City on the move

They are about to change our perception of moving around the city, cancel arduous uphill climbs, free us from dependence on private and public transportation, and reduce the distances between landmarks and activities

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City on the move

They have improved the quality of life of thousands of urban residents around the world, brought remote neighborhoods closer to city centers, scrapped the need for grueling climbs up hundreds of steps, revived dark corners of cities and become tourist attractions. Public escalators and walkways will also enhance Haifa’s public transportation network, encourage walking and make central urban hubs accessible to neighborhoods on the city’s slopes.

It’s been a long time since cities around the world built on slopes first adopted escalators as a central means of transportation for both residents and tourists. Millions of people use them from Hong Kong in East Asia, through Europe to Colombia in South America.

In Europe, Spain has become an escalator ‘superpower.’ Over the past decade about a dozen Spanish cities including Santander, Bilbao and Victoria have installed escalator systems, but the pioneer cities were Barcelona, which hosted the 1992 Olympic Games, and Seville, host of the Expo ’92 world fair.

In hilly cities, escalators encourage residents to walk instead of going by car, safe in the knowledge that they won’t have to pant up the hill on their way home from work or school. Residents of these cities use them regardless of their age or social status – but it’s not just the townspeople they serve, rather also its coffers, with all the fabric developing around them becoming a tourist attraction. Often they allow access to gems that previously only particularly sporty tourists would have reached.

Photo by: Boaz Barshay

Do not zigzag

One of the wonders of Hong Kong is the escalator system inaugurated there in 1993, the Central–Mid-Levels Escalator and Walkway System. The longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world covering over 800 meters and a vertical climb of 135 meters, it consists of 20 separate escalators and three flat moving walkways. Every day some 45,000 people pass through the system, whose end-to-end travel time is 20 minutes (although most users walk while the escalator moves to shorten their trip).

Due to the steep incline on which the escalators were built, they save zigzagging between buildings or driving for miles on gridlocked roads. And thanks to the connection they have created between major locations in the city – the Central Area (Hong Kong’s main business district) and Conduit Road in the Mid-Levels neighborhood on a ridge – they have become an essential means of transportation in Hong Kong. And beyond their contributions to the city’s residents, the escalators have become a tourist attraction with many restaurants and lively entertainment venues springing up along the route in recent years.

The plane in Spain

In Spain, as mentioned, you can find escalators in many cities. In Toledo, for example, two public escalators have instilled new life in the city’s historic center. Here’s a quick tour. It starts like a scene from a suspense movie watched with bated breath, then continues…

Ride along up the public escalators of historic Toledo Spain

The city of Vigo, built on three mountain slopes, rises about 250 meters above its bustling port, home to Europe’s largest commercial fishing fleet. Although most of the city was built on a lower hill a mere 120 meters high, people leaving home in the morning still usually prefer to reach their destination as quickly as possible. If you look at a map of Vigo, it’s a bit reminiscent of the board game Snakes and Ladders: a few kilometers by bus or car along narrow winding roads can take half an hour. And pedestrians would zigzag through hundreds of staircases sandwiched between buildings. The road home for residents living at the top of the city was like climbing the stairs of a 40-story building.

Then came the escalators. About 12 escalator routes were recently inaugurated, and another dozen are planned for 2021. The most impressive is a nearly 20%-inclined indoor electric track along the Gran Via, one of Vigo city center’s main thoroughfares, which operates 24/7. Walking along it feels like a tour of a botanical garden in the center of the city.

The escalator’s effect on pedestrian traffic has been immediate. In the weeks since it began operating, usage has increased severalfold as residents increasingly prefer the escalator to buses and private vehicles.

Opening day of Gran Via de Vigo, one of the 12 exterior escalators installed in 2020 (Photo courtesy of Mayor Cabalro's Office)

The technology that created flat traffic in Vigo has both vastly increased its residents’ quality of life and turned the city into a tourist attraction. Visitors simply go for a trip on the motorized walkways, and there are many of them all the time. Businesses in neighborhoods where pedestrian traffic was sparse are now seeing far more customers.

Over the next two years, even more impressive local networks are to be inaugurated by the renowned American architect Thom Mayne, notably the new Vigo-Urzaiz AVE Railway Station incorporating a series of rooftop urban parks. Escalators passing through the station will allow downtown pedestrians to easily reach a neighborhood about 30 meters above them. A journey that previously took 20-30 minutes will be shortened to less than five minutes.

Miracle of Medellin

One city that served as a case study in preparing the master plan for Haifa’s escalator system was Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city that used to be the center of Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel, a bloody and poverty-ridden crime scene. Even after the drug baron died in a shootout in 1993 following a manhunt by the Americans and Colombian police, gang warfare continued there until Alvaro Uribe was elected president in 2002.

“Uribe believed that the change in Medellín has to begin from within,” wrote Yoav Elad, architect and lecturer in architecture [‘Medellín: The city of Escobar shakes off its past and reveals a surprising architectural aspect,’ Haaretz newspaper, Sept 19, 2019], “that is, first and foremost to meet the residents’ needs and strengthen their identity. He enlisted the best city planners and traffic engineers in the country, with the aim of creating a new urban tapestry over the existing infrastructure. The move is based on planning a simultaneously revolutionary, sensitive and massive transportation system that connects and weaves together the various parts of the hardship-ridden city – the city center on the one hand and the detached favelas [slums] on the other.”

Medellin, Colombia. Photo by Yoav Elad

In the article, Elad quoted a sentence the journalist Jane Jacobs wrote in her book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

“Jacobs died in 2006,” he wrote, “and never got to see how Medellin transformed from a poor, crushed, identity-less city into one that looked to the future, dared to dream and became a magnet for thousands of travelers, artists and city planners willing to leave  cynicism behind in order to learn how to make the world a better place.”

It is difficult to describe the miraculous regeneration process that Medellin has undergone. Locals call it ‘The miracle of Medellin.’

“The secret of Medellin’s success lies in the understanding that all levels of the population are thirsty for change, and restoring the favelas will ultimately lead to a raised standard of living of the higher levels [of society]. The base of this change is derived from courageous urban planning, which reinforced the favela residents’ sense of belonging,” a local young man told Elad.

The base of this change was actually a transportation network connecting the favelas to the city center (an aboveground metro, cable cars and escalators), with the cable car stations housing library parks, community centers that became a magnet for favela residents and around them green parks that became intersections of the favela’s main arteries.

“The library is an excuse,” the young man told Elad. “People come here not just to meet friends, but also to feel part of an orderly community system that they were lacking for years.”

“The libraries in Medellín,” Elad wrote, “serve simultaneously as a community anchor that attracts local people of all ages and as a transit point, an entrance and exit gate to the city for neighborhood residents. Between the communal anchors and bustling plazas, covered escalators were built that allow residents to ‘climb’ the favelas effortlessly, to reach the farthest parts of the neighborhoods. The escalators’ high maintenance level is astonishing, and further evidence of the design’s success. Until they were installed, the city’s poorest inhabitants had to climb hundreds of steps on their way home.”

The last mile

Now Haifa is also becoming a city on the move. Recently, the municipality formulated an innovative master plan to establish an array of escalators that will complement its public transportation services (buses, the Metronit bus rapid transit system, the Carmelit underground funicular railway and cable cars), bicycle lanes (on which will be expanded in another article) and a soft traffic network for cyclists and pedestrians.

“This is a revolutionary and advanced transportation program,” says Mayor Dr. Einat Kalisch-Rotem, “not only for Haifa but for the whole country – the first step in formulating a new transportation vision for the city. Our message is clear – pedestrians are back in the center. This move presents a far-reaching change regarding different approaches to transportation in Israel.”

Travelling on Haifa’s public transport system today is quite cumbersome, and journeys sometimes take a long time. The bus stops and stations are also not sufficiently accessible, which is why residents with private vehicles prefer to use them.

Photo by: Boaz Barshay

The maps show an “average” effort to get to the IDF stations Green – comfortable, red – investing too much effort. Analysis was performed on the basis of dispersion of existing stations according to parameters of distance and slope

One factor in the problem is the last mile – or in Israel, the last kilometer – the first walk or drive from the starting point, and the last walk or drive to the destination. This is where the escalators come in – they will make major urban centers and routes (commercial areas, employment hubs, public institutions) accessible to remote uphill neighborhoods, complementing the public transport and soft traffic networks, and even increasing their usage.

The locations proposed in the master plan were examined, inter alia, according to their level of incline, distance from public transport stations and proximity to one of the main routes or neighborhood, commercial or occupational centers in the city.

In an examination conducted by the program’s planners, they found that the majority of Haifa’s population is concentrated in the Hadar and Neve Sha’anan neighborhoods, which are rich in diverse and mixed land use, but also in steep inclines. This clarified the importance of creating an appropriate mobility space for local pedestrians.

In all, locations for about 200 escalators have been identified around the city. They will be built in a gradual process alongside various urban regeneration areas, with the aim of changing the public space; strengthening the use of more advanced, mobile and accessible means of transportation; and connecting the city’s service, commercial and employment hubs whose physical connection today is roads or staircases.

Among others, the following connections are proposed: between the Carmel center and the Hadar neighborhood, between the municipal buildings and the government compound, between the Talpiot market complex and Hehalutz Street and Wadi Salib, between Shabtai Levy Street in Hadar and the Wadi Nisnas neighborhood, between Omar el-Khayam and Ma’ale HaShihrur streets (that will connect the municipal buildings to the government compound), and between HaGalil and Netiv Hen streets (in Neve Sha’anan).

In various countries around the world where escalator systems have been installed, they have added vitality to the surrounding streets and serve thousands of people daily. Simultaneously, the escalators have become an accelerator for urban renewal in every city they exist in, and their establishment has led to a steep increase in the number of local entrepreneurship projects in their vicinity. Soon we’ll have that here in Haifa.

Escalator Samuel 1
Escalator El-kayam 1

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