It is the end of another hot day in Rio de Janeiro. I’m tired and sweaty after spending the afternoon checking out the progress on some of the city’s train stations, which are being renovated for the upcoming Olympic Games. But I’m also happy, having witnessed the progress made in improving Rio’s suburban rail system, known as SuperVia, which the World Bank has been supporting for the last 20 years.
Walking alongside hurried commuters heading back home from work, I’m proud of the work that the State of Rio and the World Bank have accomplished. The improved SuperVia system provides nothing less than freedom to the poor “Cariocas” living in the outskirts of the city. Transportation gives people who live on the periphery of the world’s great cities the chance to move, get to jobs, to get to doctors and to schools.
And mass transit is also green: Around the globe, transportation is the fastest growing consumer of fossil fuels and the fastest growing source of CO2 emissions. Getting people out of their cars and onto mass transit is the key to balancing freedom with climate-smart growth.
Fixing a Failing System
Until just recently, sustainable transit in Rio was constrained by underinvestment in the suburban rail system. It’s an impressive network of over 225 kilometers and 89 stations, but it had fallen in disrepair. And as service deteriorated, ridership dropped precipitously. In 1992, the World Bank and the State of Rio started working together to modernize the system. The goal was to bring it back to its glory days of the early 1980s, when it moved one million passengers a day.
To do that, the World Bank has financed more than 120 energy-efficient trains with air-conditioning. We know that air-conditioned trains are a key consideration for people choosing between the less-polluting trains and conventional buses and private cars--did I mention it is hot? To be sure, the faster, cleaner, cooler trains are pulling in passengers. In 1998, the system carried 145,000 passengers per day. Its on-time targets only hit 30%.
But in September, the SuperVia system broke a new ridership record, moving more than 700,000 passengers in a single day. More importantly, demand has stayed close to that level ever since, pointing to a permanent shift in preferences. Better still, in the last two years, SuperVia has operated with punctuality indices of over 90%. Over the last year, amidst worsening economic conditions in Brazil and in Rio, ridership has jumped by almost 11 percent.
Cutting emissions through technology, integration and urban development
Because of these improvements, between 1998 and 2015, more than 500,000 daily trips took place by train instead of more polluting cars or buses. And the new trains are energy-efficient, using only a third of the electricity of the old trains. They also have regenerative braking, which feeds electricity produced via breaking back into the grid.
The climate impact of the project does not end there. The World Bank is also supporting plans to promote bicycle-rail integration by financing the design of a pilot project and a number of bikes to implement it. The idea is to get more people to ride to the station and then continue their journeys by train, further diminishing the use of more polluting vehicles.
The new suburban train system will also help reduce emissions by changing the shape of cities. The higher frequency train service is expected to encourage denser urban development around stations, as an alternative to sprawl. That will also cut greenhouse gas emissions—if more people live near mass transit, they’re more likely to rely on it. The World Bank is promoting Transit Oriented Development (TOD), such as low-income housing along the rail corridor, and is financing a study to implement a TOD pilot around the Queimados station on the Japeri line.
Mind the Gap
Despite being relatively rich, Rio has a fairly high level of extreme poverty. And income inequality is stark. Women and the poor suffer the most from Rio’s limited urban transport, isolated or harassed in public, both groups would benefit from greater accessibility. The Bank is supporting a program to make the SuperVia system safer for women. The program is taking advantage of the vast transport network to install information kiosks that increase awareness about gender-based violence and is facilitating access to specialized services for women by locating social assistance centers and day care facilities at rail stations.
The World Bank’s aim in Rio is to help the State make the most out of its large investments by maximizing accessibility, reaching the largest possible area of influence and ensuring that services are both affordable for the poor and friendly toward women. The SuperVia system covers 75% of Rio’s metropolitan area, but it would remain out of reach for many if it were not for measures introduced by the government and supported by the Bank. These include the introduction of the single fare policy (Bilhete Unico Intermunicipal), which is an integrated flat fare system that uses a state subsidy to cut lower-income households’ expenses for transportation.
The Next Stop
Although there has been important progress, there are still a lot of issues to tackle, including improving the integration of bus and rail services, upgrading stations to improve accessibility and introducing reforms to the integrated fare policy to improve its impact on the poor and ensure its long-term financial sustainability.
Rio is “hot” these days, having hosted the World Cup final last year and looking toward the Olympic Games next summer, an event that will put the improved suburban rail system and new bus rapid transit lines to the test. So even though the temperature is still pretty high, I feel a faint cool breeze. I hope that the strength of our improvements continues over the long term, helping to turn down the global heat.