Despite the unprecedented quarantine that most of us find ourselves under, I was recently forced to travel to Curitiba, Brazil, for personal reasons.
I am staying in an apartment on Republica Argentina Avenue next to the first bus corridor in the world designed as a bus rapid transit (BRT) system – with dedicated lanes, at-level boarding and special vehicles. This groundbreaking system was a revolution in public transport at the time for its relative affordability, efficiency and integration with other bus lines.
Today, Curitiba is in social isolation to prevent COVID-19 contamination. Schools and non-essential public services are closed, many stores are closed and the elderly are discouraged from leaving their homes. The BRT system is still running, but at lower capacity.
Observing the landscape from my window, I see the bus corridor being occupied by cyclists and pedestrians. Cyclists use the BRT lanes to go to work, to deliver food or for leisure, and pedestrians to exercise.
Curitiba is a playful landscape for me, since I was born in this city and spent part of my early childhood here. I remember when the corridor was first opened. My mother was afraid people would be run over by buses that passed by too fast.
Built and inaugurated in the early 1970s, the BRT’s exclusive lanes provided a significant improvement in travel time and a high level of reliability. At the same time, the city’s entire bus system was redesigned and multiple lines integrated into one organization. Terminals started to connect feeder lines to structural lines, and riders could switch between them without paying additional fees.
The system became a worldwide reference. More than a hundred cities have been inspired to build similar BRT systems. Over almost 50 years, Curitiba’s system has been modernized: longer buses (bi-articulated), new pre-paid boarding stations, operations management systems and synchronization with traffic lights have significantly helped to increase capacity and maintain reliability.
One of the essential aspects of Curitiba’s system is that it enabled strategic density along BRT corridors – known as transit-oriented development – a pattern still visible today in the towering buildings alongside its avenues.
Now, under today’s unique conditions, BRT lanes are taking on new uses, as people claim the road space for walking and cycling. From a safety point of view, the mixing of buses with cyclists and pedestrians is dangerous and highly discouraged.
But there is something happening here that deserves to be heard. I usually say in my presentations that cities are living organisms. When we visit a city with severe mobility problems, like significant congestion, it is like seeing a patient with a fever. The fever is not the disease, it’s merely a symptom. Congestion is not the disease; it’s the symptom of disconnected, poorly planned cities, with few areas that mix residences and job opportunities.
When I look out my window, watching people “invade” Curitiba’s bus lanes and reclaim empty city streets for walking and cycling, I feel we are also seeing the symptoms. Residents are asking for their streets to be changed. They are saying we need space for safer, cleaner, more democratic mobility. People tell me that this invasion of street space is not unique only to this social isolation period; it’s become normal in recent years. This is a sign that streets should be redesigned to accommodate everyone.
Some cities are listening. Paris announced an audacious post-COVID cycling plan that includes new infrastructure, individual subsidies for those that bicycle to work, and a fund for the recovery and maintenance of bicycles. Milan and London have also announced plans to at least semi-permanently expand space for cycling and walking after lockdowns.
This must be the path for resuming our activities. We must learn to listen to the people and prioritize the use of space for them. Deploying bike lanes and improving the pedestrian experience in strategic areas costs very little compared to the investment needed to build and maintain roads for cars. And the benefits are not limited to cyclists and pedestrians alone. These measures help by reducing air pollution, lowering carbon emissions, improving access to opportunity and boosting local economies. The whole city wins with cleaner and safer mobility.
The great Brazilian poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, has said in a beautiful verse that “life needs pauses.” The tragedy of COVID-19 has brought a unique opportunity to pause our lifestyles and start over in new ways. Cities must take advantage of this opportunity to reinvent themselves, to recognize the symptoms of the disease and to have the courage to try new approaches.
Sergio Avelleda is Director of Urban Mobility at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.