I have had the chance to ride the bus in a few cities in Brasil, and have observed a number of things there. I therefore posted this response.
After posting it to the newsgroup, I was encouraged to put the article on the web someplace, so that it could be referenced by others. Therefore, here it is.
Items in boldface are items that I have added from the original posting to the newsgroups.
This is written in response to a piece by columnist Neal Peirce, posted to these newsgroups under this topic a few days ago, who claims that "...the factors leading to the success of Curitiba's busways have been highly contrived, and are applicable strictly to relatively low-wage economies overseen by fairly authoritarian government regimes." This is written to 1. illustrate what transit service is generally like in Brasil, and I hope dispell any misinformation that may have led to Mr. Peirce's conclusions 2. Compare the transit service in the typical Brazilian city and its good and bad points compared to that of my home city in Portland, Oregon.
It is not written as a detailed analysis of rules, regulations, and policies of the various cities and systems. What is written here, however, is the product of riding the transit systems in several Brazilian cities. This should make it quite clear that there are a number of factors that discourage people from using transit in Brasil, just as there are in the USA.
Much of my time in Brasil has been spent in Londrina, Paranà. It is a city of about 600,000 people, and Curitiba (the capital of the state of Paranà) and its surrounding suburbs are about double that. Therefore, Curitiba is about the same population as the Portland metropolitan area.
As near as I can tell from his writing, Mr. Peirce has never in fact lived in Brasil, let alone in Curitiba, the capital of Paranà. He doesn't give specific examples from his visit to Curitiba, but I find it's odd that he can complain about the parking problem the city has. I am far from an expert, but I spent a day and a half in and around that city, some of it downtown, and we never had much of a problem finding a place to park. Sure, you can't just drive on any old street and expect to find a bunch of empty curb parking. You can't do that in New York or even Portland either, or for that matter even downtown Oregon City ( pop. about 30,000 ). Any area with even mildly dense development can not be served by road-side parking only, and this is just as true in Brasil as it is in the USA. Privately owned parking lots are reasonably priced and fairly common in many cities in Brasil, so it isn't as if it were so ding-dang impossible to find a place to park in Curitiba as this columnist makes it sound.
Sure, you will usually not find free parking (we did in the evening), and in the downtown core of the cities in Brasil you will rarely find a simple parking lot with no building above it, like you will in a number of places in downtown Portland. The fact is that in a downtown area that has multi-level buildings, it is a waste of space to have a single-level parking lot. Many, many buildings in Brasil have under-ground parking areas, some of them going down several levels. Our hotel in Curitiba allowed us to park in their under-ground lot for the entire day after our stay in their room, but there were many other places we could have put the car.
As for the fact that you have to pay for many of these private parking lots, the fact is that they are not subsidized by the federal government quite the way they are in the USA ( here they are sometimes part of the urban renewal funds ). Therefore, an automobile user has to pay to park. Space costs money in a downtown area: it is a fact of life in a commercial center, and if you are occupying that very valuable space with an auto, then isn't it more fair that you pay for its use rather than have that cost subsidized somehow? In Londrina, even the main Roman Catholic church in the center of downtown has a public underground parking area that serves as a funding source. The lots are quite competitive with eachother, and many of them will even wash your car while you are away as part of the price for parking there. This hardly seemed to me quite like some "authoritarian regime", but a simple application of capitalism working in the economy of Brasil. It is certainly a whole lot closer to a free-market economy than the City Center Parking virtual monopoly in downtown Portland!
Brasil has a growing middle class, particularly in the south of Brasil, and a fair number of families own two cars. There are some differences in how they do things, however.
For example, the Brazilain government has taken the position, many years ago, that 16 year olds were not mature enough mentally to drive. Therefore, it is not possible to get a driver's licence until 18. While it might seem repressive to the teen-agers, it would hardly be considered a notable violation of human rights by Amnesty International or the United Nations, and I find it doubtful that this could be classified as a "fairly authoritarian regime". It is possible that these two extra years of surviving on the transit system is enough to encourage more use of the transit system later in life, though.
Mr. Peirce notes that automobile ownership in Brasil is fairly low ( "Even with one automobile for every three people, one of the highest automobile ownership rates in Brazil...") and that this contributes to transit usage. Certainly this is the case among a large portion of the people. However, my overall impression of the transit systems in Brasil is that they are supposed to survive with significantly less government subsidy than they do in the USA. This means that bus fare can be quite expensive, relative to the minimum wages. For example, the minimum wage in November of 2000 was approx. R$170 per month. A number of people, such as the coffee share-crop farmers on the outskirts of Londrina, make considerably less than the minimum wage as their income depends on crop production. The bus fare on the Londrina bus system was R$1 per trip at the time. Such things as monthly passes and other bulk discounts are apparently quite expensive and rarely used, and therefore almost all the people I saw get on any of the buses in any of the cities in Brasil paid the cash fare. Therefore, while low wages discourages automobile ownership among the working poor, it should be quite clear that there are a number of people that have to carefully weigh their options before using the transit system as well. A number of people would rather spend an hour on foot rather than sacrifice a chunk of their wages to ride the bus. With sugar cane alcohol fuel at R$0.90 per litre or less during the same month, in some cases the transit system may lose riders because some people might view their prices vs. driving as not that different.
Cost is not the only thing that discourages people from taking the bus in Brasil. Most Brasilians I met would not use the bus system if there is an automobile available to them, either through talking someone into giving them a ride or through their own ownership. Brasilains have learned how to live cheaply, and it is very common to give friends rides to various places. There is pleanty of single-occupancy vehicle use, but from simple observation there is also a fairly high percentage of "carpooling" (or just simply giving your friends and family a lift somewhere). Therefore, while the ownership of automobiles is fairly low, my guess is that actual use of them for trips is much higher than the ownership level would indicate. If Mr. Peirce thinks that the buses are "...packed to ultra-crush capacities in conditions which would never be tolerated in America's automobile-pampering environment and framework of much tighter transit vehicle requirements for the health and safety of passengers (and ADA compliance)", I can't help but wonder what he would think of the time nine of us crammed into a compact hatchback for a trip across town. It is only one of many examples of the use of ride-sharing that probably eliminates a fair number of transit trips, to the point where auto ownership isn't that good an indicator of transit usage.
When I asked, one of the big complaints that the people in Londrina have about the bus system is that, in a city where temperatures in the peak of summer are in the 40 deg. C range ( about 100 deg F ), and sometimes more than that, it is downright silly for the transit company to not have air conditioned buses. The big intercity buses are, after all, air conditioned, as are many automobiles. What is so difficult about doing that to the city buses? It is, of course, a case of simple economics, and the fact that the buses are crowded with passengers already, so they have no need to encourage more people to ride.
Another big complaint, at least this January, has been the sharp increase in robberies and other crime on some of the bus routes.
The severely crowded conditions of the bus system in Brasil is certainly not just unique to Curitiba. It is a big problem in Londrina as well, and certianly São Paulo has many routes that are crammed with people all day long.
My experience on the systems are that they are both convenient, and at the same time inconvenient to a point that would never be tolerated in the USA by its passengers.
For example, in Brasil, they don't seem to have ever moved away from the conductor system that was used on streetcars in the USA previous to World War II. Most every bus has a driver and a fare collector. The job of the driver is to drive, and it is not legal to talk to him as it is disruptive to his driving the bus. The fare collector has a fairly large fairbox, and makes change for all who require it, as well as providing advice about where to get off, etc. He and his farebox, and the turnstyle ( yes, the buses are normally equipped with a turnstyle that must be negotiated while paying the fare ) takes up an awful lot of space on the buses. I also found the on-board turnstyles to be exceptionally inconvenient while carrying baggage.
This is where the Curitiba bus rapid transit lines have a significant advantage: they have disposed of the on-bus turnstyle, and instead fares are paid before boarding. This, compared with the normal Brazilian bus line, looks like it would be a lot more convenient. It only makes sense under the conditions of the standard Brazilian bus system that operation would be much better if the turnstyles were moved to a location outside the bus. Therefore, these high-capacity lines have vehcile floor height level platforms and really operate much more like a subway than a bus system or light rail line, right down to the turnstyle and payment before entering the station platform.
After you have paid your fare, you are "on the system", and it doesn't matter where you get off. You are not given a transfer or any other slip of paper. Once you are past the turnstyles, you can go anywhere you want so long as you stay in the system. To transfer from one line to the other, this means that you have to do so at transfer stations, so that you stay on the system side of the turnstyles.
In many Brazilian cities, there is one large central terminal ( usually universally referred to by that name ) where all of the bus lines come together. In Londrina, they seem to be scheduled to all arrive at the terminal at about the same time, have a 10 minute wait, and then all depart again for their various routes, which seem to all operate as essentially loops of various sizes and shapes from the terminal. I'm not quite certain what happens on the routes that operate at 3 minute headways ( and all of them, just like the huge double articulated buses in Curitiba operating at 3 minute headways, are packed ). This arrangement of simultaneous arrival and departure makes transfering from one bus route to another at the terminal quite convenient. In a city that is as small as Londrina and as organized, it worked for me quite well on those times that I needed to use the system over respectable distances.
However, in São Paulo, this system doesn't work very well. There, if you were to try to get from one spot to another by paying just one fare and transferring at a terminal, it would take hours to get anywhere due to the sheer size of the system and city it serves. Therefore, most Paulistanos who commute by bus simply tolerate having to pay multiple fares for a single commute (remember, once you are off the bus you are "off the system" and must pay again to get back on another bus). I much prefer the system in Portland in that regard: I can transfer routes anywhere I want to transfer. The true "timed transfer" system as it appeared to work in Londrina, however, seemed to work quite well, and if we could get closer to that in the Portland area it would be wonderful.
I say that the routes "appear" to be organized in loops, and "appear" to have organized timed transfers, because of another complaint I have about the transit systems in Brasil: publicly published timetables and system maps appear to be non-existant in many cases. I suppose it is a measure of the Brazilian culture difference that many times people will show up at the bus stop and wait for the next bus, not knowing exactly when it will come. During the days, thankfully, frequency appears to be high enough that no one waits that long. On the other hand, evenings and weekends appear to involve a lot of guesswork. The buses must run on some sort of timetable, as if you ask the people in the terminal when the next bus to so-and-so is, they can tell you, which to me makes it all the more silly that some sort of printed timetable isn't commonly available. When asked, some Londrina residents said that there used to be printed timetables and maps and so forth, but the transit company stopped printing them because of frequent route changes and other adaptations to the rapidly growing city. It is, apparently, better for the company to just let eveyone keep guessing about which bus they need to take and when it will arrive.