Transportation Innovations Down South

20 Mar

The sequester has taken some of the wind out of the sails of efforts at federal transportation reform. With funding sources running dry, potentially game-changing transportation improvements are left on the table or scrapped completely. Those that do pass have to contend with continuing hurdles of opposition. What to do when the feds are scaling back? We’ve decided to pack our bags and head to South America: a place where winter comes in June and transportation innovations come year-round. A look at our neighbors to the south brings hope of innovative solutions.

South America is bursting with innovative transportation policy and technology. The Wall Street Journal and Citi recently named Medellín, “City of the Year,” while the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) granted Mexico City the 2013 Sustainable Transport Award (Medellín won in 2012). Two of the four honorable mention cities were also in South America: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Rosario, Argentina.

A city once notorious for drug-related crime, Medellín is now recognized for its groundbreaking transportation system. A transformational transportation innovation took place in the form of escalators, which provide access from the main transit system to the poorest favelas situated along the steep hillsides of the city. Medellín established the country’s first metro system, Metro de Medellín, and was among the first cities to introduce ski lift-style gondolas into its public transportation system. For a country with limited resources, where the average citizen lives off $500 a month, the project came to fruition through a public-private partnership.

Looking to South America’s economic powerhouse Brazil, the city of Curitiba is known for pioneering bus rapid transit (BRT), which it accomplished through private investment. Similarly, Bogotá’s successful Transmilenio BRT system is operated by a private company [PDF], with the city responsible for infrastructure maintenance and the company in charge of servicing their buses, machinery, and ticketing operations. As noted by the ITDP, “BRT in Latin America has demonstrated a successful new paradigm of public sector regulation and private sector operation, combining the efficiency benefits of private sector management with social goals.” Privatization of operations takes the burden off the government, but working hand-in-hand with the local municipality ensures the system runs efficiently and effectively for its passengers.

Other notable Latin American examples include Mexico City’s EcoBici bikeshare program which has quadrupled in size after just two years of service, while the city’s BRT program, supported through a $49 million World Bank loan [PDF], is reducing traffic congestion and air pollution. Back to the samba south, using technical assistance from EMBARQ, Rio de Janeiro recently opened and is expanding its BRT system in anticipation of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. And in Rosario, Argentina, commuters are experiencing a 30% reduction in travel times by implementing policies that reduce parking near transit stations, create exclusive bus lanes, and add a public bicycle system.

These Latin American cities have the common goals of improving the quality of life for all citizens, securing successful funding mechanisms, and utilizing strong leadership. It was the unabashed leadership of former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Penalosa that created Ciclovía, launching a worldwide phenomenon in open streets. Former Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard effectively changed the way people get around the city through BRT, bikeshare, and parking reform. So with strong leadership, the will to create a quality of life that benefit all citizens, and some great music and soccer, we can be just as successful as our neighbors to the south.

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