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International Models for Public Transportation: Curitiba, Brazil Bus Rapid Transit

Once again, Voices for Public Transit looks beyond our nation’s borders for insight into how we might improve American public transportation.

For the first time in our international series, we turn to South America, where we explore the remarkable bus rapid transit (BRT) system of Curitiba, Brazil.

Smart Urban Planning Leads to a Revolutionary Bus System

Long a commercial hub in southern Brazil, Curitiba has experienced several waves of growth over the last three centuries. Railroads reached the city by the mid-1880s, and the city replaced mule trams with electric trams in 1912. In 1943, Curitiba developed a sophisticated city plan, with a star-shaped system of boulevards and districts, but many components of the plan remained on the drawing board because of expense.

In the 1960s, with the growing population exceeding 430,000, city leaders again turned their attention to urban planning and solicited proposals. The winning plan envisioned a robust public transportation system built around a system of “trinary roads” with exclusive lanes for buses. Automobiles would travel on one-way roads parallel to the closed bus lanes. While this system required road closures and reconfiguration, it did not incur the massive costs of tunneling for a subway system. The project was economical—and would accommodate urban growth. In 1974, the system—called the Rede Integrada de Transporte (Integrated Transportation Network) or the RIT for short—carried its first passengers; it was the world’s first BRT system.

Benefits of the IRT

Today, Curitiba’s low-cost BRT system is one of the most heavily used public transportation systems in the world, per capita. The greater Curitiba metropolitan area has about 3.2 million people, and the IRT has a daily ridership of 2.3 million. The system provides numerous benefits—both to riders and to the city as a whole. Notable features and benefits include:

  • Speed—With exclusive lanes, special traffic lights, and express buses, the IRT provides the fastest means of travel in Curitiba.
  • Capacity—Most IRT buses are bi-articulated, meaning that they are split into three sections, with the middle section being connected to front and rear sections by flexible accordion joints. At their largest, the IRT’s buses are nearly 92-feet long and can carry up to 270 passengers.
  • Reduced Air Pollution—Compared to other Brazilian cities of similar sizes, Curitiba uses significantly less fuel per capita and has the lowest ambient air pollution in the country.
  • Livability—By reducing the transportation footprint of the city, the IRT has supported vibrant urban development, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, and green spaces.

BRT in the United States

More than two dozen U.S. cities operate BRT systems—and this type of system might make sense for many other areas that need expanded and affordable public transportation. The latest round of U.S. Department of Transportation TIGER grants provided funding for several BRT systems, but greater funding is needed for the benefits of BRT to reach further.