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November 11, 2005

Dreaming of Curitiba

Curitiba_bus3 This Bill McKibben piece on Curitiba, Brazil--which has been held up for years as an international model of people-friendly urban design--may seem like old news to those who are in planning or transportation circles. But I still found it inspiring. If Curitiba--with a per capita income of $2500 a person, 300 percent population growth since 1970, and no lush beaches or obvious tourist attractions--can make its city a model of human-scale sustainable design, why can't Northwest cities come closer to the mark?

Some of the city's accomplishments:

- A jewel of a highly integrated bus rapid transit system that's often cited as one of the best in the world, and passenger terminals have sparked local urban development and commercial activity.

- Planning policies that prioritize transit over cars, curb sprawl, and make the downtown extremely friendly to foot traffic. This includes a pedestrian mall--Brazil's first, and a 20-block area downtown where vehicular use is almost wholly prohibited.

- The result? Three-quarters of residents commute by transit (from this source); and Curitibans use 25 percent less fuel per capita than other Brazilians. And--perhaps most important--the downtown is packed with people.

- Parks that do double duty as flood control: City officials took federal flood-control money and--instead of spending on "channelizing" rivers in concrete viaducts--they developed parks with small lakes that served the same flood control purpose. In the process, Curitiba went from two square feet of green area per inhabitant to more than 150 square feet per inhabitant. 

- A housing program that helps lower-income residents build their own homes, which even gives them an hour with a city architect for design advice. And an overall emphasis on social and economic integration throughout the city.

And so on. The theme here is that Curitiba has become expert at implementing innovative and economical solutions that fix a bunch of problems at once.

When I read an article like this, I do wonder if Curitiba residents would agree with such a glowing assessment; and I'm reminded that friends of mine from Vancouver, BC, often lament their city's "most livable" reputation, which they feel makes it easier for the city ignore the many challenges that it faces. And you don't have to go far to find criticisms of Curitiba as a model for US communities (see here, for example).

Regardless, there are lessons. Several years ago, I attended a workshop on the city; the detail that sticks in my mind is the level of pride residents had in their bus system. And it wasn't just the result of good marketing. It was the fact that planners had paid as much attention to the details of the system--from how fares are collected to the look of the bus stops--as is usually paid to rail (or monorail).

Maybe the humble bus--if we give it the treatment it deserves--will serve our needs after all.

Posted by Elisa Murray | Permalink


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Ah, the bus. Be it ever so humble!

I've been hearing about Curitiba for years now, it's become the El Dorado of mass transit, but for a reason the critic you mention seems to misperceive. He argues that you could never get away with that kind of thing (packed buses!) here in the U.S. -- but it seems that the lesson from Curitiba is finding out what *does* suit your population's needs, rather than focusing on pre-fab transit solutions.

I also like keeping a focus on buses, since they're not going away anytime soon, and because bus ridership percentages can always be improved. It would nice to know of in-place mechanisms that drive cross-vehicle ridership increases rather than pinning all our hopes on the thrill of novel (light rail) technology. I mean, personally, I'll be more excited when we finally get the technology for a transit agency that knows riders could use maps at stops to determine their destination. Bus stops that actually protect from the wind and rain! My god. It's to dream all right.

Posted by: Michael | Nov 11, 2005 6:56:14 PM

I have lived in Curitiba since 1973. I love it and wouldn't leave for anything.


Posted by: rob | Nov 12, 2005 11:42:23 PM

- "Planning policies that prioritize transit over cars, curb sprawl, and make the downtown extremely friendly to foot traffic. This includes a pedestrian mall--Brazil's first, and a 20-block area downtown where vehicular use is almost wholly prohibited."

I suspect that these policies mostly explain the high level of bus usage, that and the fact that Curitiba's citizens are much poorer than Westerners. I doubt the Curitba model can be transferred to North America with similar results.

Posted by: John Schneider | Nov 13, 2005 9:47:03 AM

Does anyone know anyone who has actually been to Curitba? I am very tempted to go -- I have always wanted to see Brazilia, too. They's certainly make pretty book-ends of a trip.

Posted by: David Sucher | Nov 13, 2005 6:21:59 PM

The problem is that we really are hitting the limits of what can be done with buses. The Times had a guest editorial on Sunday promoting BRT, and this particular passage stood out to me:

The plain fact is that Bus Rapid Transit in HOT lanes (BRT/HOT) has more capacity than heavy rail (such as San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit), let alone light rail (such as Portland's MAX), systems. The reason for this is that the capacity of any transit system is determined at the stations. With rail, a train cannot, of course, enter the station unless the one before it has left. The time between trains is called the "headway." It invariably is two or three minutes at a minimum, more on "non-grade-separated" systems (those running on surface streets and therefore prone to auto and truck interference, such as Sound Transit's initial segment of light rail). With BRT/HOT, however, the transit unit (bus) pulls off the right of way (HOT lane) to discharge and take on passengers. Under these circumstances, you can run buses in the right of way every few seconds, rather than every few minutes.

The problem with this passage is it assumes we are dealing only with low use stations that most buses won't need to stop at. If, on the other hand, we are dealing with a few heavily used stations that every bus will need to stop at, they can and will back if there is insufficient headway. This can be improved using skip-stop (as currently on 3rd ave) or dividing the buses into bays as in the tunnel. The article goes as far as to propose skip-stop in the tunnel, which would lead to ridiculous distances between stops and make transfers unthinkable. Buses also have longer boarding times, and while low floors and pre-paid ticketing help, there is also the issue of the number of entrances. Articulated buses can carry 80 people, but trains can carry hundreds, so it takes lots of buses to match the capacity of light rail.

It's telling to me that, even with all we did to turn 3rd ave over to buses and implement skip stop, we can't squeeze all our bus routes on this four lane road. Our downtown is very narrow and we don't have many roads to turn over to buses. It's also telling that, when the tunnel was open, there were plenty of bus routes that used I-5 to get to downtown but didn't use the tunnel because we couldn't add more routes to it. As it was, the tunnel was able to serve 100,000 passengers a day. A light rail line from SeaTac to Northgate will bring more people than that into the tunnel, with plenty of left-over capacity to expand the system north, south, and east. Rail really is the most efficient way to use the tunnel.

Posted by: Eric L | Nov 14, 2005 2:45:36 PM

Jaime Lerner, Curitiba's 3 term mayor, was in Portland this past spring and his humane approach to urban life was inspiring and seems to have been effective. His explanation of the choice of buses over light rail/subway was one of simple cost and need: they didn't have money and they needed transit right away. Having a system of boulevards designed by the French in place helped. All they did was boot the cars off!

I see a future for BRT in Portland as a transition, at least. We have pretty good quality high frequency bus (every 15 minutes, all day) that carries about as many people as our light rail but these are limited by growing traffic congestion. We also have many routes that could support light rail but building light rail legs can only happen about every 5 years because of funding constraints and there will be only more competition for limited federal dollars as light rail catches on across the US.

If we could reclaim just the old highways that parallel the freeways and make some bus only right of ways, we could add quite a few lines overnight. Then using Curitiba like practices such as instant loading and subway like bus design, we could have a pretty extensive and effective total system.

Having just attended a peak oil conference in Denver ( for a review by me, go to http://portlandtransport.com/archives/2005/11/peak_oil_confer_1.html) I think it is more important than ever that we have some alternative strategies in our hip pockets that we can implement when car driving becomes prohibitively expensive.

Posted by: rex Burkholder | Nov 14, 2005 3:00:44 PM


I just read your review of the peak oil conference in Denver, that you attended. It's great that you also shared your insights there about how Portland, Oregon is providing alternatives to driving. Portland is a great role model for this!

And in case you couldn't get the link to work properly, here's the URL again without the extra ")" at the end -- typepad is so touchy sometimes!!

Best wishes,


Posted by: Michelle Parker | Nov 14, 2005 4:21:02 PM

Sorry! I forgot to include the URL!
Ok, let's try this again. . .
Take 3:


Posted by: Michelle P | Nov 14, 2005 4:28:26 PM