Interview: "Imagine a City With 30 Percent Fewer Cars" Low-tech transit is the fastest route to a great city, says a Brazilian architect. By Reed McManus
Key to a smooth ride: Passengers pay fares in a "boarding tube," then enter their bus without having to climb steps (above). Cars shouldn't dictate a city's life, says former mayor Jaime Lerner (below).
Jaime Lerner wants to give the bus a makeover. The former mayor of the Brazilian city of Curitiba, population 1.7 million, beats the drum worldwide for BRT ("bus rapid transit") systems, which transform dowdy bus lines into sleek transportation networks. All it takes, Lerner says, are a few relatively simple modifications—dedicated lanes in the center of the street where transit vehicles run unimpeded, "boarding tubes" where passengers pay fares before their bus arrives, and curb-level entries so they board and exit quickly—and a hefty dose of political will. Today more than 60 cities worldwide—including Seoul, South Korea, with 10.3 million residents—have some version of a BRT. Sierra sat down with Lerner to talk about his experience in Curitiba, the future of public transportation, and the health of cities that depend on it.
Sierra: How did the BRT concept evolve?
Jaime Lerner: We started by trying to understand what mass transit is and what it should be: fast, comfortable, reliable. Most of all, you shouldn't need to wait. And we wanted to make sure we could run our system on surface streets because it's cheaper. We had no money and no loans.
Our first conclusion was that we had to have dedicated lanes. Not just separated by painted lines but physically separated and at the center of the street. And the system had to be fast. That means stops every five or six hundred meters [about a third of a mile], not every block. We transport 2 million people at one-minute intervals—and sometimes at 30-second intervals. Our BRT can carry the same number of passengers as a subway and is 100 times less expensive per kilometer. When we started out, we thought our system could hold us until we could afford a subway. Now I'm sure we don't need a subway.
Sierra: It seems like such a fresh approach to an old idea.
Lerner: I'm not an expert in public transport. I'm just an architect. And the people who worked on our BRT system aren't experts; they're experts in cities. High-level professionals: architects and engineers. All very creative people. A planning director from the Paris Metro once visited our system and told us, "You don't have any experts on your team!" "You're right," I said. "If we were experts, we would reach a conclusion that it isn't feasible!"
Sierra: So your focus on a surface system was dictated by cost?
Lerner: You shouldn't sacrifice the needs of a whole generation to get a system built and running. It's very hard to have a complete network of subway routes. Yes, there's Paris, London, Moscow, and New York. But they built at the beginning of the last century when it was cheaper to work underground. You can have the same—or better—performance on the surface. Paris has the best subway in the world. And now they're running trains on the boulevards. The future is on the surface.
Sierra: In the United States, transit planners struggle to counter the notion that buses are for poor people. How do you make buses appeal to everyone?
Lerner: Offer a better alternative and market it well. In my city, 25 percent of the people who use the BRT have cars, but they use the system because it's more pleasant and beautifully designed.
There's another thing: Public transport plays a more important role than getting people places. It helps establish an identity between the passenger and his city. You know your city better when you're looking at the landscape. Paris seen from the subway is black. By bus, it's wonderful.
Sierra: What about light rail, which many U.S. cities are considering?
Lerner: Light rail is sometimes 10 to 20 times more expensive than a BRT, and it takes more time to implement. But it's much better than a subway. When you have time and money and are able to subsidize the system, light rail is OK. But when you have to subsidize every ticket, you're taking money from other social investments. That's the main issue. You can have a BRT system that's as good as an underground or light rail, and it pays for itself.
Sierra: So no government money was involved in Curitiba's system?
Lerner: Only the investments in the infrastructure, which is just preparing the dedicated lanes and boarding facilities. Many cities make mistakes because they think that just putting in dedicated lanes is enough. You have to have the lanes, level boarding, and quick operation.
Sierra: How do you get past the bureaucracy?
Lerner: It takes political will. In 1992, New York's mayor, [David] Dinkins, sent a team to look at Curitiba and asked us to put in an experimental line in New York. Just four boarding tubes and some buses, linking city hall with the World Trade Center. There were all these issues: "Oh, you can't put this in because the unions won't allow you." So I said, "Let's go to the unions and explain." And after that it was the handicapped. I said, "Let's go talk to the handicapped." And we showed them how much easier it is to get on and off the BRT system. It took us five days. New York has been planning a Second Avenue subway line for 80 years.
Sierra: What would you tell a U.S. mayor, if he or she decided to push for a BRT, knowing the bureaucratic hurdles to be faced?
Lerner: You can do it in less than two years. Do it fast, do it now, and you'll make your city better, including the economy. After installing the BRT, we attracted about $20 billion in new investments to our state.
Sierra: Won't there still be those who insist on driving?
Lerner: You will always have taxis and cars. But there's one condition: They should not share the same space with public transport. They have to be complementary. It's not a question of trying to say which is better, it's getting the best out of every system you have.
I'm not against cars. But your city doesn't have to be oriented toward them. A car is like your mother-in-law. You want to have a good relationship with her, but you can't let her conduct your life. When a city has good public transportation, it becomes for people and for cars. Imagine a city with 30 percent fewer cars on the streets.
Sierra: Were the citizens of Curitiba on board immediately, or did they have to be convinced?
Lerner: It was very difficult at first. But we presented the BRT as a complete system. We didn't say, "This is the bus." They would have said, "Oh, it's only a bus." So the day we started the system in 1974, it was a celebration because people could see immediately how fast they could go. And it's been successful since then. Ask any citizen in Curitiba—even those still using their cars—if they're proud of the BRT. They are.
Sierra: You've also adjusted zoning laws to work with the transit system.
Lerner: Good zoning encourages growth along the transportation lines. A city's a structure of living and working together. If you integrate everything—not only the functions but incomes and ages—you'll have a more human city.
Reed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra.
ON THE WEB
For more information, visit the Bus Rapid Transit Policy Center at gobrt.org.
Photos, from top: courtesy of Jaime Lerner, courtesy of Volvo Corporation