Councilmember George Leventhal enters a bi-articulated express bus in Curitiba.

Curitiba, a city of 1.8 million people, is the capital of the state of Paraná in Brazil. In late December, I visited Curitiba at my own expense and was briefed on its Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, one of the world’s first and most highly-regarded. Because Montgomery County is studying BRT as an option for its residents, I wanted to find out how it is working in other communities. I found many positive aspects and some less positive.

My sincere thanks to Silvia Mara Dos Santos Ramos of URBS (Urbanizacao de Curitiba, S/A), the city’s transit agency, and André Vinicius Marchezetti of transportation consulting firm Logitrans, who were the guides for my visit. Officials at EMBARQ, a project of the World Resources Institute, and its Brazilian Center for Sustainable Transport were also extremely helpful in helping me make contact with the guides in Curitiba.

Positive aspects of the system

Curitiba’s system is respected around the world and has inspired other BRT systems in Latin American cities including Bogota, Mexico City and Guatemala City, as well as U.S. cities including Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles. Click here to see a good overview of the system in Portuguese, but with easy-to-understand graphics. Click here to see a map of bus routes.

The genius of the city’s plan is that on primary streets, the center two lanes of traffic have been reserved for buses. This enables the buses to avoid automobile traffic and move smoothly, with minimal interruption. “Tube” stations are placed every 500 meters along primary routes. A city law states that no resident may live more than 500 meters from a bus stop, so the primary and collector routes cover the entire residential area.

Inside a tube station. All photos from the author.

On the main bus line, the 351 tube stations are sleek and modern. Passengers pay when they enter the station, avoiding a delay when entering the bus. The buses are long, with several doors allowing passengers to enter and the bus doors correspond with several doors at each station, enabling speedy entrance to and egress from the buses. Buses on primary express routes are “bi-articulated,” containing three cars with accordion-style dividers that enable them to navigate tight turns quickly and efficiently.

This video demonstrates a biarticulated bus navigating a tight turn.

Within the stations, bus stops are identified with a clear map similar to the Metro route map. A tourist like myself can easily navigate most of the city by following the bus route on a map. Unfortunately, because the buses are used on multiple routes and because the bus network covers so much territory, complete routes are not shown inside every bus.

A single fare of R$2.20 Brazilian Reals (US$1.22) enables a rider to take a single bus as far as it travels, even from Curitiba’s furthest suburbs into the city center. Fare revenue accounts for 100 percent of Curitiba’s operating budget. (Its capital budget — the cost of building the system — came from international investment including the World Bank and French Development Agency.)

Property values adjacent to the bus line have shown consistent increases when new express routes are constructed, increasing tax revenues to local governments. Buses utilize 20% Biodiesel to minimize emissions of carbon and other pollutants.

My son Daniel Leventhal rides the bus.

Less positive aspects of the system

Because the current system dates to 1974, the 29 primary bus terminals that facilitate transfers between collector and primary bus routes are aging. The two I visited were not especially attractive, and abundantly covered with graffiti.

Ms. Dos Santos told me that “the rich do not use the system much.” Those who have access to the comfort and privacy of their automobiles opt out of using the BRT system. In general, I did not find the BRT experience comparable to fixed-rail systems in terms of comfort. Curitiba does not have a system like Metrorail, although there are plans to construct a rail line in time for the 2014 World Cup.

Taken from inside an express bus, this photo shows the division of the BRT lanes from automobile lanes.

Lessons for Montgomery County, Maryland

According to Ms. Dos Santos, the rate of automobile ownership in Curitiba is 22%, while transit usage is 40% and the balance of commuters travel by motorcycle or motor scooter, or walk. This helps to explain why ridership of the BRT system is so high and why farebox revenues cover operating costs.

By contrast, in Montgomery County, 66% of workers drive to work alone while only 14.9% commute by rail or bus, according to the 2008 American Community Survey.

Another important difference is the price of gasoline, which is substantially more expensive in Brazil (R$2.49 Brazilian Reals per liter, or approximately U.S. $5.20 per gallon, while I was there) than in the U.S., making automobile travel substantially less affordable for working Brazilians.

The critical question is whether increased frequency, speed and convenience would persuade enough Montgomery County residents to ride the bus to make the system financially sustainable. Even in Curitiba, where per capita income was $17,977 Brazilian Reals (U.S. $10,005) in 2006, upscale people do not ride the bus. And there are far more upscale people in Montgomery County, where per capita income is U.S. $35,684.

The county’s current Ride-On bus system generates only approximately 15% of its revenue from fares, with the remainder subsidized from general tax revenues. The current budget crisis has highlighted the Ride-On system’s significant expense to taxpayers, although the County Council has so far resisted cuts in Ride-On service proposed by the County Executive. How much more can we afford to expand the bus system even if the current 85% subsidy from all taxpayers decreased to a subsidy of 80%, 75% or lower?

Also relevant is that the county’s bus storage and maintenance facility is at its absolute limit of available space, and a new storage and maintenance facility proposed for Clarksburg has been delayed because of concerns over runoff into Ten Mile Creek, so there is currently no place to store additional buses in the county.

An express bus departs from tube stations.

Curitiba has a long history of transit service, dating back to horse-drawn trolleys in 1887. Planning for 20 primary express bus routes began in 1966 and the system opened in 1974. For more than 35 years, primary roads have been designed to accommodate the BRT system. Municipalities in the Curitiba region served by URBS delegate management of the transit system to URBS, whose board members are appointed by the Mayor of Curitiba.

In Montgomery County, however, major roads would need to be redesigned to accommodate bus rapid transit. The state of Maryland’s recent reconstruction of Route 29 represented a critical missed opportunity to develop express bus lanes in the middle.

Our county’s primary roads (Route 29, New Hampshire Avenue, Georgia Avenue, Connecticut Avenue, Routes 28 & 198, Veirs Mill Road, University Boulevard, Wisconsin Avenue/Rockville Pike, and I-270) are owned, designed and maintained by the State Highway Administration. It would require close coordination between the county, the state and possibly the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) would be necessary to accomplish the BRT vision. Ridership will be a very important criterion for winning federal funding, but ridership is the key question regarding whether the system can succeed here.

Accommodating through automobile traffic on primary roads will be another key issue. Because the buses travel on a dedicated route, automobiles may not cross primary streets at every intersection. In Montgomery County, this will affect many neighborhood streets whose residents are accustomed to being able to cross major streets or make left and right turns to exit their neighborhoods—all of which could be restricted with rapid bus routes down the center of major streets.

My visit to Curitiba was a great experience and there is no question that I would love to see similar technology employed in Montgomery County. In the near term, I will advocate for BRT on Veirs Mill Road, which along with University Boulevard has just received a federal grant for bus transit improvements, and Georgia Avenue. I am also optimistic about prospects for BRT on the Inter County Connector and the proposal for BRT on Rockville Pike contained in the White Flint Sector Plan, now pending before the County Council.

On the other hand, my visit to Curitiba did not persuade me that BRT compares favorably to fixed-rail systems as an effective inducement for riders to leave their automobiles at home. I will continue to advocate strongly for light rail on the Purple Line and, while I understand that cost factors may ultimately persuade Governor O’Malley to select BRT for the Corridor Cities Transitway, my preference remains light rail for that system as well.

George Leventhal is an at-large member of the Montgomery County Council. He serves on the Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee.