Cities in Focus: Curitiba

Last night, EMBARQ (the producer of this blog) premiered the latest video in its documentary series, “Cities in Focus: Curitiba,” a five-minute film that profiles innovative examples of sustainable urban development, with a focus on transit-oriented development (TOD) and bus rapid transit (BRT), in Curitiba, Brazil, a city legendary among planners, transit advocates and New Urbanists.

The film screening, held at the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C., was followed by a discussion with three panelists who articulated their vision for the sustainable growth of cities, and the power of planning and transit to shape these places for the better.The panelists:

  • Christopher Zimmerman (Vice-Chairman, Arlington County Board) is a former civic association president and planning commissioner who has been an advocate of transit-oriented development and managed growth in Arlington County.  As a board member, he emphasized “traffic calming and neighborhood conservation, transportation infrastructure, affordable housing, schools and programs for youth, economic development, public safety, protecting open space, and enhancing recreational facilities”  in the region.
  • Mauricio Cárdenas (Director, Latin America Initiative, Brookings Institution) is an expert on international and development economics. He served as the former minister of Economic Development and Transportation and director of National Planning of Colombia.
  • Georges Darido (Transport Specialist, The World Bank) focuses on sustainable transport issues, particularly energy efficiency, travel demand management, and integrated transport-land use planning. For The World Bank, he researches regional mass transit and urban planning projects in Latin America and East Asia.

Much of the discussion revolved around using Curitiba as a lens for looking at good planning practice. Population growth exploded in the city in the 1950s, which resulted in a well-conceived master plan that included a centralized downtown, boulevards and a central district. The city pioneered the first bus rapid transit (BRT) system, improving mobility, the environment and social well-being in the city. Today the system 2.7 million trips per day, more than the number of residents in the city.

The Context

As the speakers explained, Curitiba was an experiment that required creativity and benefited from a few key factors.

Cities grow in chaotic ways. Zimmerman noted the sprawling trend of U.S. cities moving outward in a sprawling fashion with the most peripheral area of development usually being more desirable than the development preceding it. This sort of process encourages sprawl and newness rather than making existence development more livable.  Curitiba, in contrast, is a well-designed city with economic activity and real estate value focused in the center of the city along BRT corridors because of its integrated transportation and land use planning. By bringing these two elements together, BRT became successful (ridership in Curitiba is 70 percent) and the growth of the city and expansion of BRT occurred in conjunction with walkable neighborhoods and high-value development. Zimmerman reiterated that transportation is important because it moves people, but it must also be organized around greenspace and pedestrian areas with multiple uses, high density and high volume.

Curitiba’s development strategy favored modest initiatives over grand-scale designs and plans. This proved advantageous, to adapt to the changing needs of the city. There’s always the risk of putting too much focus on master plans alone. Instead, master plans should be flexible and incorporate the knowledge of local problems.

Despite its success, BRT in Curitiba was not a one-solution-fits-all scenario, Darido reminded the audience. The city has a long history of making gradual improvements over the past 20 years.

BRT Brings Development and Economic Growth

BRT is not the same as traditional buses, the panelists emphasized. Stations in Curitiba are designed to be highly recognizable and feel permanent. Building BRT is a bold statement because buses have the right-of-way, which not only exhibits a priority for public transportation, but the bus corridors are also more likely to attract investors than a basic bus line. The problem is, there have been few if any good examples of full BRT systems in the United States that have sparked transit-oriented development, and therefore, developers perceive bus corridors to be less attractive than light or heavy rail.  “People make the mistake of viewing BRT as a substitute for rail,” Zimmerman said. “But it’s not; it’s a substitute for cars.”

The famous bus station of Curitiba's BRT. Photo by Zhu.

A famous tube-shaped bus station of Curitiba's BRT. Photo by Zhu.

Institutionally, Curitiba fostered sustainable transport and land use policies with its strong leadership, under the helm of Mayor Jaime Lerner and a team of other multi-disciplinary experts who made long-term commitments to pedestrianization and high-capacity BRT corridors, even though the social, environmental and economic benefits did not fully appear for another 20 or 30 years.

Cardenas said Curitiba’s influence lies not only in the fact that it’s an excellent model but also because of its leadership in a sector that sometimes seems to suffer from inertia or political conflicts. He said examples for change must exist at the senior level, including mayors, city councils and experts. He also says you need a “technocracy” of people who know the subject technically, like planners and engineers, who “will continue to run things regardless of who is in power.”

Order Out of Chaos

Cities are always changing, and Zimmerman said we should be fixing the areas we already have, not just focusing on new greenfield developments. “The truth is the city is like an organism and the question is how are you going to shape it.” Streets are one example of existing infrastructure being reused for projects that improve mobility. In a way, BRT brings gradual change by reclaiming the street for people, not cars. Even though someone on the road loses (i.e. the car driver), the city benefits, as a whole.

Accessibility for All

One audience member commented that good planning and transportation brings different people together across different geographies and helps achieve social parity. Unfortunately, in the United States, bus lines are often seen as a degraded mode of travel for low-income riders, in contrast to the Metro, which carries passengers from the wealthy suburbs to the center of the city during peak hours. Well-to-do suburbanites in the D.C. area (specifically, Arlington County) can afford to live in high-density, transit-oriented developments and exercise the choice NOT to own a car. This is a new way of understanding the geographical disparities of transit. By better integrating land use and transport planning, with a focus on affordable housing, Zimmerman said, America can begin to make transit-oriented development accessible to all income classes, similar to what has been achieved in Curitiba.

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