After locking itself away in the ”situation room” for numerous meetings, a group of experts recently emerged with a major review of São Paulo’s transportation plans for the next 20 years. Pedro Benvenuto, who headed the review, says that the goal is to have transportation planning help reorganize the metropolis, especially by promoting the emergence of new job-dense areas outside the city’s center. While São Paulo has experienced the bulk of its population growth at the fringes of its metropolitan area, most jobs remained concentrated at central locations.
For the review, Benvenuto summoned transit officials, city planners, consultants, academics, and representatives from subway, rail, and bus companies. The work begins with the experts devising plans to increase access to public transportation, speed up existing services, build new infrastructure, and so on. Then it’s the modelers’ turn. This subgroup examines the proposed plans using an urban planning simulator called Tranus, an open-source program used by dozens of cities that’s like a kind of SimCity--the popular city-design game--minus the sleek graphics. The program simulates how transportation affects land use, and vice versa. To run it, the modelers feed in a digital representation of São Paulo’s roadways, a detailed map of the city’s real-estate characteristics, a database of daily trips for the entire population, and also social and economic indicators. Then they run dozens of simulations to assess the costs and benefits of different scenarios.
The group’s proposed review envisions an ideal 2025 city where public transportation ridership increases to about 60 percent, low-income people double the average number of daily trips they can afford, and even car drivers benefit, with average traffic speed increasing by 20 percent. The plan will require $20 billion in investments and calls for a significant expansion in all types of transportation infrastructure. Most resources will go into extending the subway network to 168 km from 60 km and the rail system to 372 km from 270 km. The bus system, which will continue to be the city’s largest people mover, is slated to receive an additional 366 km of dedicated lanes and 40 new transfer terminals. It’s an ambitious plan. But is it enough?
As any bus rider here will attest, there’s plenty of room for improvement. Many lines need better speed and consistency. Decrepit coaches ( latas velhas , or old cans, some would call them) need to be replaced. And some busways need more lanes and enhanced stations to keep long, slow-moving lines of coaches from bogging down the whole system. For experts like Pedro Szasz, São Paulo needs to be more ambitious with its bus projects. He says that, contrary to what detractors may claim, there is more than enough road space to take lanes for buses. The problem, he adds, is that large projects require the right political and economic conditions, and these are not easy to come by.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been progress. Riding on a bus in São
Paulo, you might not notice all that’s required to keep things running efficiently. Consider fare collection. Called the bilhete único , or single ticket, it’s a wallet-size plastic card with a microchip inside. With technology from Philips, it stores how much money you’ve added and subtracts your current fare as you wave it near a card reader inside a bus. With the card, you can ride on up to four buses within two hours and pay only one fare. And you can use the same card on any bus--local, intercity, regional--as well as the subway or commuter rail.
The cards are not just convenient for passengers. Buses in the city are operated by a dozen private companies, which need to be paid according to the number of people they transport. The bus system’s revenues last year came to $1.65 billion. Before electronic fare collection was introduced, dividing the funds was a difficult task, with disputes over the figures (and also fraud) hard to avoid. Now, after completing its run, each bus transfers the fare data it has accumulated to an overseeing agency, which in turn distributes each company’s share.
”I’ve worked in the transportation sector for 30 years now, and this was always a dream,” says Frederico Bussinger, an electrical engineer turned transportation expert and the city’s secretary of transportation. ”That it’s all integrated now is no small accomplishment.”
And other advances are on their way. One is making buses more reliable. São Paulo is equipping all city buses with GPS systems. Each vehicle will carry a tracking device that continuously reports its location to a control center and also lets the driver communicate with remote supervisors. The monitoring will help make adjustments to operations and also provide information to users through displays at bus stops. Another advance is aesthetic. Previously, bus corridors required concrete and metal dividers that narrowed roadways and disfigured the urban landscape. Now a yellow stripe painted on the asphalt separates bus and car lanes, with digital cameras placed along the bus corridors. Invade one and you get a fine.
Photo: Julio Bittencourt
ROLLING, ROLLING, ROLLING
Engineers monitor all city buses from a single control center.
”We are going from the bus of the Stone Age to the bus of the Information Age,” Benvenuto says.
Indeed, from the 1820s when horse-drawn carriages, called ”omnibuses,” hit the streets of Nantes, France, as the first urban public coaches, the bus has come a long way. According to one estimate, São Paulo’s modern diesel buses are 6.5 times more energy efficient than cars: buses consume an average of 2 kilowattâ''hours per passenger per trip, whereas cars require 13 kWh.
But of course, put too many buses together and you have a problem breathing. Automobiles here are the main culprits in urban air pollution, with buses adding less than 15 percent of the carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon pollutants in São Paulo’s air. But in or around a BRT corridor, the contribution from buses jumps to 50 percent. And concentration of particulate matter in busways can be twice as high as in regular roadways.
São Paulo, like other megacities with large vehicle fleets, has long been battling air pollution, which health officials estimate is responsible for 4000 premature deaths annually. The city’s bus agencies are replacing older buses with newer ones with better engine control systems and subjecting them to more stringent inspections. They also devised emission assessment metrics to grade each bus company’s fleet, which by contract needs to remain below a maximum level.
Also, there’s the possibility of benefiting from new vehicular technology. São Paulo has studied nearly all options--cleaner diesel, biodiesel, ethanol, natural gas, electricity, hybrids--but for the moment it is exploring a more ambitious proposition: buses powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Backed by the New York Citybased United Nations Development Program and the Global Environment Facility, a funding agency in Washington, D.C., São Paulo embarked on a $16 million project to build five prototype buses and one hydrogen production and filling station.
”Five buses are not a lot, but it’s a beginning,” says Marcio Schettino, the project’s executive coordinator. ”We hope to both advance the technology and create a market for hydrogen-powered vehicles.”
The onboard fuel cell, developed by the Canadian company Ballard Power Systems, in Burnaby, B.C., combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, which powers a motor to propel the bus, with only water vapor as a by-product. Another Canadian company, Hydrogenics, in Mississauga, Ont., will supply the equipment to produce 120 kilograms of hydrogen per day. The system as a whole will be zero-emission, because the hydrogen will be produced through electrolysis of water, and 90 percent of Brazil’s electricity comes from hydropower. Although the core technologies are imported, Brazilian companies will provide the buses’ chassis and bodies and Brazilian engineers will accompany all stages of the development.
One of the advantages of the Brazilian bus in comparison to others tested in Europe and North America is that it will be a hybrid, recovering energy during braking by turning the motor into a generator and charging a battery. The 90â''passenger buses will have a range of 300 km, which is about the same as the diesel buses currently used here. Monitored by GPS, the vehicles will be tested for four years running for about 1 million km on the São MateusJabaquara busway, in the southeastern part of the city.
To be sure, air pollution and congestion are hardly new challenges for megacities like São Paulo. However, the problems seem only to be getting worse. A new major government-backed transportation survey will be conducted this year, and experts will spend months scrutinizing the new data. Whether bus systems will help clear the air and streets remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: São Paulo has plenty of lessons for other megacities with transportation problems of their own.
It's 8:00 p.m. and Carlos Soares gets off the bus at the Anhangabaú stop. The ride from his workplace took 55 minutes, but Soares is not quite home yet. From here, he’s getting on the subway, and after a short ride he still has a local bus to take--a 2â''hour journey that is typical for millions here. Still, Soares is not complaining. He says that after the Rebouças bus corridor began operation, it cut his daily commute by half an hour each way. And while riding, he’s able to talk on the cellphone, read a book, or chat with a reporter. Much better than grinding his teeth in stop-and-go traffic.
”The [bus] corridor is great,” he says. ”I just wish it went all the way to my door.”
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