I recently attended a neighborhood screening of A Convenient Truth: Urban Solutions from Curitiba, Brazil, sponsored by the West Queens Greens. I’ve had some interest in Curitiba, particularly in their bus rapid transit system, so I wanted to find out more.
I’d already heard about the dedicated right of way and the prepayment system. One of the ideas that struck me most was this simple-sounding one: the buses are operated by ten separate companies, which are paid by the kilometer. After seeing the mess in Santo Domingo that is at least partially the result of transit systems that pays operators by the passenger, I was intrigued by a potential solution. A report from the Institute for Transportation Development Policy (PDF, Google Cache) explains why:
By paying bus operating companies by the kilometer and tightly regulating where the buses stop, the chaotic behavior at the curb lane is removed, freeing up road space for mixed traffic. Since some buses have platform level boarding doors (with no steps down), it is impossible to discharge or board passengers except at the station. Thus, this can help alleviate the problem of frequent and sudden stops that result in more congestion and potential accidents, as well as picking up and leaving passengers in unsafe areas (such as the middle of the street). Private bus operators are generally contracted to operate the system, and their profits are fairly secure because they are paid by the kilometer.
And there, in one swell foop, is a move that would tremendously improve the transit experience in Santo Domingo, Weehawken and many other places where the anxiety of private bus operators puts passengers at risk. A bit of thought indicates that it’s easier said than done, however. A report from the WorldWatch Institute (PDF) gives one reason why (Box 4-2, page 80):
For more than two decades, BRT failed to thrive outside Curitiba. Brazilian cities such as S?o Paulo, Belo Horizonte, and Porto Alegre built bus lanes superficially resembling Curitiba?s but without the key elements: prepaid platform-level boarding stations, structured bus routes, and bus priority through the city center. When experts considered why no city could replicate Curitiba?s success, they noted that its Mayor, Jaime Lerner, had been appointed during a dictatorship and had military backing to force private bus companies to reform. The municipal transit agency collected fares and paid bus companies by the kilometer. Bus operators in other Latin American cities blocked such changes.
That’s one difficulty. I’ve also not yet found out how the Curitiba bus agency managed to prevent the opposite problem: if bus companies are paid by the kilometer, what’s to stop them from slamming the doors in customers’ faces, or not even stopping to pick up passengers? What’s to prevent them from running hundreds of empty buses in the middle of the night? How did they verify that the companies actually drove those kilometers in the first place, in the days before GPS? These are not insurmountable problems, but if they’re not dealt with properly they can bring down the whole system.