Monday, June 25, 2007


Cuitiba. To people interested in transportation and planning this is one of the most famous cities in the world. Its busways that ferry passengers throughout the city at high capacity and low costs now serve as a model throughout the world. Above is one of those busways. Passengers arrive and wait in the tubes, where a bus picks them up on an elevated platform and take them to their destination free of any non-bus traffic. This achieves much of what a subway can but at a fraction of the cost.

I have always wanted to come here. When I was in Sao Paulo in 2005 for a week, I had one day for a side trip. I could go to either Rio or Curitiba. I went to Rio, but maybe I should have chosen Curitiba. It exceeded my expectations.

The story of Curitiba mostly revolves around a single man, Jaime Lerner. Appointed during the dictatorship to be mayor, he began a series of bold moves that turned Curitiba into the city that it is today. The dictatorship had given permission to the larges cities of Brazil to build a subway. This included the money to pay for it, but there would be only enough money for one subway line in Curitiba. Instead Lerner said they didn't want a subway. They wanted to build busways through the city instead, but they wanted the same amount of money. So instead of getting one subway line, they got 4 busways.

The busways were also complemented by zoning laws that would coordinate building with transportation. Here's an example. For the busway from the center to the south, the planners looked for 3 parallel streets. They made the center one a busway and the outer two one way streets in opposite directions. In the busway street, if you think of it as 8 lanes, the inner 2 are for buses, the two surrounding those two are for passengers getting on and off buses, and then there were 2 lanes on each side of those for local traffic.

To complement this busway, zoning laws would form a "wedding cake" coming off the busway. Immediately next to the busway builders could build as tall as they want. The the farther away from that zone, the shorter the buildings were allowed to be, all the way until only single family houses. The vision was for a city where passengers could get wherever they wanted on buses.

Lerner also used creativity in securing funding for the many large parks in the city. In one example (Parque Biringi, to the right), the federal government wouldn't pay for a park but they would pay for a sewage project. So Lerner created a lake from a river that would also function as water runoff in a flood. So he got it paid for. Now Curitiba has one of the more impressive public park networks for a city of its size (about 3 million for the metro area).

Lerner also used other innovate methods to make his projects succeed. After car drivers threatened to disobey his closing of certain roads for a pedestrian shopping area, he organized a gathering of schoolchildren to make paintings while in the street. Needless to say, the car protest never happened.

Also, because of the success of the busways, Lerner had to pioneer new construction methods for buses. He managed to get Volvo to build a factory there, but a factory for buses instead of cars. There Volvo made such innovations as the loading platforms, which come out of the side of the bus three feet in the air, to line up with the boarding tubes. When the system was so successful passengers kept filling the buses, they built articulated buses (meaning basically two buses joined together with the flexible part in the middle so it can turn). When those two were full, they built double-articulated buses. They also constructed the boarding tubes, where passengers paid before getting on the bus and waited, to speed boarding time.

One innovation I had never heard of existing in Curitiba before is express buses. These are buses that don't stop at all the stops. That concept isn't new, but the implementation was cool. The city wanted them to link up to existing tubes, but instead of the express buses traveling in the center of the busway, they would travel on the outer lane, with the car traffic. This was so they could cover parts of the city not covered by busways, and with express service. But to do this passengers would have to enter the left side of the bus (instead of the right, like most buses). So Volvo engineered buses that boarded from the left.

To be sure, there are negative sides of Curitiba. For one, despite all of the buses available, Curitiba has the highest car ownership rate in Brazil. This is largely due to the high income in the city (and the incomes grew even higher once Curitiba began attracting rich Brazilians for its quality of life), but is now crowding the transportation network. The busways aren't impacted because of the segregation of the road, but now capacity on the busways is so high that the city is running out of options. On the busiest line at peak times one bus arrives every 50 seconds, which is insane.

Also, the planning sometimes goes awry. One busway that went from an undeveloped area in the north to the biggest employment zone would have been perfect for high occupancy housing, but turned into million dollar condos using all the space instead. Busways all over the city have this problem to a lesser extent as well. The idea was to have lots of people live near the busways, but because the areas right next to them are so desirable the rich end up buying them and then still use their cars.

Still I loved Curitiba. It looks like a city that by and large had a lot of thought put into it. I wish more cities would learn from Curitiba, and I would definitely go again.


Blogger Brad said...

One bus every 50 seconds!!! Gotta love it.

4:50 AM  

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