Columnist Neal Peirce has been a consistently strong and persuasive voice for the benefits of public transportation. However, his encomium (below) on behalf of the celebrated-showcase "Bus Rapid Transit" (BRT) system in Curitiba, Brazil has left factuality, reality, and common sense by the side of the road.
Curitiba's BRT/busway is enthusiastically hailed by anti-rail transit opponents and is currently being touted as the premier mass transit "role model" by the Federal Transit Administration. From city leaders to journalists, a cavalcade of gullible onlookers have been conveyed down to Curitiba and given the official promotional tour – raising suspicions as to whether Curitiba has been deliberately fashioned as a market showcase for Brazilian buses and other transportation products.
However, it has become increasingly obvious that, upon close examination, the factors leading to the success of Curitiba's busways have been highly contrived, and are applicable strictly to relatively low-wage economies overseen by fairly authoritarian government regimes – in other words, an environment typical for the Third World (Brazil's average annual income is about one-tenth that in the US). Government policies in Curitiba have made central-city travel by public transport all but mandatory – freeways, for example, route traffic away from the central city, and public parking is nearly nonexistent. On top of this are operational idiosyncracies – such as entire central-city streets and boulevards dedicated solely to mass transit, and double-articulated buses packed to ultra-crush capacities conditions which would never be tolerated in America's automobile-pampering environment and framework of much tighter transit vehicle requirements for the health and safety of passengers (and ADA compliance).
Furthermore, it's also obvious that the spectacularly low costs being claimed for installation of the busway system about $325,000/mile – challenge plausibility, invite substantial skepticism, and are simply not reliable, certainly not for US conditions. Curiously, operational costs are never disclosed, either in full or in part.
The bottom line: Curitiba, to some extent, is serving as a fantasy-world decoy to divert some planners and decisionmakers from more implementable, workable, and effective transit solutions particularly light rail. For more sober assessments of the Curitiba BRT experience, be sure to examine the analyses by Dave Dobbs and Darrell Clarke on other pages of the Light Rail Progress website.
NEAL PEIRCE COLUMN
Sunday, March 19, 2000
Copyright 2000 Washington Post Writers Group
By Neal R. Peirce
CURITIBA, Brazil – Search as they may across the globe, U.S. cities interested in breaking the yoke of traffic congestion won't find a better model than this progressive southern Brazil citistate of 2.4 million people.
Curitiba started 30 years ago to create a public transit system that's fast, efficient and affordable. And it's succeeded. Even though the population's almost tripled, and auto ownership per capita is close to Brazil's highest, traffic loads are less than they were in the early 70s. Air quality is far superior to other Brazilian cities.
Today's Curitiba has such a dense network of transit connections that anyone can get almost anywhere in fairly short order. For upper and middle classes, that's a big convenience. For poor people – and Curitiba has thousands of migrants from the impoverished countryside – that means access to jobs, and thus a livelihood.
Curitiba's had a string of remarkably enlightened leaders, many of them architects and planners by trade. Founder and most famed of the group is Jaime Lerner, a jovial intellectual who became mayor in 1971, at age 33, served three terms and now is governor of the surrounding state of Parana.
Today Lerner and his followers recall the almost desperate days of the early 70s, when population was ballooning, traffic engineers were proposing all sorts of new roadways, and Curitiba was in peril of becoming a jammed, unlivable metropolis.
Transportation was key to their solution. Subways were being proposed – but with pricetags of up to $90 million a kilometer. The substitute: a "surface subway" – buses on exclusive transitways, radiating out from center city, at dramatically less expensive $200,000 a kilometer.
Today that system's expanded to 56 kilometers of two-way lanes serviced by extra-long "articulated" buses – hinged in two spots to snake around corners. With 270-passenger capacity, they preempt traffic lights and run on two-minute headways.
But how to get passengers on and off expeditiously? Lerner sketched a solution: a glass "tube station" or shelter, raised several feet off the ground with an attendant to take fares. Today the weather-protected tubes are all along the lines. When a bus arrives, doors roll up and passengers embark/debark, treading across level metal plates, at an eighth the previous time – an elegant design and high-capacity solution all in one.
Five exclusive busways radiate from Curitiba's downtown. The system was designed to accommodate rather than tear up the existing urban form. Running on the roadway beside each busway are parallel slow conventional traffic lanes; a block away, in each direction, are one-way streets to accommodate faster auto traffic.
The transit ways and tubes are just part of Curitiba's genius, however.
Lerner and his associates rezoned the city to allow very high office and residential buildings on the blocks right beside the five primary bus-transit trunk lines. That move guaranteed patronage and focused growth on a radial pattern, rather than focusing too much in the downtown alone, or allowing U.S.-style haphazard development.
Medium density (four to six stories) is allowed three to four blocks out from Curitiba's spines. Beyond that, only low-rise residential and small business.
For the most part, the system works: transit and density coincide, concentrating and linking thousands of apartments and jobs, reinforcing each other very efficiently.
But what if you don't live close to a "spine"? Curitiba has a solution for that too: a complex network of green and yellow buses (linking neighborhoods to transitways). And it has silver "speedies" – buses that connect other high concentration areas. The speedies are fast, notes Kenneth Kruckemeyer, an Massachusetts institute of Technology transportation expert, because with three-quarters of commuters on buses, the streets themselves are relatively unclogged. Speedies also intersect many of the transit terminals spotted along the exclusive busways.
Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan would love Curitiba-style busways and tube stations for his city; indeed with architect Martha Welborne and L.A. Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, he flew to Curitiba last year to promote the idea. Welborne's now working on a computer simulation of a Curitiba-style system to run on Wilshire Boulevard.
"To get people out of their cars," says Yaroslavsky, "you have to give them something better. And what does that mean? Reliability, dependability, speed, comfort, and the knowledge that when you get on that bus every day, rain or shine, barring an act of God, it's going to take you the same amount of time every day to get to your destination."
That kind of assurance is what Curitiba is providing, at a fraction of costs of underground subways or even light rail.
Replicating Curitiba's inventive zoning is unlikely in fractious local U.S. politics. But couldn't we at least emulate Curitiba-style busways and tubes? A little political will is probably all that's needed.