A rendering of Lisbon's newest public transportation project. Atelier Bugio/João Favila Menezes

It will be run by the hilly city’s transit authority.

In 2017, the Portuguese capital is set to gain an unusual new piece of public transit infrastructure. It’s not a metro or streetcar line or even a bike-share scheme, but an elevator burrowed into one of its hillsides.

The elevator, to be run by the city’s transit authority, will run from the quayside of the River Tagus up the steep slope to the city’s cathedral, located on a hillside overlooking the bay. The concept is that it will help people navigate the topographical rigors of central Lisbon, which is shaped like a very steep-sided bowl, with sides scaled by staircases and switchback streets. This terrain greatly enhances the city’s beauty, but it also strains the calves, slows people down and can even have the effect of encouraging locals to avoid certain areas because they can’t be bothered with the climb. A new cruise ship terminal is due to be opened in the next few years along the quayside, and given that many cruise ship passengers are older, the elevator could also motivate them to go deeper into the city to sightsee and shop.

This won’t be the first time Lisbon has tried out solutions for scaling the city’s hills. The city already has three funicular railways. It also has an ornate, beautiful 19th century elevator tower squeezed improbably into a tight little backstreet. The planned new elevator nonetheless differs from its predecessors in that it will be subterranean, operating inside what amounts to a well that will be carved out of the earth.

Lisbon's Elevador de Santa Justa, an earlier response to the need to scale the city's hills. (Sina Hiram/Flickr)

Of course, improving access to a historic part of town brings its own problems. Lisbon’s cathedral is in the Alfama neighborhood, the only part of town to survive the city’s catastrophic earthquake of 1755. Inserting some eye-catching new structure into this kind of setting could prove intrusive and deeply unpopular. For that reason, the elevator will be small and unobtrusive, capable of transporting just 13 people at a time. As the rendering circulating in Portuguese media shows, it will terminate in a modest-looking columnar plinth, which makes it look like an unobjectionable if slightly pretentious public bathroom.

The new elevator may end up forming just one part of a broader new system of slope-climbing transit options in Lisbon. Already last year, a far shorter elevator (rising the equivalent of two floors) was installed nearby to transport people to this public garden. Also potentially in the pipeline for the inland side of the city’s central slopes are another new funicular and a suite of three moving stairways leading up to the city’s castle. Inner Lisbon may have its steep sections, but in the next decade these should become increasingly accessible.

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