On Sunday I arrived in Rio de Janeiro just as powerful explosion was blowing to smithereens the elevated highway that channels slow-moving traffic north to south from the airport to the beaches of Copacobana and Ipanema. Fortunately this was not an act of terrorism but of significant political bravery, and is all part of Mayor Eduardo Paes’ systematic plan to cure Rio of its car dependency and regenerate a huge expanse of post-industrial port area.
It is a truly radical agenda, with a target to increase the proportion of trips made by mass transit (buses, metro, and rail) from 18% to 63% in two mayoral terms. Three thousand downtown car-parking spaces will be slashed and the programme is under-pinned by a massive investment in transport infrastructure, which will result in 152km of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), a downtown light rail scheme, and the first public transport airport link in Brazil, the Transcarioca.
Significantly, Mayor Paes’ plan also includes an extension of the already impressive city cycle routes, which on Sunday I was fortunate enough to experience first-hand, pedalling along Rio’s coastline past a succession of beautiful beaches to the stunning new Museu de Arte do Rio*. The path is fully segregated from traffic (and indeed on Sundays motor vehicles are also banned from some of the major roads, creating a joyous highway of skaters, pedestrians and cyclists) and so the only danger is one of distraction from the stunning scenery.
Mayor Paes is clearly operating from a position of significant politcally strength, having been re-elected last year with a landslide 64% of the vote, while his city is about to host both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. But, nevertheless, there is always opposition when you try to entice drivers out of their cars and Rio is no exception.
The mood among some cariocas reminded me a lot of London in 2003 and an equally brave Mayor, Ken Livingstone, for whom I was fortunate enough to work. Mayor Livingstone’s congestion charge was consistently opposed by more Londoners than supported it right up to the day it was introduced. Then, when it became clear that civilisation had not ended, buses were quicker and more reliable, and actually only a small proportion of (mostly wealthier) citizens drove to work in central London in the first place, popular opinion quickly changed, with support stabilising at around 55%, and opposition reduced to a die-hard 25%.
But while at the time Mayor Livingstone stood out as a political leader willing to make reducing car usage a clear act of policy, Mayor Paes is now at the forefront of a new wave of global mayors who abide by the Second Commandment of his much-viewed TED talk – “a city of the future has to deal with mobility and integration”.
Even more interesting is the evidence that the transfer of best practice between high and low income countries is now most definitely a two-way process. It is Latin America, for example, that pioneered Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) – a system which in Rio has staggeringly halved journey times at a fraction of the cost of tunneling a new metro line.
And where Latin America leads, the rest of the world now follows. So, while research by Arup shows that every C40 city in South America had already started a BRT scheme in 2011, and fellow southern-hemisphere cities such as Lagos, Johannesburg and Jakarta have quickly followed suit, many of the world’s wealthiest and most transport-sophisticated cities are also now catching up, from Los Angeles to Paris. Indeed, according to EMBARQ, 158 cities across the world now have BRT.
This is an important dynamic going into the critical rounds of climate talks in Lima next year and Paris in 2015 – where national leaders have pledged to finally reach a deal to start trying to avert catastrophic climate change.
Time really is running out, as I keep banging on about in this blog, but having recently been surrounded by inspiring ‘practical possibilists’ I am renewed in my convinction that even if we can’t count on intergovernmental action, there really is hope from city leaders.
For example, at the Economist Infrastructure Summit a couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to sit on a panel discussion with the political theorist, Benjamin Barber, who posits the highly attractive assertion that ‘mayors will rule world’. Or rather that mayors will again rule the world, as the city state long predates the nation state and, as in ancient civilisation, they may once again have the recipe to take humanity forward when the dominant existing form of governance has run out of answers.
Fundamentally, mayors get climate change and organisations such as the C40 and ICLEI have shown that cities are capable or working together to do something about it.
A review of Barber’s fantastic new book will have to wait for another trans-atlantic flight (I am tapping out this little blog on the red-eye back from Brazil, much to the annoyance of the other, more sleepy, occupants of BA 248). But if he is right and Mayors will rule the world, then my trip to Rio has convinced me that the twenty-first century Athens or Rome is as likely to be in Latin America, Asia, or Africa as it is in Europe, North America, or Japan.
* The photo that accopanies this blog is of an installation that forms part of a wonderful exhibition about Rio past and present at the new Museu de Arte do Rio , and depicts a famous local favela – note the drink-can cable-car that provides this slum-area’s citizens with a quick link to the jobs and services downtown.