Chapter 3: Curitiba Experience

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The bus system of Curitiba, Brazil, exemplifies a model Bus Rapid Transit system, and plays a large part in making this a livable city. The buses run frequently -- some as often as every 90 seconds -- and reliably, commuters ride them in great numbers, and the stations are convenient, well-designed, comfortable, and attractive. Curitiba has one of the most heavily used, yet low-cost, transit systems in the world. It offers many of the features of a subway system -- vehicle movements unimpeded by traffic signals and congestion, fare collection prior to boarding, quick passenger loading and unloading -- but it is above ground and visible. Even with one automobile for every three people, one of the highest automobile ownership rates in Brazil, and with a significantly higher per capita income than the national average, around 70 percent of Curitiba’s commuters use transit daily to travel to work. Greater Curitiba with its 2.2 million inhabitants enjoys congestion-free streets and pollution-free air.

3.1 Evolution of the Bus System
The bus system did not develop overnight, nor was it the result of transit development isolated from other aspects of city planning. It exists because thirty years ago Curitiba’s forward-thinking and cost-conscious planners developed a Master Plan integrating public transportation with all elements of the urban system. They initiated a transportation system that focused on meeting the transportation needs of the population -- rather than focusing on those using private automobiles -- and then consistently followed through over the years with staged implementation of their plan. They avoided large scale and expensive projects in favor of hundreds of modest initiatives.

A previous comprehensive plan for Curitiba, developed in 1943, had envisioned exponential growth of automobile traffic and wide boulevards radiating from the central core of the city to accommodate the traffic. Rights of way for the boulevards were acquired, but many other parts of the plan never materialized. With the adoption of the new Master Plan in 1965, the projected layout of the city changed dramatically. The Master Plan sprang from a competition among urban planners prompted by fears of city officials that Curitiba’s rapid growth, if unchannelled, would lead to the congested, pedestrian-unfriendly streets and unchecked development that characterized their neighbor city, São Paulo, and many other Brazilian cities to the north.

As a result of the Master Plan, Curitiba would no longer grow in all directions from the core, but would grow along designated corridors in a linear form, spurred by zoning and land use policies promoting high density industrial and residential development along the corridors. Downtown Curitiba would no longer be the primary destination of travel, but a hub and terminus. Mass transit would replace the car as the primary means of transport within the city, and the high density development along the corridors would produce a high volume of transit ridership. The wide boulevards established in the earlier plan would provide the cross section required for exclusive bus lanes in which express bus service would operate.

3.2 The Bus System
Curitiba’s bus system evolved in stages over the years as phases of the Master Plan were implemented to arrive at its current form. It is composed of a hierarchical system of services. Small minibuses routed through residential neighborhoods feed passengers to conventional buses on circumferential routes around the central city and on interdistrict routes. The backbone of the bus system is composed of the express buses operating on five main arteries leading into the center of the city much as spokes on a wheel lead to its hub. This backbone service, aptly described as Bus Rapid Transit, is characterized by several features that enable Curitiba’s bus service to approach the speed, efficiency, and reliability of a subway system:

  • integrated planning
  • exclusive bus lanes
  • signal priority for buses
  • pre-boarding fare collection
  • level bus boarding from raised platforms in tube stations
  • free transfers between lines (single entry)
  • large capacity articulated and bi-articulated wide-door buses
  • overlapping system of bus services

Each artery is composed of a "trinary" road system, consisting of three parallel routes, a block apart. The middle route is a wide avenue with "Express" bus service running down dedicated high-capacity express busways in the center two lanes, offering frequent stop service using standard, articulated and bi-articulated buses carrying up to 270 passengers apiece. The outer lanes are for local access and parking. Back in the 1960s the building of a light rail system in these avenues had been considered, but proved to be too expensive. The two outer routes are one-way streets with mixed vehicle traffic lanes next to exclusive bus lanes running "direct" high-speed bus service with limited stops. Both the express and direct services use signal priority at intersections.

Photo: Passengers board and alight via a special tube on Curitiba's central transit routes so that boarding is not delayed by fare collection

Passengers board and alight via a special tube on Curitiba's central transit routes so that boarding is not delayed by fare collection.

Buses running in the dedicated and exclusive lanes stop at tube stations. These are modern design cylindrical-shaped, clear-walled stations with turnstiles, steps, and wheelchair lifts. Passengers pay their bus fares as they enter the stations, and wait for buses on raised station platforms. Instead of steps, buses are designed with extra wide doors and ramps which extend when the doors open to fill the gap between the bus and the station platform. The tube stations serve the dual purpose of providing passengers with shelter from the elements, and facilitating the efficient simultaneous loading and unloading of passengers, including wheelchairs. A typical dwell time of only 15 to 19 seconds is the result of fare payment prior to boarding the bus and same-level boarding from the platform to the bus.

Passengers pay a single fare equivalent to about 40 cents (U.S.) for travel throughout the system, with unlimited transfers between buses. Transfers are accomplished at terminals where the different services intersect. Transfers occur within the prepaid portions of the terminals so transfer tickets are not needed. In these areas are located public telephones, post offices, newspaper stands, and small retail facilities to serve customers changing buses.

Ten private bus companies provide all public transportation services in Curitiba, with guidance and parameters established by the city administration. The bus companies are paid by the distances they travel rather than by the passengers they carry, allowing a balanced distribution of bus routes and eliminating the former destructive competition that clogged the main roads and left other parts of the city unserved. All ten bus companies earn an operating profit.

The city pays the companies for the buses, about 1 percent of the bus value per month. After ten years, the city takes control of the buses and uses them for transportation to parks or as mobile schools. The average bus is only three years old, largely because of the recent infusion of newly designed buses, including the articulated and bi-articulated buses, into the system.

3.3 Integration of Transit with Land Use Planning
Curitiba’s Master Plan integrated transportation with land use planning, with the latter as the driving force, and called for a cultural, social and economic transformation of the city. It limited central area growth, while encouraging commercial growth along the transport arteries radiating out from the city center. The city’s central area was partly closed to vehicular traffic, and pedestrian streets were created. The linear development along the arteries reduced the traditional importance of the downtown area as the primary focus of day-to-day transport activity, thereby minimizing congestion and the typical morning flow of traffic into the central city and the afternoon outflow. As a result, during any rush hour in Curitiba, there are heavy commuter movements in both directions along the public transportation arteries.

The Master Plan also provided economic support for urban development along the arteries through the establishment of industrial and commercial zones and mixed-use zoning, and encouraged local community self-sufficiency by providing each city district with its own adequate education, health care, recreation, and park areas. By 1992, almost 40 percent of Curitiba’s population resided within three blocks of the major transit arteries.

Other policies have contributed to the success of the transit system, in the areas of zoning, housing development, parking and employer-paid transit subsidies. Land within two blocks of the transit arteries has been zoned for mixed commercial-residential uses. Higher densities are permitted for office space, since it traditionally generates more transit ridership per square foot than residential space. Beyond these two blocks, zoned residential densities taper with distance from transitways. Land near transit arteries is encouraged to be developed with community-assisted housing. The Institute of Urban Research and Planning of Curitiba (IPPUC), established in the 1960s to oversee implementation of the Master Plan, must approve locations of new shopping centers. They discourage American style auto-oriented shopping centers by channeling new retail growth to transit corridors. Very limited and time-restricted public parking is available in the downtown area, and private parking is very expensive. Finally, most employers offer transportation subsidies to workers, especially low-skilled and low-paid employees, making them the primary purchasers of tokens.

3.4 Staged Development of the Bus System
As the population increased during the period from 1970 through the present, Curitiba’s bus system evolved incrementally. It required expansion of service routes, frequencies, and capacities, and improvements in fare payment, scheduling, and facility design to facilitate the passenger transferring process. Innovative low-cost and low-tech options for new services and features were chosen over more expensive alternatives at each stage. Planners did not hesitate to abandon choices that did not work in favor of more effective solutions.

At several points throughout the bus system development, the option of constructing a rail network was considered. Initially, buses were chosen over rail because they were far more adaptable and cheaper for a developing city such as Curitiba. In the mid-1980s the ridership had grown enough to support a rail network, but capital costs were prohibitive. Instead, the high capacity, high speed service known as "direct" service was eventually introduced on the one-way exclusive bus lanes that parallel the main corridors one block away. This service, including the tube stations, cost about $200,000 per kilometer to build, and was far cheaper, faster and less disruptive than the estimated $20 million per kilometer for a light rail system.

Not to be underestimated in the evolution of the transit system is the influence of the current governor of the State of Parana, Jaime Lerner. Lerner left his position as president of the IPPUC to become a three-time Mayor of Curitiba, and then governor. With a stake in the development of the Master Plan, he was its champion throughout the years, providing guidance, a firm governmental commitment to transit, and leadership. His steady promotion of the plan enabled it to withstand any tendencies for local politics to alter its course.

3.5 Results of Bus Rapid Transit
The popularity of Curitiba’s Bus Rapid Transit system has effected a modal shift from automobile travel to bus travel, in spite of Curitibanos’ high income and high rate of car ownership relative to the rest of Brazil. Based on 1991 traveler survey results, it was estimated that service improvements resulting from the introduction of Bus Rapid Transit had attracted enough automobile users to public transportation to cause a reduction of about 27 million auto trips per year, saving about 27 million liters of fuel annually. In particular, 28 percent of direct bus service users previously traveled by car. Compared to eight other Brazilian cities its size, Curitiba uses about 30 percent less fuel per capita, because of its heavy transit usage. The low rate of ambient air pollution in Curitiba, one of the lowest in Brazil, is attributed to the public transportation system’s accounting for around 55 percent of private trips in the city.

Residential patterns changed to afford bus access on the major arteries to a larger proportion of the population. Between 1970 and 1978, when the three main arteries were built, the population of Curitiba as a whole grew by 73 percent, while the population along the arteries grew by 120 percent. Today about 1,100 buses make 12,500 trips per day, serving more than 1.3 million passengers per day, 50 times more than 20 years ago. Eighty percent of the travelers use either the express or direct bus service, while only 20 percent use the conventional feeder services. Plans for extending the rapid bus network will reduce the need for conventional services. In addition to enjoying speedy and reliable service, Curitibanos spend only about 10 percent of their income on travel, which is low relative to the rest of Brazil.

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