Ethan Arpi

Mass Transit That Works

BusIn grassroots politics, Porto Alegre is best known for participatory budgeting, a practice in which councils of city residents, and not political fat cats, decide how to allocate municipal funds. The success of this practice in rooting out corruption was a watershed event in local politics and other municipalities soon followed Porto Alegre’s lead. Now Porto Alegre is at it once again. This time, however, it is walking in the footsteps of other Latin American cities like Curitiba, Bogot?, and Mexico City, which have developed some of the most sophisticated mass transport systems in the developing world. These systems, which are both cheap and efficient, improve urban mobility, access to jobs, economic growth, and social equity.

Last year, Porto Alegre announced a partnership with WRI’s Center for Transport and the Environment to finance and implement a Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT). Through scheduling and infrastructural enhancements, like bus-exclusive lanes, the BRT system strives to reproduce the efficiency of light rail without its enormously high costs.?

The reasons to applaud Porto Alegre’s efforts have much to do with the changing cityscape in the developing world. The gridlock and smog in Mexico City, for example, which is home to some 18 million people, makes Los Angeles look like a pristine eco-village. In some burgeoning Chinese cities, air quality has become so poor that residents are advised to stay indoors during the daytime. Developing efficient mass transportation systems in these areas, as well as in Europe and North America, will be one of the most effective ways to improve air quality and reduce congestion.

What is unique about Porto Alegre’s transportation system is that it relies on 15 different private bus operators, which are managed by the municipal government. Through this collaborative venture linking the public and private spheres, Porto Alegre is poised to make all sectors of the city readily accessible to its 1.3 million residents. The challenge will now be encouraging other urban areas to adopt similar systems so that congestion and air pollution don?t keep city residents locked up and indoors.