One of the biggest challenges faced by cities around the world is the improvement and expansion of urban mobility systems. Municipalities must provide transportation services and infrastructure at the scale and rate needed to close existing demand gaps, meet urban population growth, foster economic development and meet climate change targets.
In Brazil, one of the world’s most populous and most urbanized countries, this includes the need to prioritize funding for public and non-motorized transport, effective long-term urban mobility planning, and strong transparency and accountability rules.
Throughout Brazil, investments in urban transport are unsatisfactory and have not followed the rapid increase in urbanization rates: 86% of the country’s population currently lives in urban areas. This lack of investment has affected more specifically the public and non-motorized transportation infrastructure, which are both insufficient to meet existing demand. In São Paulo, Brazil’s largest metropolis which boasts the country’s most extensive rapid transit network (305.6 kilometers, of which 57 kilometers are BRT and 248.6 kilometers are subway and train), only 25% of the city’s population and 20% of the metropolitan region’s population are covered by transit (2016).
Strong institutions and effective planning structures are required to ensure the improvement of urban transport infrastructure in order to face the immense deficit in Brazilian cities. The 2012 approval of the National Urban Mobility Policy has done much to reshape the direction of Brazil’s urban mobility. It prioritizes non-motorized over motorized transport and collective over individual modes of transport. Besides that, it mandates that cities with more than 20,000 inhabitants (3,341 cities, 59% of Brazilian municipalities) to develop their mobility plans. Plans should define long range objectives, targets, strategies and projects towards safe, accessible, efficient and green urban transport systems.
Unfortunately, after six years of policy approval, less than 10% of cities have finalized their plans due to lack of technical and institutional capacity. The deadline for their development has been extended to 2019 in order to give cities the opportunity to develop these plans, which are a requirement to access federal funding for urban mobility projects. However, municipal governments must be better positioned in terms of human resources and capacity to design and implement good plans. This is important not only for planning purposes, but also to ensure more effective projects implementation.
However, it is important to note that expanding the transportation systems alone will not solve the current mobility challenges. The network’s distribution across the landscape and the city’s development patterns are decisive factors in increasing the accessibility to urban transport. In Brazil, the lack of integrated land use policies has been increasing low income suburbs and urban sprawl, deepening already existing inequalities and reducing quality of life. From 2004 to 2014, the number of people with daily commuting longer than 1 hour increased from 11 to 17% in the 10 biggest metropolitan regions in Brazil. This increase has been even higher for low income brackets, who usually live farther away from rapid transit, with serious equity implications on how we should design our transit systems in order to improve access to those who are most in need of it. The integration between mobility and land use planning is key to reducing imbalances in the distribution of transport, housing, and employment in Brazilian cities, and improving people’s access to basic social rights, such as health, culture, mobility, education and leisure.
Another challenge that hinders cities’ capacity for long-term planning is the lack of financial resources. Most Brazilian cities don’t have regular and predictable funding for urban mobility and are greatly dependent on federal investments. This makes it extremely difficult for government authorities to draw up investment plans for infrastructure expansion. National infrastructure investment programs could become permanent, with schedules for public fund release and transparent allocation criteria both for projects and plan development. Moreover, the available funding should focus on infrastructure for public and non-motorized transport, rather than motorized transport. Congress is currently discussing tying an increase in fuel tax to earmarked funding for public transportation. This type of policy must be further explored as potential long-term solutions to funding an ever-expanding public transportation system.
Finally, transparency and accountability structures are needed in order to ensure successful implementation of mobility plans and policies, especially in a country mired by embezzlement and corruption charges within the transportation sector. Cities need to move forward in the development of indicators, metrics, and social control mechanisms to support monitoring and evaluation by civil society organizations and reduce the risks for the plans implementation even if governments change.
The challenge is enormous, but so are the benefits to be reaped by the Brazilian population. The mobility debate is first and foremost about quality of life, economic development and reduction of inequalities. It is a key factor in propelling Brazil into a better future.