James McBride on traffic in Latin America
Its a common sight in any big city in the developing world, from Dhaka to Delhi: Streets clogged with cars, motorcycles, flocks of private buses, rickshaws, and taxis, all inching their way from one side of the choked metropolis to the other.
The world’s biggest cities all have at least one thing in common: a major traffic problem. And they are busy packing in more people than ever before. Over half the planet already lives in cities, and the UN estimates that by 2050, the world will be 70 percent urban – with cities accounting for a total of over 6.4 billion people.
Almost all of those people – 5.2 billion – will live in the cities of developing countries, where infrastructure and governance is the weakest.
Latin America is at the forefront of this trend, boasting a number of the world’s mega-cities.
These include urban agglomerations such as Mexico City and Sao Paolo (both over 20 million), Buenos Aires (over 13 million) and Rio de Janeiro (over 11 million). All of them are contenders for the dubious distinction of the world’s worst traffic.
In Sao Paulo, for instance, traffic jams can routinely cover up to 180 miles of the city’s roadways. This is hell on earth for commuting drivers, yes – but it also drains billions of dollars worth of wasted productivity from the economy and causes heavy air pollution.
Congestion also exacerbates inequality: as they do with other failing public services, the rich can simply opt out of public roadways. Thus the growing preference of Sao Paolo’s business class for helicopter taxis – which sounds like a Fellini-esque parody, but is actually all too real.
Congestion stems from otherwise positive trends: population growth and richer citizens.
Growing cities are a great thing: both a result of and a driver of development, they generate massive wealth and provide immigrants and newcomers from the countryside with opportunity for upward mobility. At the same time, the rise in car ownership in Latin America is a result of an expanding middle class with newfound purchasing power.
But the combination of more people and more cars results in a simple math problem: too many vehicles, too little space.
Cities derive their economic advantage from density, and thus the most valuable commodity in any city is space. Every square foot of land devoted to roadways means less space for apartments, offices, shops, or parks.
Nor does building more highways help; instead, it usually worsens traffic by increasing overall car-dependence. Given that the helicopter approach is off the table for most people, what can be done to tackle gridlock?
A new generation of leaders are realizing that to survive, cities must reinvent urban mobility.
Among them is Guillermo Dietrich, the current head of transportation of the City of Buenos Aires. Dietrich is a part of a wave of urban leaders who see gridlock as a remnant of a failed philosophy.
The Plan is a fundamental shift in thinking: instead of worrying about how to move more cars, it focuses on how to move more people. In Buenos Aires, as Dietrich points out, the vast majority of transportation space and spending has been dedicated to accommodating cars, even though drivers themselves are only a small minority.
By contrast, Dietrich and his team are developing a suite of alternative transportation options, allowing residents to move around the city more quickly and with more flexibility. To do this, they are advancing reforms that draw on the experience of other global cities and provide a model for Latin America moving forward.
These reforms have three primary pillars: 1) Prioritizing pedestrians over cars; 2) Promoting biking culture, and 3) Providing high quality bus service.
Recognizing that every trip on a bicycle is one less car on a packed road, Buenos Aires has invested heavily in biking infrastructure.
The city has built some 70 miles of protected bike lanes, and launched a bikeshare program like those that major Chinese cities have implemented. In just four years, daily users of the bikeshare have risen from 0.4 percent of the population to over 3 percent, with 12 percent using the system on occasion.
Then there is the expansion of Metrobus, the Bus Rapid Transit system. Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, features dedicated express lanes that segregate buses from other traffic, dramatically reducing travel times.
In Buenos Aires, Dietrich’s team estimates that the BRT has already reduced bus travel times by half for the system’s 600,000 users – a number that will double to 1.2 million users by 2015 as more people leave their cars behind.
China may have enthusiastically embraced BRT – Guangzhou, with its 17 million people, has the world’s largest network – but its actually a homegrown Latin American export. The first BRT system was developed in the Brazilian city of Curitibia in the 1970s, and gained international prominence after Bogota implemented its TransMilenio system.
The TransMilenio illustrates the appeal of BRT for cash-strapped developing countries. Bogota’s system serves 1.7 million riders at half the cost of a traditional metro. Since it opened in 2000, average travel times are down 32 percent, traffic fatalities have dropped 89 percent, and carbon emissions have fallen 300,000 tons a year.
But building political support for these changes requires communicating the benefits of walkability.
Buenos Aires has committed to converting 90 percent of the streets in the city center to pedestrian priority, with the goal of a 75 percent car reduction by 2015. Such dramatic changes are inevitably disruptive, and leaders must be able to explain how walkability improves the overall health, safety, affordability, and vibrancy of urban areas.
This is a lesson officials in Mexico City learned during its efforts to convert Calle Francisco Madero, a central street that opens onto the historic Zocalo, into a pedestrian-only thoroughfare. When the city announced its intentions, local merchants lobbied hard against it. In their eyes, the changes were unnecessary restrictions that would hurt business.
City officials negotiated a gradual trial period with the local chamber of commerce. But opposition soon melted as business owners realized that fewer cars meant more people – and thus, more customers. Today, an estimated 200,000 people an hour circulate past. Business is booming.
There are also lessons about potential pitfalls from around the region.
Still, changing ingrained urban culture is an uphill battle. Complicating matters, transportation improvements such as the BRT can become victims of their own success, as expectations are raised and more people come to depend it. Any overcrowding, mechanical failure, or poor service can lead to explosive dissatisfaction.
Boarding the TransMilenio can still be horrific
In 2012, for instance, riots erupted in Bogota over TransMilenio’s crowding and high fares. Similar violence broke out this month in Rio de Janeiro after authorities announced a 9 percent fare hike. It may not seem like much, but for many it was the last straw. “Public transport is slow, dirty, hot and expensive,” fumed one demonstrator.
High prices are a big concern when government support for transit is often low or nonexistent. TransMilenio, for instance, receives no public subsidy, and must fund all operations out of ticket sales. Driving, on the other hand, remains massively subsidized.
This disparity has dire implications for the region. Without true commitment from both city and national governments, urban transit will face perpetual underinvestment – threatening their success from both a technical and political point of view.
Unfortunately, Latin America’s cities don’t have the luxury of failure. As they continue to grow, they will have to find a way to provide better transportation options – or fall further into maddening, debilitating gridlock.
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