Latin America cities are inventing new mobility solutions

07 February 2020Andrés Borthagaray (VEDECOM) and Thomas Massin (CEUR-CONICET)

The energy transition in Latin America’s metropolitan areas is threatened by the current explosion in the number of private vehicles. As these cities are now looking for innovative solutions to boost their mass transit system, it seems that technology is not enough. A new urban vision that is integrated and shared by everybody is needed.

While the population of the Latin American area has increased by 10% since 2010, the number of cars has risen by 40% and the number of motorbikes by 200%, according to a study carried out by Corporación Andina de Fomento in 2018. This growth can be interpreted as a logical response on the part of underprivileged and working class people to inadequate public transport, where private vehicles are seen as the only “efficient” way of getting from A to B. Latin American cities are at risk of losing one of their comparative advantages with regard to energy transition, namely a level of dependency on motorised transport that is lower than that observed in more developed regions of the world. This transition should be driven forward by inventing solutions that improve the allocation and effectiveness of public resources earmarked for urban mobility and infrastructures. As regards large-scale public transport solutions, ambitious developments have been undertaken in several large Latin American cities in the last decades. They have been accompanied by a new kind of promotional discourse, and sometimes by new metropolitan governance bodies such as the Ente de Coordinación Metropolitana in Rosario and the Área Metropolitana del Valle de Aburrá in Medellín. But in general, most larger cities have been slow to develop their metro networks (Mexico City, São Paulo and Santiago), or have failed to keep up the levels of investment made several decades ago, for example in Buenos Aires where the 800-kilometre train network is the same as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century. With over 8 million inhabitants Bogotá is the largest city in the world without a metro (it is planned for 2024).

Cheaper and creative solutions

In this context, cheaper and more imaginative solutions in terms of infrastructure have been developed. Two well-known examples are the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and the Metrocable. Over 40 years after its first version in Curitiba1, the BRT has been copied in many cities in Latin America and beyond (Istanbul, Johannesburg, Lagos, etc.). The World Bank played an important role in its support, at times without really taking into account the urban context. Bogotá has devoted all its efforts to building the BRT Transmilenio network. The overall outcome has been positive, with individual differences in terms of passenger numbers or the way public space is organised. The Metrocable in Medellín, an emblematic symbol of public transport by cable car, has also spawned versions elsewhere, funded in particular by international bodies. Versions of the system have been built in Rio, La Paz and Caracas, and there is one at the planning stage in Quito. But we must not forget the structural problems faced by metropolitan mass transit systems, which inevitably require massive long-term investments that are still all too often allocated to road-building projects such as the Paseo del Bajo motorway in Buenos Aires or the Anillo Periférico in Mexico City.

New approaches for transition

Beyond these examples, new approaches to sustainable transition that addresses the mobility needs of the most underprivileged populations and fosters compact urban development will require a both sustainable and integrated vision, rather than technological illusions. The first of these approaches concerns governance, from the decision-making process to the technical, economic and environmental evaluation of transport initiatives. Huge corruption scandals involving conglomerates (Petrobras and Odebrecht, among others) and politicians clearly remind us of the need to improve the resistance of decision-making systems to pressure from large public construction groups. Also they show that the democratic selection processes for transport projects put too much emphasis on technological aspects. Climate change and air quality are struggling to emerge in political discourse and decision-making, and are often not even mentioned in environmental assessments, despite the fact that all the Latin American countries have ratified the Paris Climate Agreement. Public meetings and consultations do exist, but they are all too often mere formalities, sometimes because budget documents and technical evaluations are difficult to read and understand. The second approach to be explored concerns the need to take into account the mobility environment. In urban projects, this means taking pedestrians and cyclists into consideration and resisting the existence of barriers. For example, Avenida Jiménez in Bogotá has been developed very successfully in this regard, whereas on Avenida Caracas the functionality of the transport system predominates. This also involves improving passenger information and catering to the needs of vulnerable groups, which are increasingly mobilising to defend their rights. Dynamic organisations such as the Fundación Colombiana de Peatones and the Liga Peatonal in Mexico, or academic initiatives such as the work of Juan Carlos Dextre in Lima are also helping to raise awareness of these issues. Last but not least, the possibility of achieving energy transition for buses and of raising awareness of the social cost of fossil fuel emissions opens a window of opportunity for major change. Without being condescending, we can say that the existence of large-scale spontaneous or informal systems lends itself to technological innovations (platforms and big data for vehicle-sharing solutions, including taxis) that can complement the “heavier” transport networks. Despite the existence of niche innovations, it still seems unrealistic to expect a miracle solution in the form of autonomous vehicles due to their high cost, the fact that they have to share the road with very old vehicles, and the widespread flouting of traffic regulations. This means that the transition towards sustainable Latin American cities has to be achieved by mobilising intelligence, innovation appropriate to each different area, and democratic governance, rather than by adopting turnkey tech-based solutions. In this way, they would represent a model likely to inspire many large cities around the world.

1. Capital of the state of Paraná in southern Brazil.