Talking with the former Mayor of Curitiba and architect, Jamie Lerner, is like talking with Santiago Calatrava about designing buildings or having an imagined conversation with Frederick Olmsted about designing parks. Jamie Lerner designs cities. More accurately, he helps all create a strategic vision of cities for people, not cities for cars.
I talked with Jamie Lerner at the EcoCity World Summit after he delivered his keynote speech to political leaders and urban planners from over seventy countries.
As one of Brazil’s most popular mayors, Lerner was elected three times. He helped transform Curitiba from collection of shanty towns to a beautiful and sustainable city of about two million. At a time when many Latin Americans were disenchanted with their politicians, Jamie Lerner had a 92% approval rating. Following his success as mayor, he served as governor of the state of Parana for 8 years.
In the late sixties, Curitiba had a contest for the best urban design for their city’s future. In 1968, the city incorporated many of the ideas of young architect Lerner into the Curitiba Master Plan. In 1971, he was appointed mayor of Curitiba.
Facing a budget crisis, he had to search for big ideas that could be implemented with little money. He greened the city by involving citizens in planting 1.5 million trees. He solved the city’s flood problems by diverting water into lakes in newly created parks. He lifted some children from poverty by paying teenagers to keep the parks clean.
Educating and involving children are at the heart of solving most problems, from poverty to transportation, observes Governor Lerner.
Any leader will tell you that change is likely to be met with strong resistance. Thinking like an architect, Jamie Lerner wanted to beautify the city with pedestrian boulevards that were car-free. Shop owners were up in arms, fearing that the change would destroy them. Then Mayor Lerner convinced some to take part in a thirty day trial. Shoppers loved it. Before the trial ended, the merchants asked that the pedestrian zone be expanded to include more streets.
Like most cities, Mayor Lerner saw a city with clogged roads that divided where people lived from where they worked. Jamie’s wisdom sparkles with humor, “A car is like a mother-in-law, you must get along but not have her run your life.” He envisioned solidarity.
Lerner got the city moving. Curitiba could not afford the light-rail systems of Europe and the U.S. which often cost more than $20 million per mile. Curitiba invented rapid transit using buses.
Bus rapid transit is successful for many reasons. Payment is simple, fixed price regardless of distance traveled. For those without prepaid passes, payment is made when entering bus shelters not while boarding the bus. Curitiba’s shelters are inviting transparent tubes with LED lighting that allow all to wait in safety. Express buses travel on dedicated lanes on major streets. The buses are double articulated to carry up to 300 people per bus, and up to 50,000 per day. Buses arrive frequently. Inviting pedestrian walkways and bikeways bring people to the stations.
Since implementing bus rapid transit, Curitiba’s population of people has tripled, yet its population of cars has declined thirty percent. Governor Lerner explained that there were only 25,000 daily passenger rides on Curitiba buses in 1974. By 2008, there are more than 2.4 million passenger rides daily. In Curitiba, bus rapid transit is far more popular than cars. 85% of the systems use the rapid transit.