Metros of the World: From Dirty Deathtraps to Green Galleries

There are metro systems to suit all tastes. Dirty and uninviting ones like those in Rome and Atlanta, or clean and tidy like those in Singapore and Medellín. From the ubiquitous ones – take the Paris metro or the London tube – to the crowded systems of Buenos Aires and Tokyo (where helpers are famous for ‘gently’ pushing commuters with a cane to allow the doors to close).

Other students of sustainable mobility London tuberemind me that New York and Copenhagen serve as two of the most innovative systems. I couldn’t agree more: the former is the fundamental reason why Manhattan never became addicted to the car, the latter seems to have been specially designed to help cyclists move around both above and below ground.

Besides trains, stations are the other side of these systems; the places where users start and end their trips. Some stations resemble grand ballrooms transplanted from 18th century palaces. For example, the Rococo-style of the subway stations in St. Petersburg are, to my eyes, both grotesque and unnecessary. On the other hand, one can also find stations that are basically art galleries. My favourite ones are those of the Stockholm Metro, with its exposed original rock walls, on which local artists have allowed their creative juices to flow.

Apart from contributing to urban St Petersburgsettings via reductions in emissions and traffic accidents, some metros manage to improve quality of life within their stations via complementary strategies. These spaces, usually large and bustling, can be designed with a view to cutting energy consumption and the use of unnecessary building materials. While in Toronto and Lausanne they have started to cover stations with green roofs, in Dubai they continue to sell the idea of having ultra-sustainable stations. To my eyes, the latter’s gold and silver stations, full of blasting currents of aircon, reflect nothing but the synthetic oil wealth of the emirate.

We have been recently observing sustainable architecture practices in the new Medellín metro stations. The newly opened Sabaneta station, for example, exhibits a minimalist design with high-impact architectural elements. The installation of a massive green wall – in effect a garden – cuts visual pollution, purifies air and improves temperature control. The garden has its own system of drip irrigation (taking advantage of both rain and gravity); and as we don’t suffer climate extremes like those of the Northern Hemisphere, our light and spacious platforms can be naturally ventilated. These expansions have been paid out of our own resources, making them all the more valuable – remember we don’t have the colossal budgets of either Dubai or Singapore.

Furthermore, art continues to be Sabaneta station, Medellinactively promoted in this system. Complementing the recent graffiti intervention at Universidad station, and the two new Rodrigo Arenas Betancur sculptures added to the San Javier station, the new Sabaneta station boasts a valuable Carrara marble sculpture carved by the young and promising artist Gustavo Velez. Clearly, all this eco-station needs to become the most sustainable one in South America is to fully integrate the use of bicycles.

No wonder then that in ‘Cómo Vamos’ – the latest public perceptions survey in Medellín – the Metro was again voted for the seventh year running as the most admired company in the city.

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 8 October 2012. Images: Flickr / Jim Kelly, Chris Sampson, Cielo A. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.