Jamie Lerner, who first invented and patented the Bus Rapid Transit in the 1970s, says that with proper planning, cities can be made more sustainable and liveable than they are today. Excerpts from a conversation…

Thanks to Lerner and his innovative methods, Curitiba has made major strides in other social sectors.

Jamie Lerner, the former Mayor of Curitiba in Brazil who patented the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system which is now being implemented, with modifications, in 83 cities across the world, is a genial, portly architect and planner. At the UN Habitat confe rence in Istanbul in 1996, Curitiba was cited “the most innovative city in the world”. In an interview during the second Urban Age conference on Mega Cities in Sao Paulo — the first was a year ago in Mumbai — he emphasises that the essence of the system was its simplicity.

“You have to understand that the bus transport system is integrated into the city,” says Lerner, who is 71. As many as 85 per cent of Curitiba’s 1.8 million people travel by bus every day. “There is no subsidy: it pays for itself. It is one of the few in the world which is self-sustaining.” In the late 1960s, Lerner’s Master plan for the city closed a highly pedestrianised street to traffic, among other novel measures.

Commitment to simplicity

Asked why the system was not replicated more widely elsewhere, Lerner replies that the resistance was, paradoxically enough, to its simplicity. “Why was it not thought of before, people wondered. A city is not as complex as people imagine. The public transport system is no miracle. It requires commitment to simplicity and the desire to innovate.”

He introduced the transport network in the first of his three terms, between 1971 and 1975. This depended on reserved express bus lanes, integrated “Tube-like” stations where one-fare tickets were purchased in advance and articulated buses in three sections could be boarded at “platform” level. “Buses should be boarded in 30 seconds to a minute and buses are very frequent,” he says.

Somewhat shakily, he sketches the system by hand in my notebook. An integrated bus network can cater to 300 passengers per minute on one route; 18,000 per hour. If there is a reserved lane for buses, the capacity doubles to 36,000 passengers per hour, which is equal to an underground railway — at a fraction of the cost. A bigger articulated bus can take 48,600 passengers every hour. An underground system combined with BRT extends the capacity further.

After Lerner served two more terms as Mayor in the late 1970s and late 80s, he inspired another architect-Mayor, Enrique Penalosa, to replicate the system in Bogota in Colombia, which used to be one of the world’s most violent cities (along with Sao Paulo). Penalosa, who has visited India and was also present at the Urban Age conference, points out that London’s buses carry one million more passengers than the underground. His city’s service is called the TransMilenio.

Lerner recalls that Curitiba lacked $300 million to buy a new bus fleet in the 70s. “So we built the backdrop: we built public sector stations and routes and left it to private operators to run the buses. There is co-responsibility.” The Mumbai architect, Charles Correa, who visited Lerner in Curitiba en route Sao Paulo and was bowled over by the system, cites how “public transport was retrofitted into the city”. He notes how Mumbai was one of the few cities in the world to get its initial impetus from public transport.

Thanks to Lerner and his innovative methods, Curitiba has made major strides in other social sectors, promoting the city with some of the best quality of life indices in the world. By targeting children to segregate waste, 60-70 per cent of Curitiba’s is recycled in situ, possibly the highest in the world. The children taught their parents to do it. He noticed that slum dwellers were used in the highways to collect and sort garbage, which made it easier to get the waste picked up by trucks. He “bought” garbage by paying slum dwellers with bus tokens, and in the process cleared the favelas which pockmark every metropolis in Brazil, particularly under flyovers.

In the 90s, Lerner was twice elected Governor of the State of Parana, of which Curitiba is the capital. He thinks of the “multi-use” city, where amenities are put to alternative uses. Thus, roads can be closed to cars in the evenings, and switched to recreation. “Allow the informal sector to take over downtown areas after 6 p.m.,” he advocates. “That will inject life into the city, with a formal-informal equation.” When he noticed that a bay in the river was clogged with rubbish, he paid fisher folk by weight to collect it when they had free time. That way, they had more fish to catch when it was cleaned up. He has greened quarries and set up public amphitheatres all over the city.

He has four mantras: good design (he is a practising architect and planner), sustainability, co-existence and identity. Curitiba is world-famous for its urbanism: it has 54 sq metres (580 sq ft) of open space per person, as against a UN norm of 16; Mumbai has an abysmal one sq metre. The reforms have helped reduce the racial antagonisms of Brazilian cities. “We should celebrate ethnicities!” he exhorts. “We don’t throw away a family portrait, just because we don’t like the nose of an uncle!”

Getting popular

Other cities are getting the message. Lima has integrated its BRT with the electric train: 80 per cent of its 8.5 million people use public transport (Mumbai probably has the highest proportion in the world, with 87 per cent). New York’s Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan told Urban Age that the city was introducing the first BRT on 34th Street. Only five per cent of New Yorkers use cars (only slightly more than Mumbai’s commuters) and 56 per cent don’t own one. Iconic sites like Broadway and Madison Square Gardens will be networked for bicycles. Even Los Angeles is following suit with an Orange Line bus (and a new rail-based network). Closer home, Delhi has already introduced its BRT, to the much exaggerated protests of its motorists, and Ahmedabad will soon have its system.

“I am not against the car,” Lerner clarifies. I am against the bad use of a car, against owning a car. Public transport is meant for routine trips and the urban car should be for non-routine itineraries. It is mandatory to have a good alternative to the car. There can be individualised transport, without ownership.” This has an echo in public bicycle-hiring schemes, like the Velib in Paris, which have proved an outstanding success.

As Lerner concludes, with a twinkle in his eye, “No a frog can’t be transformed into a prince! I am happy because many personal dreams have been fulfilled, not necessarily in my professional or political life. If you have a dream, make every effort to achieve it: remember, you may not get another chance!”

The author is Chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI), Mumbai.