How To Exit Gridlock? Don’t Build Roads, Lessons from Brazil

Stuck in a traffic jam? Choking on car fumes? Then take the next exit and head south past the equator to the city of Curitiba, Brazil, where you can board a bus to a public transit utopia.

By Stephen Leahy

[This 2002 magazine article offers a positive example of urban transport while cities continue to grow exponentially often without creating sustainable ways for people to move around.]

By the year 2025, two-thirds of the planet’s population will live in cities, according to the United Nations. And almost all of this growth – a staggering 90 percent – will take place in countries of the developing world.

Third World cities usually conjure up images of traffic and pollution, poverty and shantytowns. But the remarkable city of Curitiba in southern Brazil is trying to paint a different picture. This mid-sized city of just over one-and-a-half million has become a Mecca for urban planners, transit officials and environmentalists the world over.

Cities as far flung as Cape Town, Santiago, Lagos, New York, Toronto, Montreal, Amsterdam and Bogota have come to learn how Curitiba fought the car congestion and pollution nightmares that haunt many, if not most, of the world’s cities.

What’s even more remarkable is that by most standards, Curitiba is a poor city. Its annual per capita annual income is under $3,000 (all figures in U.S. dollars). Yet polls show that residents of Curitiba love their city and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Visitors call it one of the most liveable cities anywhere.

The story of Curitiba’s transformation into a self-styled ‘Capital of Ecology’ begins in the late 1960s when the city of then 360,000 faced a population growth boom, like other cities in Latin America.

Curitiba was industrializing rapidly, levelling the old to make way for the modern. And like most cities, it was suffocating on its own traffic.

The solution, of course, was to build more roads.

So in a scene repeated hundreds of times the world over, the narrow, main street, and many of its magnificent turn-of-the-century buildings, were to be obliterated by a modern expressway. But in 1971, a young architect and newly-minted mayor by the name of Jaime Lerner thought the unthinkable.

He wanted to stop the construction and instead create Brazil’s first pedestrian mall. However, not even the shopkeepers on the old street were in favour; how would people shop if they couldn’t drive their cars?

Lerner, who had trained in Paris, believed that once people experienced a pedestrian mall they’d love it. Over one weekend Lerner pushed the public works department to rip up the pavement and put in cobblestones and flowerbeds.

By Monday afternoon the shopkeepers wanted the mall extended.

–full story

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