanitation.

Teleférico da Providência

A second gondola built by Doppelmayr opened in 2014 at a cost of $23 million to link the Morro da Providência favela with Rio’s central train station and the district of Gamboa. Short trips typically begin or end at the gondola’s hilltop mid-station.  Providence Hill, as this unofficial neighborhood is known in English, was settled in the early 1900’s by freed slaves, soldiers and European immigrants as the only affordable place to live near the center of the city. Teleférico da Providência pales in comparison to the sprawling Poma system at just 2,300 feet with 16 CWA Omega 10-passenger gondolas.  It travels up to 5 m/s with a design capacity of 3,000 passengers per hour, per direction.  Like the Teleférico do Alemão, a ride is free for residents and costs 30 cents for others.  The system is operated by a private contractor, Concessionária Porto Novo.

Sugarloaf Cable Car(s)

A century before modern gondolas joined the Rio skyline, the iconic Sugarloaf Cable Car began carrying passengers up 1,299 foot Sugarloaf Mountain.  This attraction, which actually consists of two separate tramways, is #1 of 642 things to do in Rio on TripAdvisor. Opened in October 1912, Sugarloaf’s twin jig-backs were the third and fourth cableways in the world, following ones built in 1907 and 1908 in Spain and Switzerland, respectively.

Both Sugarloaf tramways were rebuilt in 1972 with 75-passenger glass cabins replacing 22-passenger wooden ones.  The first 2000-foot section travels 722 vertical feet to Morro da Urca, where riders disembark and walk to the second, more famous tramway. The second section travels 2,790 feet to Sugarloaf’s summit at a maximum speed of 10 m/s.  Neither span has any intermediate towers and more than 2,500 visitors ride the cable cars each day.

In 2013, the largest favela in Rio and all of Brazil, with more than 100,000 inhabitants, successfully killed a plan by the state and federal governments to build two more urban gondolas with six stations.  The Rocinha slums do not need a lift, but sanitation, many argued.  For now, as Rio struggles with issues of poverty, mobility and public health, keep an eye out for the city’s gondolas and tramways as more than 11,000 athletes compete on the world stage.

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