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Why Quito is embarking on one of the most ambitious transportation projects of the century

Quito’s population has grown almost tenfold. Now two ambitious transportation projects aim to transform the city, for residents and visitors.

Looking down on the city of Quito from the teleférico that rides up the eastern slope of the Pichincha Volcano, buildings as high as 30 stories dot an urban landscape that includes the former citadels and centuries-old churches of what was once a Spanish colony.

But someone looking at Quito from that same view 50 years ago would have seen a considerably smaller city full not of high rises but of single-family homes.

The discovery of oil in Ecuador in the late 1960s triggered growth in the country’s capital that pushed the city not only out but up. Quito’s population has grown from 350,000 then to almost 3 million today.

Now, Quito’s transformation from sleepy town to vibrant metropolis is entering perhaps its most important phase: The population explosion has created the need to overhaul the city’s transportation infrastructure. Having already moved its airport out of the city center, Quito will open a brand new subway line in 2020, just seven years after the first phase of construction began. The metro could usher Quito into a new era as a regional economic power.

Quito’s loss of worker productivity caused by traffic problems is not unique to this city, as Los Angeles and other suburbanized American cities face similar issues. If Quito’s subway is a success, it could serve as a model for other cities that are trying to build public transportation infrastructure in an urban sprawl environment.

“This is a pivotal moment for the city,” said Felipe Correa, author of A Line in the Andes, an analytical look at Quito’s urban transformation. “There are very few cities that can actually build a subway from scratch in a consolidated urban area. But it should also be aware that the project cannot end here. This has to be the catalyst of other urban improvements in the next decades.”

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How Quito went vertical

A Line in the Andes is a fitting title for a book about Quito, which sits 9,350 feet above sea level in a valley of the Andes Mountains. The city’s urban center runs roughly 35 kilometers from north to south, but just 4 kilometers at its narrowest east-west points.

To the west of the city center sits a wall of mountains and volcanoes. To the east is a valley, where affluent single-family districts such as Cumbayá and Tumbaco have formed. The city center, the line in the Andes, is sometimes called the hypercenter or the plateau.

Quito’s layout was master-planned in 1942 by 29-year-old Guillermo Jones Ordiozola, a Uruguayan architect with no city planning experience. The Jones plan zoned the city into districts that each served a single function.

In the northern part of the Old Town—the immaculately preserved Spanish colonial center and a UNESCO World Heritage Site—Jones placed government functions like congress and the justice department. North of the Old Town he put sport and recreation areas, and in the south went labor and industry.

Chart showing Quito’s elevation and its position in a valley in the Andes Mountains.
Quito’s elevation and its position in a valley in the Andes Mountains.
Felipe Correa / Somatic Collaborative

“This distribution of functional areas is one of [Jones’s] main innovations,” said Jacobo Herdoiza, a former Secretary of Territory for the Municipality of Quito. “This layout allowed the city to develop in an orderly way. It creates a pattern that was modernist in the way he conceived the relationship between vehicles and urban functionality, but also he creates I would say for the very first time an urban morphology.”

Jones drew on the garden city movement—an urban planning practice where lower-density communities are encased in open space as a way to bring people back to nature—and the residential parts of the city developed mostly as single-family houses. Jones’s vision of Quito centered around families raising children.

The Jones plan put the city on an orderly path for expansion in time for the explosion in population and wealth that followed the discovery of oil under the Ecuadorian portion of the Amazon rainforest in the late 1960s.

The newfound wealth transformed the northern part of the city, as the oil industry and its ancillary businesses settled there. That industry brought with it a financial sector, hotels, and other private corporations. The concentration of business led to Quito’s first high-rise buildings, until recently the tallest in the city.

While immigration has contributed to Quito’s population boom—beginning with the arrival of Czech Jews in the 1940s and continuing through waves of Chilean, Colombian, and Venezuelan refugees today—most new residents to Quito over the last 50 years have come from within Ecuador, as the rural population relocated to urban centers in search of jobs. In 1960, 33.9 percent of Ecuador’s population lived in urban areas. In 2018, it was 63.8 percent.

As the oil boom triggered vertical developments in the commercial and industrial spaces, the population boom did the same to residential areas. The northern part of the city saw high rises go up along with commercial buildings in the 1970s, and the rest of the city was systematically redeveloped in the 1980s and 1990s as the country returned from the military junta of the 1970s to democratic government.

Architects and developers—who are often the same parties in Quito—bought single-family houses from homeowners and redeveloped the land into small condominiums from four to 12 floors. The Jones grid plan made these redevelopments easier and expansion further north and south more efficient. According to Correa, Quiteños developed a preference for multifamily housing because it provided better security.

“Taking care of big houses was becoming more expensive, so they were not as comfortable for their owners as they got older,” said Tommy Schwarzkopf, cofounder of development firm Uribe & Schwarzkopf, which was highly active in single-family redevelopments at the time. “Families found it more convenient to sell the lots of single-family homes and instead receive some apartments [from the new developments] themselves, or give them to their children.”

Map showing 30 years of Quito’s expansion.
This map shows Quito’s urban expansion over the last 30 years. Many of the outer settlements in the valleys to the east of the city center were built over the last 10 years.
Atlas of Urban Expansion

While Uribe & Schwarzkopf played a leading role in the city’s transformation, numerous developer-architects were active at the time, often doing one project at a time. As a result, the architecture in Quito is diverse, with no two buildings looking the same—a common occurrence when a sole developer mass-produces housing.

But while much of Quito has grown up, it hasn’t necessarily gotten more dense. Quito had 100 people per hectare (1 hectare is 0.0038 square miles) in 1985, according to the Atlas of Metropolitan Expansion. It dropped to 55 people per hectare in 2010, although it has rebounded a bit to 61 in 2018. This decrease in density concerns Quiteño urbanists who believe having a denser urban environment could help alleviate the city’s growing traffic issues, particularly in and around the job centers in the north where some workers face hours-long commutes.

The historic Old Town in the center of the urban center is virtually empty of residents and can’t be redeveloped because of its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The southern part of the city, where most of the working class of Quito resides, is the densest part of the city, with many current and former housing projects. The northern part of the city only has a few dense pockets.

That’s partly because much of the affluent population that once lived in the north has relocated to the valley districts in the east, such as Cumbayá and Tumbaco. These valley areas, which have expanded dramatically over the last 25 years, are more akin to American suburbs with gated communities and low density.

“The question is do you really want to replicate a lower density version of [Quito in the valley districts]?” Correa asks. “I think the answer is no. It’s very problematic to do that because the cost of services, the cost of infrastructure but also the fact that it is based on a model primarily of gated communities, where all forms of publicness—which is what defines a city—are lost.”

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How Quito’s new metro line could transform the city—again

Quito’s topography, shaped by the city’s position in a valley of the Andes, provides residents with breathtaking views of the two mountain peaks on either side of the city. But as the city’s population has ballooned, Quito’s topography also contributes to traffic problems weighing on the city.

Take El Panecillo, a hill in the center of Quito, just south of the city’s historic Old Town. On top of it lay a 135-foot-tall aluminum statue of a winged version of the virgin Mary, known locally as the Virgin of Quito. The statue is visible throughout Quito and is a source of local pride.

The hill is also an impediment at the center of traffic flow between the north and the south, as is the Old City itself, which has narrow roads originally built in the 16th century. Numerous ravines snake down the mountains in the east and cut through Quito’s center before flowing down to the valleys in the west. The bridges and infrastructure over these ravines weren’t built for the number of cars that now use them, and the available public land for new roads is limited, narrow, and expensive.

The result is, for some commuting Quiteños, a traffic nightmare.

“The economic booms and the consumer patterns in Quito are very car-oriented,” Herdoiza said. “One of the first priorities for a new labor force is to have their own car. So you have an increase in the number of vehicles that doesn’t match with improvements in road networks or in public transportation.”

In response, the city is nearing completion on one of the most ambitious public works projects of the 21st century: Quito’s first metro line, scheduled to begin operation in 2020. Running north-south in Quito’s city center, the metro will run 23 kilometers along 15 stops—including one in the Old Town—from 5:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., with the potential to run for 24 hours.

A map showing the metro line running north-south through Quito’s city center and location of Quito’s new airport to the east.
This map shows the metro line running north-south through the city center of Quito. The spot marked to the east of the city center is the location of the new airport.
Felipe Correa / Somatic Collaborative

The project began construction in 2013, just as another bold transportation initiative was completed: moving the city’s airport from the northern part of the city center, where residents were regularly frightened by the sights and sounds of low-flying planes, to the northeastern outskirts of the city.

These two projects will dramatically alter transportation in Quito. Relocating the airport out of the city removes a high-frequency destination that was clogging the area’s streets; that traffic will now flow out of the city. The old airport is currently being redeveloped into a public park, with a newly constructed convention center nearby. And one primary goal of the metro is to drastically cut travel time on Quito’s busiest commute—low-income laborers from the south heading to and from work in the industrial parts of the north.

These commuters have to deal with every topographical impediment the city center has. Only about a third of Quiteños own a car. The rest rely on existing public transportation—the bus system and the bus rapid transit (BRT) system, or trolley buses that run north-south along major avenues. Low-income people in the south who work in the north often have to take multiple modes of transportation, spending as much as 20 percent of their income on that transportation. The commute can be as long as two hours each way, with delays caused by bus drivers who, Correa says, often bypass stops with fewer passengers in favor of more crowded stops that bring in more fares. Laborers who spend four hours on a bus every day not only waste time they could be working or being with their families, but they’re also exhausted during work hours from the long commute.

“[The BRT] was also conceived as a transportation engineering project, not as a landscape project,” Correa said of the BRT, which was implemented in the 1980s. “And that’s one of the biggest mistakes, that at the end of the day it was just put in place with no logic to how it connects to the street, how it creates a street front.”

Laborers work to build one of the stops on Quito’s new metro, with a mural of the city at night hangs above.
Jeff Andrews

The metro alone will not solve these problems, of course. Because it only runs north-south through the city center, it won’t do much to alleviate congestion along Quito’s second busiest commuting route—people in the valleys who drive to Quito’s business district in the middle of the city center.

And the metro stops also are not close to each other—1.5 kilometers apart, on average—so the metro will need to integrate into the existing system to truly meet commuters’ needs. At worst, the bus system and BRT could end up competing with the metro instead of working in concert with it, jeopardizing the financial sustainability of the subway.

But if it works, the metro could unlock Quito’s potential to be a regional economic power. New developments around the metro stops are already well underway, which could create pockets of urban density that allow for more walkability and less reliance on cars and buses, something that younger Quiteños desire.

Quito already sees itself as something of a hidden treasure in Latin America, with a budding nightlife and restaurant scenes, and tourist attractions to rival any city on the continent. With two new ways of getting around the city, and phase one of an ambitious new metro system that took only seven years to complete, Quito may not be “hidden” for much longer.

“There is an opportunity to create a new skyline for the city,” Schwarzkopf said. “There’s an opportunity to encourage changing habits in the metropolitan area as a new kind of citizen emerges that embraces the density and resulting community that is now possible in the heart of Quito.”

Disclosure: Curbed participated in a weeklong press trip provided by Uribe & Schwarzkopf. As per our ethics guidelines, coverage was not guaranteed, and all reporting was done without input or undue influence from the firm.