The first thing a visitor to Curitiba, Brazil sees upon arriving at the city’s bus terminal is a line of aged boxcars just across the street. Left out in front of the old train depot, the broken down cars are spraypainted and empty, lost beneath overgrown vegetation. Railroad tracks come from nowhere, then suddenly stop, perhaps the remnants of the city’s trolley system, which was gutted and replaced in 1951. There is only one train line left now. It runs the scenic tourist route down the Atlantic coast. The bus station, bustling with passengers, is the central hub for anyone heading to or from the city, the capital of the southern state of Paraná.
At the far end of the train station stand a pair of futuristic tubes. They are bus stops, set up for the exclusive bus corridor down which triple-sized red buses come barreling every minute or so. The tubes are the signature element of Curitiba’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) – 72 kilometers of dedicated bus lanes that allow buses to travel as fast as any subway train. The BRT is the heart of Curitiba’s public transportation system, which has been heralded as one of the most innovative in the world.
“Many cities understand the message of Curitiba, which prioritizes public transportation,” says former Curitiba mayor and chief architect of the transportation system, Jaime Lerner. “But few cities have had the strategic vision to do it.”
The Master Plan
In 1964, Curitiba’s population was 400,000 and growing rapidly as residents from the surrounding countryside arrived in search of work. As a result, the city’s 20-year-old development plan was becoming obsolete. To help envision the Curitiba of the future, the city government asked for public input to craft a new development plan, and soon was working with the young Jaime Lerner and his team of architects. The new plan, approved in 1966, has been the road map for Curitiba ever since.
Under the Master Plan, the city’s development would be carried out integrating three main themes: land zoning, roads systems, and mass transportation.
“Each of these points of the triangle is integrated and can’t be taken out, and that’s how we’ve been working with this Master Plan since it was approved,” says Liana Vallicelli of the Curitiba Institute for Research and Urban Planning, which was founded by Lerner’s team in December of 1965 to ensure continuity in the implementation of Curitiba’s Master Plan.
The 1966 plan incorporated the existing layout of the city and was based around two major corridors: north and south, east and west. Mass transit would be prioritized over individual transit. Buses would dominate the public transportation system and would concentrate on serving the high-density corridors along the X-shaped layout. The city would encourage further development in those areas by zoning the land along the bus routes for taller buildings, a way of ensuring that residents wouldn’t have to travel far to get to public transportation.
The design worked. Today, looking out over the Curitiba skyline, one can see how the tallest apartment buildings follow the transit routes. Between the rows of high-rise buildings lies the BRT. Specially designed triple-length buses called biarticulados run on the exclusive right-of-ways every minute or so. Since the first transit lines were inaugurated in 1974, the system has grown as the city’s population has expanded to 1.8 million people.
In order to reduce transit times, tube-shaped enclosures were built at the BRT bus stops to allow passengers to pay before boarding and make unlimited transfers within the system without paying another fare. Curitiba specifically designed its biarticulados to fit the unique system, with doors opening directly onto the raised platforms. Passengers can walk right on or off the bus without going up and down stairs.
In 1980, because of the region’s high density, a new southeastern corridor was added. Faster but smaller express buses (ligeirinhos) were launched to run with automobile traffic in the streets parallel to the main corridors. New routes were opened, such as the Interbairro, which began to run a circular path around Curitiba’s periphery. The alimentadores (feeder buses) connected residents in their communities to the closest terminals, from which they could access the rest of the system. Over the last decade, bus service was extended to surrounding municipalities, linking an additional 1.2 million people to Curitiba’s transportation system.
Curitiba is more than four times larger than when the Master Plan was laid out. Daily ridership has gone from 25,000 in 1974 to 2.4 million people today. Forty-five percent of trips in the city are by bus, nearly double those made by cars. The number of riders is growing at 3.5 percent per year.
“Have you seen the flux of passengers? It’s crazy!” says Jair Luca with a huge laugh. Luca is a longtime employee of URBS (Curitiba Urbanization), the company charged with overseeing operations of the transportation system since it was installed in 1974. Luca is now manager of the Pinheirinho Terminal. The hub, named after the native pine forests that grew here when the city was founded more than 300 years ago, is the largest bus terminal in the Curitiba transportation system and serves 100,000 passengers a day.
Like waves crashing on the nearby coast, at peak hours a mass of commuters quickly enters, filling the corridors and platforms. Moments later, they’ve made their transfer and are gone.
Just outside the terminal, past the bike racks but before the hospital and soccer court, is a long yellow building. We step inside what looks like an enclosed city block.
“You can come here to pay your water bill, renew your ID, without having to go [downtown],” explains Fabio Gustavo, who works under Luca at Pinheirinho.
This is one of nine citizen roads (ruas da cidadania) built across the city as part of the decentralization push in the 1990s. It wouldn’t seem like decentralization is a transportation issue, but in Curitiba, which closely links land zoning to public transportation, it’s a no-brainer. In the 1990s, city officials decided to bring public services to the city’s furthest regions. Now, in order to visit public offices, residents only have to go as far as the closest terminal.
On the other side of Pinheirinho, they’re clearing land to connect the terminal to the Green Line, Curitiba’s first new axis since 1980. It’s being built on top of the former interstate BR116, which was recently rerouted around the city. The bus line will run parallel to the existing north-south corridor, cutting travel times for passengers by half.
The move exemplifies Curitiba’s philosophy of what Lerner calls “transforming problems into solutions.”
“Five to ten years ago, we never would have thought to use a highway as a new transportation corridor,” says URBS Director of Transportation Operations Luiz Filla.
By transforming the highway into a bus route, city planners hope to spur high-density housing in the area. As they say in Curitiba, where transportation goes, development follows. New apartment buildings are planned along the entire stretch, as zoning is shifted from service-oriented to high-density residential and commercial.
The Green Line expansion is a necessity. With more than a million cars on the road, Curitiba’s streets are filling up and slowing down commutes. Filla admits that the express ligeirinhos used to cut travel times in half. But with more congested streets, they are now averaging the same times as the biarticulados, which stop every third of a mile to pick up passengers.
In response, Curitiba is going to inaugurate a passing lane on the southeastern bus-only corridor, and a new bus service called the Ligeirão, which will run on the bus-only lanes and carry passengers directly from one terminal to the next, bypassing the interim stops.
Nevertheless, Filla admits that with the exorbitant growth in cars, these are just measures that “add extra life to the system until the day that you need the Metro.”
Rubber Tires or Steel Wheels?
“I’m going to show you some numbers,” says Lerner. He reaches for a pen and quickly scratches out some figures, mapping the standard cost differential between the three major modes of public transportation. “Let’s say the cost of a metro is $100 million per kilometer, light-rail tends to be $20 million per kilometer, and BRT is $1 to 2 million.”
He pauses briefly. “Time… You can do BRT in two or three years. Light-rail, 10 years and Metro, 30 years.”
Actual costs and times vary from place to place, but the point is well made. The main driver behind Curitiba’s innovative bus system has always been, and continues to be, the prohibitively high cost of constructing rail lines.
If building subways and light rail systems is so expensive, then why haven’t more congested cities in the US not followed Curitiba’s model? Could BRT be the saving grace for US cities that are short on mass transit funds but are looking to increase public transportation?
These questions tend to send both bus backers and rail proponents running for cover.
With the Federal Transit Agency’s “Think rail, use bus” campaign, many local transit agencies in the US are beginning to believe that BRT is a viable option. As does the federal government, which began prioritizing funding for BRT projects in the 1990s.
“BRT is certainly the fashion,” says Tom Radulovich, executive director of the San Francisco-based Transportation for a Livable City.
But Austin-based Light Rail Now! Director David Dobbs says, “While buses should be embraced and continually improved, they are very often used as a wedge to destroy effective mass transit.”
Dobbs points to the investigative work of Bradford Snell, assistant counsel in 1974 to the US Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly, who wrote, “By 1949, General Motors had been involved in the replacement of more than 100 electric transit systems with GM buses in 45 cities.” Dobbs says the same interests that destroyed the American trolley are behind the current US bus lobby.
Even so, the lobby hasn’t killed rail prospects. In fact, rail appears to be growing in popularity. Fifteen new rail systems have come on-line in the US since 1981. Austin and Phoenix will inaugurate new light rail routes by the end of this year, and Seattle will open expanded service in 2009.
Recent studies show that people in the US prefer to travel by train. For transportation officials, that preference can present a problem, since catering to popular tastes means investing in more costly systems.
Even with federal funding assistance, rail infrastructure costs are exorbitant. According to the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union (BRU), L.A.’s 17.4-mile-long metro Red line cost $4.5 billion to build.
“In a city like L.A., where we absolutely have no rail infrastructure to begin with, to invest billions of dollars into several miles of rail system while taking out the current existing bus system that provides mobility for the half a million transit dependent in Los Angeles, we think is pretty ridiculous.” says BRU organizer Sunyoung Yang.
In order to pay for the investment on the Red Line and other current rail projects, L.A.’s Metropolitan Transit Authority cut bus services and raised bus fares by more than 10 percent. As a result, the Agency has seen a five percent drop in ridership.
That doesn’t mean that all rail projects should be scratched. Planners say it’s a matter of density and demand. New York’s Second Avenue subway line, for instance, is considered to be one of the best new rail projects in the country. But many suburban light-rail projects, located in areas with relatively low population density, “don’t justify spending all that money on that exclusive right-of-way,” says Brian Taylor, director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies.
Many planners and activists agree that the projects that tend to get the green light in the US are not necessarily the most efficient.
“We’ve tended to favor rail projects because they’ve been more popular politically,” says Taylor, whose research points out that despite what’s being funded, the best thing transit agencies can do to increase ridership is decrease their “headways” – the time between each vehicle.
“If you’re a public official and you say, we’ve spent millions and millions of dollars and now this average headway has been reduced by 44 percent … What do you do with that?” Taylor says. “If you can cut a ribbon in front of a new freeway or a new rail-line, any piece of concrete, then the voters know, ‘Okay, there it is, I see it, you’ve put something in there, great!’”
There are many reasons why rail projects often take priority in US cities – but few of them correspond with the innovative planning citizens would hope for from their elected representatives. According to Tom Radulovich, there are four major factors a city should consider when determining the best investment in a transportation corridor: initial capital costs, operating costs per rider, future capacity needs, and rider benefit.
“What I find really challenging in the transportation world is that public agencies, when they are making a decision, usually have one of the four in their sights, if that,” Radulovich says.
Professional urban planners may have great ideas, but with transit development often being decided by politicians hungry for a photo-op, it’s no wonder they rarely get implemented.
Facilitating People’s Lives
“The solution of the future is a combination of the surface with the subway,” Jaime Lerner says. “That’s why I say that every mode of transportation is great, just as long as you use it well.”
Curitiba may be the birthplace of the BRT, but city planners have had light-rail and metro systems in mind for more than 30 years. Those additions just haven’t been economically viable. In the meantime, the city has been constantly updating its systems with low-cost technology, prioritizing operations over infrastructure to ensure high-quality service. When the time comes, the city will put the new underground system beneath the exclusive lanes of the transportation corridors.
Perhaps that is the lesson to be learned from Curitiba – that creating an effective mass transit structure has less to do with the mechanics of the system than it does with the foresight of the planners. Curitiba’s huge growth has been sustainable because it has been guided by a master plan that ensured a continuity of objectives from one mayor to the next, regardless of politics.
“São Paulo’s tried to implement our bus system three times,” Lerner says. “They’ve gotten it wrong every time, because they think it’s just an exclusive right-of-way.”
Still, Curitiba’s bus system, however innovative, continues to face challenges when it comes to environmental sustainability. While buses emit far less pollutants per passenger than automobiles, they don’t come close to an electric-powered light-rail or metro – at least, as long as the electricity isn’t coming from a coal-fueled power plant.
So what do cities that are looking to provide the most sustainable mode of transportation do?
Lerner says it’s a two-part solution. “First, provide good public transportation, and then improve the motor. … If I already have a public transportation system, it’s easier to think about how to reduce my footprint.”
Curitiba is trying to do exactly that. While the city’s buses run on the standard European engine, which is already more fuel-efficient than most of their South American neighbors, URBS is planning to launch a fleet of 20 new buses that will run on a mixture of diesel and eight to 20 percent soy oil or ethanol. This could reduce the buses’ greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 25 percent.
In the US, many transit agencies are making similar moves, launching pilot projects to run their buses on alternative fuels. Unfortunately, such efforts are often drowned out by the roar of the ever-increasing automobile traffic one lane over.
UCLA’s Brian Taylor says transit planners need to get back to the core problem: “The first question we need to ask is how to get Americans out of their cars.”
The impending oil crisis may offer part of the solution. Drivers in the US have been hit hard by the skyrocketing price of our still highly subsidized gasoline. As a result, some car owners are jumping on the bus to save time and money in their daily commute. The statistics are encouraging. Public transportation ridership in the US has increased by more than 30 percent since 1995. At nearly 10 billion trips per year, these are numbers that haven’t been seen since the end of the trolley car era in the 1950s. There are, of course, more cars than ever, but Americans aren’t driving quite so much. In 2006, for the first time, vehicle miles traveled actually leveled off.
Perhaps by following the example of Curitiba, by adopting more long-term city planning and investing in accessible and affordable public transportation, US cities can lure more drivers out of their cars and onto the bus.
“It’s not the scale of the city or the lack of resources that should scare you,” Lerner says. “You can improve anywhere in the world, just as long as you don’t hide behind dogmas. You have to understand that our objective is to facilitate people’s lives and not sell systems.”
Michael Fox is a freelance journalist based in Brazil, and a correspondent for Free Speech Radio News (fsrn.org).