Public transportation pandemonium in Rio de Janeiro

Who’s playing with passengers? Public art in the BRT Alvorada Terminal, Barra da Tijuca

Arrests yesterday blow open corruption scheme hurting passengers for almost 30 years

Some say we’ve got the worst public transportation crisis ever in metro Rio, with chaos clearly on the way. This story in O Globo published last Sunday describes falling ridership, late wages, layoffs, two court rulings to lower fares, increased informal transportation with alleged militia participation, old buses being taken off the road, and bus company threats to close 22 BRT stations on the Transoeste line.

Para português, clique aqui

The owner of some of the most important bus companies in Rio, a member of the Barata family, was arrested for the third time Tuesday, accused of bribing state politicians. He’s said to be part of a big web of businessmen and politicians who’ve placed their pockets over the greater good.

Monday, bus drivers voted for a five-hour strike on Nov 21, to press for late wage payments, among other demands.

Believe it or not, public transportation was meant to have been the 2016 Olympic Games’ most important legacy. In the run-up to Rio’s mega-events at least US$ 4.5 billion went to partial modernization of the SuperVia metro train system, the construction of three BRT lines, a light rail system and the extension of a subway line.

What happened? What went wrong?

Here it’s worth recalling that a 20-cent bus fare increase sparked the 2013 street protests. This in turn brought a demand for transparency in the accounts and the relationships between bus consortia (reorganized in this format in 2011 by the Paes administration; the companies were mere licensees, before) and City Hall.

It’s useful to think about such transportation chaos in light of the many collapses in traditional systems we now see worldwide. Hypothesis: on the one hand, the chaos has to do with how hard it’s getting to keep secrets. On the other, it’s becoming easier to network and share information. We sensed this in the streets in 2013.

With bus companies, it appears the traditional model in Rio was:

  • Fares covered costs and profits
  • Companies didn’t open their books
  • Company owners supported electoral campaigns and bribed politicians and members of the state accounting court
  • Strong politicians awarded tax cuts and protected companies from other politicians, the press and competitors such as mini-vans
  • Companies increased fares once a year, supposedly to keep up with inflation

What we have now, it seems, is:

  • Fares don’t cover costs and profits
  • Costs and profits come into the public eye
  • The mayor and the courts no longer protect companies
  • Federal Police and state Public Prosecutors act, accused politicians make plea bargains
  • Fares are cut

In 2013, then-mayor Eduardo Paes managed to block the City Council’s bus investigation committee. He did, nevertheless, order up a study of bus companies’ accounts. Meanwhile, these began to automate the fare system (laying off fare collectors and encouraging RioCard use), which eased data access. At the end of his term, Paes didn’t pay the last consulting installment — and PricewaterhouseCoopers didn’t deliver their work. A persistent reporter went after it and revealed a great deal (which helped this blogger to put together the above models), in a crucial series of reports published on the Agência Pública site.

Who knows how much of this led to current mayor Marcelo Crivella’s decision to block the annual bus fare hike? We’ve had two court-ordered fare reductions. Impossible, in the Paes years. Crivella also relaxed regulation of mini-vans, which compete with West Zone buses and the BRT. Supposedly there’s a connection between vans and informal “security” forces, milícias, in this part of Rio — which some observers say will have political implications.

In this scenario, the financial setup of bus service (or other means of transportation) is never discussed. Who pays? Many cities rely on public subsidies with transparency and efficacy. Urbanist and architect Washington Fajardo’s reflection in his weekly Globo column, last Saturday, asks a key question: “Is moving around the city a business or a right?” A city isn’t vibrant when its citizens keep to limited bubbles. Cities are places that breathe by way of exchanges– of experience, ideas, goods and services.

The question of who pays should be addressed regarding all means of transportation — and they should all be thought of, according to specialists, within the metropolitan context. This had never happened until the recent drafting of the Metropolitan Region Strategic Plan for Urban Development. A patchworked “system” built on favorable relations among businessmen and politicians becomes vulnerable in times of economic and political crisis. We’re seeing significant ridership drops and the state has lost the capacity to support its subsidized fare discount.

Two million people commute between adjacent towns and Rio proper, every day. The lack of transportation alternatives adds to the chaos.

The neighboring town of São João do Meriti, with a mere 460 mil souls, boasts one of the highest rates of labor force percentage working in the capital: 40%, according to Casa Fluminense, based on 2010 IBGE data.

São João do Meriti has seen an explosion of wheels: the number of cars went from 44,000 in 2005 to 93,000 in 2015, more than doubling; motorcycles more than tripled, rising from 3,800 in 2005 to 16,600 in 2015, up 337%.

While the CarWash investigation came rolling up to the bus sector starting last July with its Last Stop operation, it’s also affected trains, the light rail system, the subway and even ferries. This is because all these are concessions run, partially or totally, by construction companies, pension funds and bus companies involved in corruption scandals.

Take the VLT light rail concession, for example. Construction company OAS is said to be selling its share in one concession shareholder, to an Abu Dhabi fund, Mubadala, along with the French group Vinci, which has worldwide transportation experience. The concession’s other shareholders’ investment capacity is also presumably limited by the results of corruption and poor management, as these include the Previ, Petros e Funcef pension funds, respectively of Banco do Brasil, Petrobras and Caixa Econômica. Builders Camargo Correa, Andrade Gutierrez and Odebrecht (majority shareholder, along with the Japanese Mitsui, in the SuperVia metro train concession) and bus companies are also part of the VLT concession.

As Vitor Mihessen, Casa Fluminense information coordinator, and Clarisse Linke, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy Brazil office’s executive director, never tire of pointing out, transportation policy needs to be considered together with housing, jobs and inequality reduction policies — which did not happen in the Paes years. Due to misguided federal policy, most of Rio’s low income Minha Casa Minha Vida housing was built far from jobs and other passenger destinations. The long distances hurt metro transportation networks’ financial viability, in the absence of efficacious public subsidies to reduce the cost of urban sprawl.

Lack of transparency and accountability brought reform with little public debate or dialogue. The “rationalization” of city bus lines in Rio, hurriedly implemented before the Games, drew on no solid ridership data — leaving cariocas lost in their own city.

In the context of a murky past of public transportation policy-making in metropolitan Rio, it’s hard to know how and why it came to be decided that Rio needed four BRT lines and an extended subway line to Barra. How much thinking went to passengers and how much to business (formal or informal)?

Rafael Pereira, PhD candidate at Oxford University and IPEA researcher

And if passengers were part of the equation, which ones? This is the question addressed by a study  released last week by the federal Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada (Applied Economic Research Institute). Rafael Pereira studied increased accessibility to jobs and schools resulting from transportation investments made in the city of Rio between 2014 and 2017.  According to him, such gains favored Rio’s upper classes, instead of reducing inequality. The impact, he concluded, would have been less marked if not for the economic recession.

Due to a lack of ridership data previous to 2014, Rafael couldn’t fully evaluate the impact of all that took place transportation-wise in Rio, in the Cabral-Paes years. The first BRT line, the Transoeste — which connects some of Rio’s poorest neighborhoods to better-off areas — was launched in 2012.  A fourth BRT line, the Transbrasil, was never completed; if finished, it should make a positive difference, as it will serve poorer neighborhoods, reinforcing the metropolitan network connecting the North Zone to downtown.

These days, the BRTs look more than ever like the typical carioca gambiarra, or improvisation. Cheaper and faster to build than subway lines, they have the potential to become a high-capacity transportation mode, unlike regular buses. But our BRTs are full of problems, as agitator and Globo columnist Marcus Faustini wrote yesterday in a column about the Transoeste:

The BRT’s arrival in the West Zone didn’t solve all longtime transportation problems, but it did cut travel time. Less commuting allows for investment in life projects and relationships. The stations spurred small businesses around them, increasing income. The BRT, with its benefits and drawbacks, is the first organizational public transportation model coming to the region — which until then was completely at the mercy, solely, of business profitability. When a region isn’t part of a city’s strategic action, there’s a greater chance that inequality and informal power structures will grow.

Geographer Hugo Costa, North Zone resident and defender, complains of a lack of attention to the Transcarioca BRT’s environmental impact in his region. He says that building it removed green areas and increased air pollution, harming children.

Public transportation in metropolitan Rio: what do we do about it? The Strategic  Plan for the metropolis is full of well-thought-out recomendations. The road from now to the implementation of so many good ideas is, however, full of potholes (like the Transoeste BRT track), as we saw in the litany of problems set out at the start of this post. Even more developed cities struggle with serious difficulties in their public transportation systems.

Few expect a just outcome for yesterday’s arrests, which aimed at the heart of Rio’s inter-municipal transportation corruption scheme (with likely connections to a municipal one). Given such doubts, it’s well to remember that transportation moguls will find it ever more difficult to hide their data. And we have ever better chances of connecting up and sharing our experiences and information. This blogger is betting that no one from the Barata or Picciani families are in the Facebook group Mobilidade Urbana Shitposting or follow the Twitter account, @TrensUrbanosRJ.

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About Rio real

American journalist, writer, editor who's lived in Rio de Janeiro for 20 years.
This entry was posted in Brasil, Transformation of Rio de Janeiro / Transformação do Rio de Janeiro and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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