I have been sitting on an air conditioned bus over an hour, enjoying ocean vistas on my left and thickly forested mountain jungles on my right. Huge black rock cliffs soar out of thick green vegetation into low-roaming misty clouds. Bikini-clad, Brazilian-waxed Brazilians sun or jog along the beach. It’s the most beautiful traffic jam ever. I barely notice that I am going nowhere. I am also not getting any work done.
As I sit enjoying the view, occasionally clicking away at my laptop, thousands of frustrated Cariocas sit idling. Like many others, they also want to commute quickly and comfortably. But surprisingly these two features are often perceived here in a distorted way. People simply buy more cars, thinking it will make them more independent and make their day-to-day life more flexible. However, in big metropolitan areas, the opposite actually happens. Inhabitants waste hours every day sitting in traffic, as we did today traveling on the shuttle bus from Ipanema to the Rio+20 conference center. We have spent twice as much time as it would ordinarily take with moderate traffic. Why? Because of Rio’s strategy of turning multi-lane streets into one way streets to speed the flow of traffic downtown, during the morning rush hours.
In general, to relieve busy streets, local authorities usually build more and wider roads. As a result, people tend to drive more often, being somehow encouraged to do so. And that is how this vicious circle goes round. Is it possible to stop it somehow? Yes, but it takes time.
A laudable model of the road from gridlock to open highways comes from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. Local society realized there that they had to do something about the uncontrolled permanent increase of traffic. There was simply no more space for all the cars. Due to their lobbying, the government started to develop urban transport networks with loans from some Japanese development banks. New bus lines were created and a railway connection between city center and the airport built from scratch. The plan would not work, however, without subsidies that make public transport affordable for an average Jakartan. Tickets are now subsidized and widely available. This plan costs a lot, but it pays dividends. Economists estimate that inefficiencies in transportation shaved 4% annually from the city’s GDP. Some Brazilian cities (e.g. São Paulo) lose as much as 10% of their GDP while commuters sit in traffic.
Were subsidies indispensable? Yes. Private investors were skeptical of returns on public transportation. They preferred investing in public-private development of toll highways instead. And this is probably one of the biggest challenges for sustainable development supporters — the private sector is not interested in investing in infrastructure that will make cities more efficient.