Curitiba, Where the Rubber Hits the Road in Urban Transportation Planning

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Flashy ultra-modern generators of large-scale employment and big government contracts, urban rail projects have long been the darlings of ribbon-cutting, crony-friendly politicians.  However, as the Brazilian city of Curitiba and the visionary planning of architect-turned-politician Jamie Lerner demonstrate, sound planning combined with creative deployment of public transport’s humble workhorse—the bus—can have tremendous impact.

Leadership in a particular industry or sector does not depend on superior access to resources or greater depth of experience. “The two things you really need are a breakthrough idea and persistence”, says an emphatic Leny Toniolo, advisor at Curitiba’s Environmental Secretary, who met with me at Athletes’ Park during the Rio+20 summit in June.

Athlete’s Park Curitiba exhibition booth, Riocentro; Source: Student Reporter.

The populations of major urban centers in the developing world have been increasing at an accelerating rate.  Brazil is no exception.  As populations grow, so does the need to move people into and out of cities. It also becomes more complicated and costly to do so.

Local authorities usually do their best to keep pace with the ever increasing demand for transportation infrastructure.  They have employed a diverse set of solutions with varying degrees of success.

In the 1960s, the city of Curitiba in the South-Eastern state of Paraná, Brazil was green-lighted for federal funding to construct its first metro line.  The mayor of any other city would be jumping for joy. But Ivo Arzua, the sitting mayor of Curitiba at the time, inspired by noted local architect and urban planner, Jaime Lerner decided to spend the money on an integrated development project, called Curitiba Master Plan. Mr. Lerner, who designed the Master Plan, proposed to channel the city’s thus far chaotic development through buses instead of underground trains – at huge cost savings.  Ms. Toniolo asserts that costs of implementing the Master Plan were a hundred times lower compared to a subway project. The savings accrued by opting for wheels over rails were reinvested towards completing a more extensive and more comprehensive transport system.  The plan paid off.

Since 1974, when program implementation began, air pollution in Curitiba has been the lowest of Brazil’s big cities. Private car traffic has declined by 30% despite the city’s claim to highest car per capita ratio. These incongruous outcomes have an explanation. It seems that people in Curitiba found it much more comfortable to leave their cars at home and use public transport instead. Quite similar to Copenhagen’s “finger plan,” the Curitiba plan requires that the city’s spatial development follow transportation corridors with green areas between them. Such an approach enables rational growth of the metropolitan area and prevents urban sprawl. And, most importantly, “it integrates neighborhoods, making people feel like inhabitants of a single city, instead of segregated boroughsMs. Toniolo emphasizes.

The Curitiba transportation grid is a star-like network of express-bus lines, radiating from the city’s center.  These corridors handle the bulk of the city’s traffic. They link into other means of public transport, creating a complete network called Rede Integrada de Transporte. What is interesting, as Ms. Toniolo points out, is that the city’s authorities do not manage the bus services, rather they lease routes with predetermined timetables to private enterprises.

How does it work in practice? There are a few types of buses. The mentioned express lines make a kind of “above-ground subway” – much cheaper to build and to operate than an underground one, but thanks to high capacity bi-articulated vehicles  – just as effective. These buses provide passengers with frequent shuttles on the city’s thoroughfares in special lanes exclusively dedicated for public transit traffic. However, they would be much less accessible if not for the so-called “feeder lines.” These collect commuters from main stops and deliver them to the closest express station.

Other buses have quite different tasks. Inter-neighborhood lines link close districts without entering the busy city center.  Direct rapid lines are perfect for those who want to move from one point to another with as few stops as possible. These lines will also be responsible for connecting large housing estates to metro stations (projected as early as 2014). The downtown district has its own short buses driving circular routes, moving in the narrow historic alleys built early in the city’s development and in some pedestrian zones.

Rio+20's Pavillion Curitibas’ world famous bus system; Source: Student Reporter.

To facilitate boarding and disembarking and to tighten the fare system, futuristic tube-like terminals were introduced. Passengers can buy tickets there, which they must validate at special turnstiles before embarking. Once validated, passengers can travel and change routes as many times as they wish, provided that they do not leave their ticket zone.

Through nearly 40 years of continuous improvements, Curitiba has become a role-model for many cities in Brazil and other Latin American countries. In 1996 the UN Habitat II praised it as “the most innovative city in the world.”

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