Dispatches from Rio: A Question of Mobility

Dispatches from Rio: A Question of Mobility

Using mobility as a point of departure, speakers at the Mobility+ talks discussed a personal idea, project, program or initiative. Credit: Greg Scruggs

The UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20 for short) is happening right now in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Next American City will provide daily coverage of the summit by way of dispatches from Editor in Chief Diana Lind and correspondent Greg Scruggs.

Away from the clamor of the major conference sites and the circus-like atmosphere of the street protests and People’s Summit, Columbia University GSAPP’s Studio-X Rio, in conjunction with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), wrapped up the third of its Mobility+ talks on Tuesday night.

Modeled on the TEDx concept, each night four speakers used mobility as a point of departure to discuss a personal idea, project, program or initiative, with the goal of a more relaxed environment to listen and discuss outside-the-box concepts. Here’s a rounddown of the speakers who presented at the final Mobility+ session on Tuesday night.

Bonnie Harken, a New York City-based waterfront redevelopment specialist with Nautilus Consulting, focused largely on her hometown, discussing new uses of container ports, cruise ships, waterfront parks and urban kayaking. Her general point was that water, often peripheral to one’s conception of a city, should be and actually is quite central. However, she didn’t give any attention to the tension between those uses. Industrial use precludes public access to the waterfront, for example, and heavy industry can often leaves urban waterways polluted that make them unsuitable for swimming (urban beaches were conspicuously absent from the talk), much less kayaking.

Wagner Colombini, a consultant with the Brazilian transportation firm Logit, gave a brief overview of bus rapid transit, which was invented in Curitiba, expanded in Bogotá, Colombia, and then exported to the world. It is now on its way back to Brazil, specifically Rio, which will soon have the largest system in South America.

Colombini contrasted the vicious cycle started by disinvestment in public transit (homogenous land use, more individualized transport, more congestion, further deterioration to existing transit system) with the virtuous cycle that investment generates (mixed-use development, restriction on individual car use, less congestion, better functioning system).

André Dessandes, Rio-based coordinator of UN-Habitat’s “I’m a City Changer” program — designed to change the transport and consumption habits of the upper middle-class (encouraging biking, transit and carpooling) — adhered to a specific script. He pointed out that bikes have become the main concept for urban mobility and that Rio isn’t doing half bad, with a 7.9/10 on the urban sustainable mobility scale (I didn’t catch the source for that grade).

André Dessandes Credit: Gregg Scruggs

Argus Caruso, an architect who biked around the world and uses the experience for educational projects in schools, had the most radical vision. He argued that the group was preaching to the choir on issues like bus rapid transit and carpools, which are prescriptions for a sick patient. He then wanted to talk about how to create a healthy patient, which would require a more large-scale change in our cities. Caruso showed video of a sail-powered bike that he used to cruise around the coast of northeastern Brazil, where he promoted a school competition for the best sail-powered bike. He showed sketches of a floating bike that occurred to him while waiting for a canoe to pass and help him cross rivers during his journey.

He also pointed out that while cars are passé, bikes are fairly underdeveloped themselves, focusing too much on leg power and not incorporating abs, arms and other body parts.

Once opened up to the public for questions, several folks pounced on Colombini with heavy questioning about the Rio bus rapid transit: Namely, will it really work? Can it really handle the insane numbers (900,000 per day on the Transbrasil, for example, which will make it the line with the world’s highest BRT ridership)? The sheer anxiety over public transport — several folks prefaced their comments by mentioning the sardine can experience they had riding the subway at rush hour to get to Studio-X — underscores how universal the issue of urban mobility is for residents of an underserved megacity.

Cyclists also had a big presence on Tuesday night, including several folks involved in the rebellious (and arrestable, apparently) act in Curitiba of painting a bike lane after city hall neglected to do so. They were all quite fired up for tonight’s National Critical Mass ride.

Gregory Scruggs is a Seattle-based independent journalist who writes about solutions for cities. He has covered major international forums on urbanization, climate change, and sustainable development where he has interviewed dozens of mayors and high-ranking officials in order to tell powerful stories about humanity’s urban future. He has reported at street level from more than two dozen countries on solutions to hot-button issues facing cities, from housing to transportation to civic engagement to social equity. In 2017, he won a United Nations Correspondents Association award for his coverage of global urbanization and the UN’s Habitat III summit on the future of cities. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

Tags: infrastructurebikingbus rapid transitbike lanesrio de janeiro

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