São Paulo Hops the Bus to Progress

As everyone knows, traffic congestion is one of the scourges of modern life in big cities. In megacities, this problem can bring the citizenry to a literal standstill, choking off all progress, not to mention the concomitant pollution it produces. In this month's issue on the future of cities, Associate Editor Erico Guizzo returns from South America's biggest urban center with a report that focuses on the role a low-tech form of transportation, the venerable bus, is playing in keeping the Brazilian hub on the go in "How to Keep 18 Million People Moving".

While futuristic subway and commuter rail lines are in the works, their development is not coming fast enough to cope with São Paulo's booming transportation needs, Guizzo observes. So, as a temporary alternative, city planners have bolstered their bus operation to maximum efficiency. With 26 391 buses, 1908 lines, 34 transfer stations, and 146.5 kilometers of dedicated busways--moving 10.5 million passengers a day--São Paulo operates what is currently the world's most complex bus system.

The approach may be old school, but the implementation is decidedly new, Guizzo discovered. The São Paulo system relies on a number of advanced technologies: computer simulations help plan the bus network, GPS monitoring keeps track of the fleet, and electronic payment streamlines fare collection.

It's a solution that, in many respects, is making up its own rules as it goes along, Guizzo found. In Brazil's megacity, you can find nearly all the different configurations a transportation planner could concoct. "São Paulo is the biggest laboratory in the world in terms of transportation in many ways," Darío Hidalgo, a transportation specialist with the global management consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton, in Bogotá, Colombia, told Guizzo.

Relying so heavily on mostly diesel buses to move massive numbers of people to and from their destinations does not obviate the problem of carbon-based air pollution. So Brazilian authorities are examining all their options in improving the efficiency of their bus fleets, especially in terms of emissions. Cleaner diesel, biodiesel, ethanol, natural gas, electricity, hybrids and other concepts are all under consideration for their next-generation fleets (with prototype buses equipped with hydrogen-fuel-cell units hitting the road later this year).

Air pollution and congestion are hardly new challenges for megacities like São Paulo, Guizzo notes. Whether bus systems will help clear the air and streets remains to be seen, he writes, but one thing is certain: São Paulo has plenty of lessons for other megacities with transportation problems of their own.

As Pedro Szasz, a consultant in São Paulo and one of the world's top public transportation experts, told Guizzo with some pride, "Brazilians are good at soccer, samba, and bus systems."

And everyone knows how good they are at samba and soccer.


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