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Opinion: Learning from developing countries

After I wrote last week’s column about favoring the hyperloop over California’s 2008 plan for high-speed rail, it occurred to me that many of the countries that are moving forward with feasibility studies for innovative transportation systems are “developing countries.” These include places like India, China, the Middle East, and some South American countries. It seems to me that it is only logical that nations that were once referred to as “Third World Countries” should lead the way.

These are the countries that were not affected by the two great historical transformations that affected Western democracies and the East European Communist Bloc. The former, that is the First World, benefited from the Industrial Revolution which started around the middle of the eighteenth century and made its great gains in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries; the latter, the Second World, began with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the formation of the Soviet Union.

Having been left behind for many of the innovations of the past two hundred years, Third World countries were not heavily influenced by industrialization in fields like transportation and urban planning, although their current economic development is still reliant on manufacturing methods that are being abandoned by the now-rich countries that are moving into a post-industrial epoch.

The Discoverer, a blog that covers a variety of interests, highlights several forms of public transportation that do not actually embrace anything as inventive as magnetic levitation (like the hyperloop) but are simply different from anything that we’d likely see in the U.S. or E.U.


Peru’s capital, La Paz, is mountainous and located at 11,500 feet above sea level. Its streets, even major “highways,” are narrow and terribly crowded. According to The Discoverer, transportation through the urban area “used to require lengthy walks or traffic-filled drives through winding roads and sharp inclines.”

Today, Peruvians are served by Mi Telefrico, a unique cable car system, that stops at 26 stations along a 6-mile line. However, the cable cars are unlike anything that you’d see in San Francisco. These cable cars, which run between La Paz and El Alto, are suspended from cables that are strung high above the city. Passengers are treated to “panoramic views of the snow-covered Andes,” including the 21,122-foot high Mount Illimani. The government is planning to expand the popular mode of transportation, which is the backbone of its urban system, to 21 miles. A gondola arrives at each station every 12 seconds, and a cable pass starts at just 43 cents (USD).


Some of Cuba’s major cities, like Havana, Varadero, and Trinidad, feature Cocotaxis. These partially-enclosed round vehicles are intended to remind one of coconuts. They’re yellow in color and can be pedaled, like tricycles, by the taxi driver. However, they also have small motors that can be used when speed is required. They offer an open-air ride like the horse-drawn hansom cabs found in places like Philadelphia, New York, or Montreal that take tourists through the historic parts of cities. Prices start at one CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) or $1 USD.


This small, subtropical Portuguese island off the northwestern coast of Africa has adapted a form of transportation that was used in the mid-nineteenth century to traverse its “rugged volcanic terrain with high cliffs and steep hills.” Namely, the toboggan.

The modern toboggan looks like a love seat, made of rattan or other local plant product, that seats two. The wicker chair is situated atop a set of wooden runners. They glide downhill along smooth paths from Monte to Funchal. They can reach a speed of about 30 mph and are steered by two attendants who stand on the back of the fun sled. The drawback to the exotic and exciting ride is the danger that the sled pose to people crossing their paths or who happen to be on the path in one of the tight turns.

A toboggan ride is expensive: 25 Euros ($29.50 USD) for one person, 30 Euros for two. Of course, they don’t go uphill. So, a modern cable car (similar to the kind that you would find in San Francisco) is available for the return trip.


The heavily commercialized cities of Vietnam still depend upon the cyclo, a tricycle-like taxi that is pedaled by a driver who sits in back while one or two passengers occupy the open-air bench in front. Riders pay 100,000 VND ($4.32 USD) per hour.

Although this mode of transportation has a history that goes back to the French colonial period, it is being phased out in favor of small taxis and personal cars, especially as a new “middle class” continues to grow.

Vietnam has not gained significant wealth as has China, and initial attempts at other modes of transportation, like the older rickshaw, failed. But, as the economy grows, places like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are examining more modern means of moving people through their busy streets.

The future

Naturally, none of the above represents what transportation of the future will look like. They simply exemplify alternative means of moving people through urban areas.

Within the highly developed economies of North America, Europe, Japan, and — increasingly China — the near future will likely involve magnetic levitation and autonomous electric cars, as well as high-speed rail fashioned on the systems of China, Japan, and a few European countries.

California has the talent to lead the way. What we need is a legislature with vision. That would require a major shake-up of the status quo.

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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. His publications include “California’s Social Problems” and “Global Social Problems.” He may be contacted at


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