March 16, 2023

How the Historic City of Cuenca, Ecuador is Modernizing Its Transport Systems

Situated at the intersection of four rivers, the city of Cuenca — the third largest in Ecuador — is an internationally recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site that is making strides to modernize its transport infrastructure and highlight low-carbon mobility.

Since 2005, the Sustainable Transport Award program has been recognizing cities for their efforts to reduce transport emissions and promote inclusive mobility.

Located in the complex geography of the Andes highlands, Cuenca’s metropolitan population of over 600,000 has long faced challenges when it comes to accessible transport. As with many large urban areas, Cuenca deals with significant traffic congestion, an over-dependence on private vehicles, and rising air and noise pollution. In addition, the city’s public transport systems necessitate major improvements to better integrate with one another, improve accessibility, and allow for more multimodal commutes that discourage car trips.

A top finalist for the 2023 Sustainable Transport Award program, the City of Cuenca has demonstrated a commitment to addressing these persistent mobility challenges by developing strategies that aim to put sustainability and inclusion at the forefront.

As of 2022, an estimated 145,000 vehicles travel the streets of Cuenca. According to the City this makes up 63% of daily trips, and in recent years, the vehicle fleet has continued to grow between 4-5%, more than the population growth rate itself. Recognizing the need to address these issues in its infrastructure and improve quality-of-life for residents, the Cuenca began developing a sustainable mobility plan over the past few years that aims to promote more active mobility, enhance public streets and spaces, create multimodal transport networks, and strengthen community engagement. 

While many challenges still persist in minimizing private car use — especially for those living in the city’s periphery — city officials are looking towards expanding public transport systems that will eventually allow residents to take more efficient and multimodal trips. In particular, in recent years, Cuenca debuted a completely electric tram rail system, expanded its citywide cycling network, and began exploring traffic and emissions reduction strategies.

A view from the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción in Cuenca's historic city center.

A New Tram System

Tranvía, the Cuenca Tramway, is the first electric tram system in the country. As part of a network that began commercial operation in September 2021, it offers 22 kilometers of rails with 27 stations. The tram provides important connections to the city’s center and Historic District, while reducing commute times for riders — according to the City, it takes 32 minutes to travel 22 kilometers on the tram, compared to 45 minutes on other systems. Accessibility and security is also a focus of the system. The elderly, people with disabilities, and students ride with a 50% fare discount.

The trams also have level-boarding platforms, hearing devices, dedicated spaces for accessible transfers, video surveillance, and guides on reporting and eradicating gender violence that can be accessed on all units through a QR code. The Tramway reported 19,000 daily passengers as of 2022, and will be key to reducing congestion in the city’s central areas once fully integrated with other transport networks. Part of the city’s next steps include creating an integrated fare use with the bus and cycling system. 

Cuenca's Tramway offers a modern, low-carbon transit option for moving around central areas of the city. Photo: City of Cuenca
With the tram's integration with cycling and bus routes, commuters with have more multimodal options for their trips. Photo: City of Cuenca

Growing Cycling 

Cuenca has also focused on expanding its United Cycleway network to ensure that more communities have access to cycling across the city, while continuing to establish it as an essential daily transport mode. In addition to the bikeshare program BiciCuenca, the city has focused on building more protected lanes alongside re-designed pedestrian crossings and complete streets. In particular, Cuenca has taken measures to re-envision street intersections to make cycling safer and more intuitive through accessible design.

The city has implemented 13.5 kilometers of lanes as part of its plans for a citywide 125 kilometer network. According to the city, since the implementation of new cycling infrastructure in some areas, the usage of bike lanes has increased by up to 8 percent. The network also includes more than 20 bike storage and parking stations, supporting a reported 5,500 bike trips per month. For the network to effectively serve residents, it will be critical to ensure that cycling facilities integrate well with transit lines like the Tramway in order to allow for more efficient commutes.

BiciCuenca has allowed Cuenca residents and visitors more efficient, affordable access to cycling. Photo: City of Cuenca
Re-designed and updated lanes and infrastructure makes streets more appealing for cyclists and pedestrians alike. Photo: City of Cuenca

Limiting Emissions and Vehicles

The City of Cuenca has also sought to employ strategies to reduce traffic and transport emissions in high-traffic neighborhoods, particularly in the city center. Proposals for a Low Emission Zone (LEZ) in the city’s Historic District incorporates plans for super blocks that would de-incentivize and restrict vehicles while creating more complete streets that prioritize public communal spaces.

This proposed LEZ would limit driving speeds to 10 kilometers/hour to discourage unnecessary driving in the area and promote more road-sharing with pedestrians, bicycles, and electric two-wheelers. A broader Electromobility Plan, E-Cuenca, for the city is also in the works and is expected to be finalized in the first quarter of 2023. The plan aims to cover all sectors, touching upon private vehicles, public transport, micro mobility, last-mile logistics, taxis and cargo. The plan has received support from TUMI initiative (Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative), GIZ (the German Cooperation for Sustainable Development) and Cities Forum.   

An LEZ would decrease the amount of driving in central areas of the city and allow more room for sustainable modes of transport. Photo: City of Cuenca
Protected and dedicated cycle lanes help make streets safer and more accessible to for everyone. Photo: City of Cuenca

Tying together these efforts, Cuenca has been emphasizing inclusive design in its mobility planning, bringing in residents at various stages of projects to foster more civic engagement. This includes pilots like ‘Safe Routes to School’ that prioritizes students and youth on city streets, as well as more pedestrian-focused tactical urbanism projects. While many of Cuenca’s interventions are still site-specific and early-stage, it is building an important foundation for transport systems and public spaces that can be scaled to meet the needs of all communities.

For this historic city, there is great potential to address congestion and mobility issues by taking a systems-level approach to transformation with the help of both public- and private-sector stakeholders. Through continued political will, resource investments, and community engagement, Cuenca can be well on its way towards becoming a model for sustainable transport across the region. 

Nominate a city like Cuenca for the 2024 Sustainable Transport Award >>

Watch the 2023 Sustainable Transport Award Ceremony >>

View past honorees of the Sustainable Transport Award program >>


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