World

Brazil’s Lerner Driver

By Greg Mills & Lyal White 25 November 2015

Curitiba has successfully used a relatively cheap surface public transport system to transform the city, not just in terms of the movement of people, but the uses, too, of land and public spaces. Integration has been achieved through connecting people, and this has been key to economic progress. By GREG MILLS and LYAL WHITE.

Innovation and integration. Two of the most overused business buzzwords tanking alongside clusters, value chains, buy-in and, wait for it, core competencies. In the case of integration and innovation, the regularity of their rhetorical rendering far outstrips their application. If it is bad among business types, it is quite hopeless among politicians. Think regional integration. Think SADC in Southern Africa. Think the BRICS – the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA.

Though the term is supposed to imply a break from the norm, when politicians and business people use the term innovation they are usually referring to processes that are less revolutionary than evolutionary and ordinary. But there are exceptions. Take the case of Curitiba, the capital of the southern Brazil state of Paraná. Home to two million, in 2010 Curitiba was awarded the Global Sustainable City Award on account of its excellence in urban development. It deserved it. It really did innovate and integrate.

We have many visitors from China, South Africa, Colombia and other countries,” says Silvia Ramos of URBS (Urbanuzacao de Curitiba), the transport regulator.

It is little wonder. Curitiba has originated a surface transport system – known as Bus Rapid Transport – which has become an international role model, and which others have sought to replicate. There are more than 250 cities world-wide with BRTs. Getting this to work involves more than just mobility. Curitiba has successfully used a relatively cheap surface public transport system to transform the city, not just in terms of the movement of people, but the uses, too, of land and public spaces. Integration has been achieved through connecting people, and this has been key to economic progress.

Back in 1966, when the city was drawing up a masterplan, they looked at models from France and the UK among others. But the cost of an underground was deemed prohibitive for the city, despite its wealth from farming. So they opted for a surface transport system with dedicated bus lanes, about a tenth of the cost of an underground railway. When the system was first implemented in 1974 it moved just 50,000 passengers.

Today the BRT carries 1.7 million people per annum across 85.6-kms of six lines in an operating fleet of 1,368 buses, some capable of carrying 250 passengers, pausing at 6,500 stops. The buses drive 328.066-kms each day. The buses are supplied and run by private companies, paid by the kilometre. Passengers pay a standard fare of just under a dollar regardless of the length of the journey. This fee cross-subsidises those, mostly the poor, living farther out of the city centre.

Jaime Lerner has been a pivotal figure in this system. He was part of the original team which decided on the winning bid for the masterplan and, in 1965, helped create the Instituto de Pesquisa e Planejamento Urbano de Curitiba (Institute of Urban Planning and Research of Curitiba, IPPUC), a research, monitoring and implementation body funded by the municipality.

Lerner was elected mayor three times, the first time in 1971. Although he instituted a number of important changes to the city, including building more parks, creating an apprenticeships system for poor youths, and instituted a successful recycling scheme, the BRT remains his greatest achievement, and Curitiba’s gift to the world.

You need to think of the BRT,” he says, “not just as a transport system, but as a city design. It has been the engine of the city’s growth. We started small, but for each stage to solve each problem, we have used innovation.”

Not only have the number of lanes and buses increased exponentially, but the services have radically improved. More than 90% of the fleet is adapted for disabled users. Various feeder lines are fully integrated, with a range of bus types and sizes. Tubular stations improved the passenger experience. The “trinear” lane systems of BRT and slow and fast car lanes, and staggered BRT alignment stations were introduced to reduce hold-ups. And now increasing numbers of buses use biofuel, while the electric and “Hibribus” is imminent.

Curitiba's BRT. Photo by Cristina Valencia via Flickr.

Inside one of the buses. (Greg Mills)

Everything in Brazil is dedicated to the car,” says Lerner. “For example, there are at least five million cars in Sao Paolo alone, each car taking up 25 square metres of space on the road and in parking. This is the size of a small housing unit. Even if half this was dedicated instead to housing, we could house another 2.5 million people closer to their place of work. But to do this, we have to provide public transport, to turn the space for cars from private to public.”

Back in the 1970s when we did it, it was said that every city which achieved a population of one million should have a subway. As we did not have the money, instead we asked: What is a subway? The answer was it is a system that has to be fast and have a good frequency so you don’t have to wait. So, since we did not have the resources, we asked ‘why not the surface’. So we took the existing streets, and linked them to the structure of growth of the city – where we linked and integrated living, working, leisure and mobility.

This is why Curitiba,” he notes, “is different. It involved the renovation and evolution of the existing system.”

The BRT has caused an estimated reduction of about 27 million car trips annually, using about 30% less fuel per capita in the city, and has significantly better air quality compared to other similar sized Brazilian cities. It also has the highest rate of garbage recycling separation in the world, at nearly 70% according to Lerner. Given such efficiencies, Curitiba’s annual growth has been above 7% over the last three decades, while per capita income is 30% higher than the national average. Ironically, Curitiba is now the second largest producer of cars in Brazil, and has a lively services and high-tech sector.

Curitiba has been able to make dramatic inroads into the perennial and similar challenges facing Brazil’s cities of transport, governance, infrastructure and security. Yet remarkably few Brazilian cities have sought to emulate the success. The reason why, says Lerner, is very simply “politics”. The problem, he reflects, is “that decisions today are closely tied to having consensus, but democracy is not consensus, rather conflict wisely managed.” Rather than attempting a perfect solution, which will take time, if forever to be implemented, there is need for pragmatism. “Improvement needs a start,” he observes. “You need to have a demonstration effect sometimes to get things moving.”

There are hundreds of pins on the world map at IPPUC indicating all the foreign missions that have visited to gain insight into planning and the BRT. This includes not fewer than ten from South Africa, and from Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria and Zimbabwe among others. A key reason for Curitiba’s comparative success is in consistency of planning and implementation.

Daniele Moraes is an architect at IPPUC. She reminds us that the 1965 masterplan was not the first one in Curitiba’s history. The first city plan was back in 1853, which was followed 90 years later by the Agache Plan, which laid out a high density city centre with suburbs radiating outwards – the design trend of the time — for the population of 180,000. The winning bid for the 1965 plan, when the city housed 500,000 inhabitants, built on the Agache scheme, but focused on a combination of land use, roads and public transport to deliver a better environment, and social and economic development. Since then there have been two further revisions, in 2004 and 2014.

It has not just been about plans, but continuity also in people. She points out that “Curitiba has enjoyed six mayoral terms – 24 years – of mayors from IPPUC. Jaime Lerner, who served for three terms, Rafael Greca, who still works at IPPUC, and Cassio Taniguchi, who served two terms. They were all also from the same political group which ran the municipality for 40 years.” She adds, “Jaime Lerner was a shrewd politician and diplomat. He taught children about recycling, for example, and in so doing created a whole generation concerned about urban planning and the environment. He created a lot of support for change.”

And critical mass is important too. A municipal-funded institution, IPPUC has a staff of 160, of which half are architects and engineers. Of course there are challenges. Noted local economist Carlos Eduardo Guimaraes of FESP, a private university with a focus on commerce, observes that there is a difference between the IPPUC team and the “professors now in City Hall who are very theoretical about things, but they don’t know how to make them happen.” And there are always funding shortages, reminds his colleague Luis Fernando Ferreira da Costa, “since Brazil remains a very centralised country. Taxes go from the cities to the states to the Federal centre, but the amount that comes back depends partly on politics. It also reflects the size of the Federal government: everyone in Brazil wants to work for the government. We need greater decentralised autonomy, like the United States, so that the states can raise and spend their own taxes.”

Photo: Jaime Lerner with the authors.

We met Lerner, 77, at his office in Curitiba. It has been converted from his 40-year family home, which he had designed and built. Ever the architect, he quickly had a piece of paper and pen out drawing maps and diagrams as the conversation progressed. “Solving problems,” he paused, “is not related to scale, or the size of the city, or financial resources. The challenge is in organisation, and in creating shared responsibility between citizens and government, and the public and private sectors. Otherwise you won’t get the outcome you need.”

Judging from Jaime Lerner’s example, perhaps there is one more element that you need to make integration and innovation a reality: passion. DM

Drs Mills and White were visiting Curitiba at the start of a three-year project by the Brenthurst Foundation involving several African and other international cities.

Main photo of Curitiba by Francesco Anzola via Flickr.

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