Photos: Curitiba Brazil, LIGHT RAIL to the rescue
Photos: Curitiba Highly praised BRT
The Road to Curitiba
By ARTHUR LUBOW
Published: May 20, 2007
Published: May 20, 2007
Today, Curitiba remains a pilgrimage destination for urbanists fascinated by its bus system, garbage-recycling program and network of parks. It is the answer to what might otherwise be a hypothetical question: How would cities look if urban planners, not politicians, took control?
Although the children who paint on Saturday mornings are no longer needed to protect the downtown shopping street from cars, the battle to keep Curitiba green is never-ending. Indeed, some say it is going badly these days. The rivers, once crystalline, reek of untreated sewage. The bus system that has won admirers throughout the world appears to be nearing capacity; what’s more, Curitiba, by some measures, has a higher per capita ownership of private cars than any city in Brazil — even exceeding BrasÃlia, a city that was designed for cars. Curitiba’s garbage-recycling rate has been declining over the last six or seven years, and the only landfill in the municipal region will be full by the end of 2008. Jorge Wilheim, the São Paulo architect who drafted Curitiba’s master plan in 1965, says: “When we made the plan, the population was 350,000. We thought in a few years it would reach 500,000. But it has grown much bigger.” The municipality of Curitiba today has 1.8 million people, and the population of the metropolitan region is 3.2 million. “I know the plan of Curitiba is very famous, and I am the first to enjoy it, but that was in ’65,” Wilheim continues. “The metropolitan region must have a new vision.”
It is often said of Curitiba that it doesn’t feel like Brazil. Depending on who’s speaking, that can be intended as a compliment or a criticism. Populated by European immigrants in the 19th century, Curitiba has a demographic makeup that is largely more fair-skinned and well educated than that of Brazil’s tropical north. It is also unusually affluent. Unlike São Paulo, with its startling extremes of wealth and poverty, much of Curitiba to an American eye looks familiarly middle class. Even the scruffy used-car lots have a seediness reminiscent of Los Angeles, not the Rio de Janeiro of “City of God.” The city, especially the large downtown, is very clean, thanks to municipal sanitation trucks and the freelance carrinheiros, or cart people, who pick up trash to sell at recycling centers.
Curitiba’s rapid-transit buses can move 36,000 passengers an hour, a cheap alternative to a subway system.
Despite its development as a city for public transportation, Curitiba is said to have more cars per capita than any other city in Brazil.
During my visit to Curitiba in March, the city was the host of an international biodiversity conference. While I hadn’t known of it when I scheduled my trip, the coincidence was about as remarkable as finding a design show to greet you in Milan or a wine festival under way in Bordeaux. Environmentalism is the heart of Curitiba’s self-identity, and the municipal government is always devising new schemes that showcase the brand. The rest of the world has caught on, if not yet caught up. Ecological awareness is architecturally trendy. This year’s winner of the prestigious Pritzker Prize is Richard Rogers, a longtime proponent of mass transit, lower energy consumption and ecologically sensitive buildings. Commercially, real-estate developers from Beijing to Santa Monica are brandishing their LEED certificates (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) as they market condominiums and office suites to green-minded consumers. While it is unusually ambitious, the 25-year plan that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, proposed last month for New York is part of an international wave of recognition that cities must live more responsibly, especially when it comes to their effusions of climate-warming gases and their excretions of mountains of solid waste. Bloomberg’s most contentious idea — a “congestion tax” on cars entering traffic-clogged districts during peak hours — has been working for more than four years in London (and more than 30 years in Singapore) to increase the numbers of people using public transportation. Interestingly, Curitiba adopted an opposite approach, brandishing a carrot instead of a stick. The city planners suspected that public transportation would attract more users if it was more attractive. And that reasonable assumption turned out to be correct.
The efficient buses that zip across the Curitiba metropolitan region are the most conspicuously un-Brazilian feature of the city. Instead of descending into subway stations, Curitibanos file into ribbed glass tubes that are boarding platforms for the rapid-transit buses. (The glass tubes resemble the “fosteritos” that Norman Foster later designed for the metro in Bilbao, Spain.) Curitiba has five express-bus avenues, with a sixth in development, to allow you to traverse the city with speedy dispatch. In the early 1970s, most cities investing in public transportation were building subways or light-rail networks. Curitiba lacked the resources and the time to install a train system. Lerner says that compared with the Curitiba bus network, a light rail system would have required 20 times the financial investment; a subway would have cost 100 times as much. “We tried to understand, what is a subway?” he recalls. “It has to have speed, comfort, reliability and good frequency. But why does it have to be underground? Underground is very expensive. With dedicated lanes and not stopping on every corner, we could do it with buses.” Because widening the avenues would have required a lengthy and costly expropriation process, the planners came up with a “trinary” system that embraced three parallel thoroughfares: a large central avenue dedicated to two-way rapid-bus traffic (flanked by slow lanes for cars making short local trips) and, a block over on each side, an avenue for fast one-way automobile traffic.
When the bus system was inaugurated, it transported 54,000 passengers daily. That number has ballooned to 2.3 million, in large part because of innovations that permit passengers to board and exit rapidly. In 1992, Lerner and his team established the tubular boarding platforms with fare clerks and turnstiles, so that the mechanisms for paying and boarding are separated, as in a subway. To carry more people at a time, the city introduced flexible-hinged articulated buses that open their doors wide for rapid entry and egress; then, when the buses couldn’t cope with the demand, the Lerner team called for bi-articulated buses of 88 feet with two hinges (and a 270-passenger capacity), which Volvo manufactured at Curitiba’s request. Comparing the capacities of bus and subway systems, Lerner reels off numbers with a promoter’s panache. “A normal bus in a normal street conducts x passengers a day,” he told me. “With a dedicated lane, it can transport 2x a day. If you have an articulated bus in a dedicated lane, 2.7x passengers. If you add a boarding tube, you can achieve 3.4x passengers, and if you add double articulated buses, you can have four times as many passengers as a normal bus in a normal street.” He says that with an arrival frequency of 30 seconds, you can transport 36,000 passengers every hour — which is about the same load he would have achieved with a subway.
Unfortunately, the trends of bus usage are down. While the system has expanded to cover 13 of the cities in the metropolitan region, charging a flat fare that in practice subsidizes the trips of the mostly poorer workers who live in outlying areas, bus ridership within the Curitiba municipality has been declining. “We are losing bus passengers and gaining cars,” says Luis Fragomeni, a Curitiba urban planner. He observes that, like potential users of public transport everywhere, many Curitibanos view it as noisy, crowded and unsafe. Undermining the thinking behind the master plan, even those who live alongside the high-density rapid-bus corridors are buying cars. “The licensing of cars in Curitiba is 2.5 times higher than babies being born in Curitiba,” he says. “Trouble.” Because cars are status symbols, attempts to discourage people from buying them are probably futile. “We say, ‘Have your own car, but keep it in the garage and use it only on weekends,’ ” Fragomeni remarks. And the public-transport system must be upgraded continuously to remain an appealing alternative to private vehicles. “That competition is very hard,” says Paulo Schmidt, the president of URBS, the rapid-bus system. During peak hours, buses on the main routes are already arriving at almost 30-second intervals; any more buses, and they would back up. While acknowledging his iconoclasm in questioning the sufficiency of Curitiba’s trademark bus network, Schmidt nevertheless says a light-rail system is needed to complement it.
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