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June 2, 2014 / Leo Hollis

Curitiba: Beyond the World Cup


Curitiba, the capital of the Brazilian province of Parana is one of the main sites for this year’s World Cup. But that should not be the only reason to visit. It is, in addition, of the leading centres for cutting edge urbanism. It is hard to believe, but Curitiba is the place to go to learn about the relationship between transit, equality and sustainability. It is a well researched story, but it is worth repeating.


 It was no accident that in 2001, when UNESCO were searching for city on which to model the rebuilding of post-invasion Kabul, the ravaged capital of Afghanistan, they chose Curitiba. It is a curious story: until the 1960s the city – in which the population had leaped from 180,000 to 36000 in just 10 years –  had been designed around the automobile with wide boulevards radiating out of the city centre. In the 1980s there had been concerns that rapid urbanisation would make this expansion unmanageable, the centre gridlocked with all the traffic, the air thick with exhaust fumes. So the idea of a new master plan was born with the philosophy: ‘a city is not a problem but the solution’. The initial plan was to knock down some of the more elegant turn of the century houses in order to widen the main routes in teh centre, as well as force an ugly overpass through the middle.

However, these proposals met with unexpected opposition, which was led by Jaime Lerner who worked in the architecture and planning school of the Federal University, who complained that ‘they were trying to throw away the story of the city’. Thus in 1988, almost by chance, the 33 year old Lerner found himself named mayor. The first thing he did was to transform the central road, the Rua Quinze de Novembro; but instead of attempting to manage traffic through the middle of the city, he pedestrianised the thoroughfare. Lerner was so concerned about the level of opposition that the scheme would provoke that he completed the whole operation in a weekend; closing the road on a Friday night, workmen planting over 10,000 flowers over the next 48 hours and opened on Monday morning. Beforehand, local shopkeepers had threatened to sue for lost earning; by Monday lunch time there were petitions for other areas of the city to be made car-free.

However, Lerner also knew that designing a transit system would be at the heart of the new master plan. The project began with a plan of the city and devising a transit system that ran from the centre along the five main corridors into the suburbs. The network was designed to connect all the neighbourhoods, and in response zoning laws were used to build neighbourhoods integrated around the network, so that a new shiny bus stop was one of the first things to be be constructed when new housing was created to ease the problems of the favelas. In addition, the system needed to be efficient, fast and well designed to ensure that people got out of their cars and used the new system and so the BRT Express Buses were given their own exclusive bus lane running alongside the car lanes.

Yet perhaps the most surprising innovation occurred as Lerner stood at one bus stop and watched how people took so long to get on and off the bus. He noted that it took time for everyone to climb the steps of the bus and then pay the driver as they embarked. Instead he sketched an idea for a glass ‘tube station’, a bus shelter raised up from the pavement to the height of the bus door. In addition, a payment scheme was devised, so there was no waiting at the bus door, and a single flat fee, originally priced at approximately £0.20. As a result every time a bus drove up to the platform passengers could alight at all five doors, allowing a maximum of 300 travelers to get on and off in under 15 seconds. Frequency of buses were also increased so that there was never a long wait during peak hours.

Whenvever possible the new system was developed with the participation of users and local rather than experts and avoided expensive innovations. So when the bus manufacturers, Volvo, suggested that they could devise a sophisticated safety door system that to line up the bus with the station platform, an experienced bus driver suggested to the committee that a simple painted line on the platform floor would suffice. Such common sense has meant that the network has never needed city subsidies but has paid its own way since opening. Despite having the highest ratio of car owners in the whole of Brazil, the buses have changed the life of Curitibanos. In 1974 the system only serviced 25,000 passengers a day, today, this has risen to 2 million. At the same time it is calculated that the progamm had replaced 27 million car journeys a year, and as a result the city – which has the largest percentage of car owners –  uses 30% less petrol than any other Brazilian city and enjoys the lowest air pollution. As the city then prospered during the 1990s, new neighbourhoods were designed with the transport system in mind in order to cope with growth so as the suburbs grow, the system can cope with the expansion.

It is for this reason that traffic and transit experts around the world are looking to Latin America for the next innovation in how transportation can make the cities of the future work. In his 1995 book, ‘Hope, Human and Wild’, the leading environmental writer Bill McKibben presented Curitiba as a future alternative for urban living. This appeal was then carried by the   the British architect, Lord Richard Rogers, who visited the city and then pronounced it in his 1995 Reith lectures  as a model city that we could all learn from. In 2006 The American National BRT Institute produced a report to see how whether it was able to replicate the success of such schemes in the US, concluding that while the benefits of the scheme are manifest, the popular ignorance of those benefits and the social stigma of carless-ness would make such a project difficult. In short, US cities lack mayors like Lerner who are willing to make the case for the relationship between social change and transit.


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