VICE Sports staff writer Aaron Gordon is in Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics and filing daily dispatches.
Andreia Lima and her husband, Hugo Costa, were showing me around their neighborhood, Ramos, in Rio's North Zone, the most populous area of Rio and site of many of the city's favelas. But Ramos is not a favela. It's a working class neighborhood mostly comprised of two or three story buildings, many vacant storefronts, and lots of concrete. The Ramos River, a tiny, barely moving body of water positioned between the two innder sides of a split road, runs from the hilltop favela Complexo do Alemão, past Olaria, and into Guanabara Bay. It is mostly filled with garbage and Complexo do Alemão's sewage.
The river's pungency is nothing new. But recently built on top of the river is the Santa Luzia Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) station. The BRT is a hybrid transportation network that uses buses like a light rail system, including the big station in the middle of the road.
The BRT was a major part of Rio's Olympic bid, both for the Games and for their lasting effect on Brazil's citizens. The BRT was the central part of the city's plan to decrease congestion and increase public transportation usage, but it was also key to ensuring the Olympics would run smoothly.
In order to host the 2016 Olympics, Rio had to convince the IOC there was a plan for getting spectators around the city. In addition to a controversial metro line that would connect the upper class Rio suburb of Barra da Tijuca—site of the main Olympic Park—with the rest of the system while running through the ultra-wealthy Leblon neighborhood, the plan called for a series of BRT routes connecting the international airport, Deodoro, the North Zone, and Barra.
Indeed, the Olympics would not work without something like the BRT. The new metro line only extends to Barra's very eastern corner, 14 kilometers away from Olympic Park with little in the way of public transportation between them.
The International Olympic Committee's bid evaluation called the BRT "a significant infrastructure and social legacy for Rio, improving the connection of disadvantaged areas of the city with areas offering employment, recreation and leisure opportunities."
But for Ramos, the BRT didn't create recreation and leisure opportunities. It wiped them out. In order to build the Santa Luzia station, the BRT destroyed most of a public park and play space. Construction workers ripped out trees, put concrete over grass, and shrunk down what was a soccer pitch into a mini futsal court, barely usable for any kind of game. Now, the space is mostly useless, except for a way to walk to and from the BRT station.
Costa and Lima then took me to the Cardoso de Morais BRT station, a short drive away, which used to have about 60 trees around it, and a grass play area for kids. Here, too, construction for the BRT station ripped out the trees and paved over the grass. The developers promised to replace it all, but as of now they have planted three trees and nothing else. Overlooking the station is graffiti reading (translated from Portuguese):
Brazil without respect
Costa, a geographer, surveyed the North Zone for a post he wrote for RioOnWatch detailing the dearth of green space. Only seven percent of its surface is green; by contrast, the wealthy South Zone has 50 percent green space. The destroyed park in Ramos was the only place for neighborhood kids to play away from the road, and area residents had very little say in its obliteration.
A public meeting on the project was hastily scheduled, but according to Costa and Lima, none of the local residents were informed about it. The city government declared there was no local opposition, and construction began shortly thereafter. (Several VICE Sports requests to the city for comment were not returned prior to publication. After publication, a Mayor's office spokesperson sent the following statement: "The construction of the corridor followed all requalification standarts [sic] in the areas where it passed to make its construction possible. It is important to notice that all the changes and impacts brought by Transcarioca on those neighborhoods were discussed with residents in several public meetings, as it is a requirement for obtaining INEA's environmental license. Further changes were made in the corridor's path, which made possible to reduce the number of expropriations and to make changes in some streets of Rio de Janeiro's suburb, always attentive to peoples's requests.")
Today, the only place for kids to play in Ramos is just across the street from the Santa Luzia BRT station, where concrete dividers create a walking path about the size of a bike lane. Kids fly kites and run around perilously close to a BRT turn. A sign warns bus drivers that this is a designated play area for children, even though it is little more than a sidewalk. Lima won't let her two children, ages one and four, play there. It's too dangerous. There is no nearby alternative. To get to the "recreation and leisure opportunities" promised by the Rio 2016 bid, she'd have to take the BRT for an hour to the beach in Barra.
According to Costa and Lima, the BRT is just the latest example of a long line of development projects aimed at the rich in the South Zone and Barra da Tijuca that have failed to help the working and lower classes, and in some cases have made conditions worse.
The North Zone has a long history of government neglect, which has only been exacerbated by World Cup and Olympic investment that has mostly gone to the wealthy neighborhoods of Barra da Tijuca and the South Zone. Until the 1970s, Ramos used to be a more upscale neighborhood, and boasted a massive 2,000-seat movie theater. When some of the higher-income residents moved to the up-and-coming Barra area, however, the neighborhood stopped receiving basic city services like road maintenance and consistent policing. This led to a self-perpetuating cycle of influential voters moving out of the North Zone, giving politicians less incentive to invest in local projects for the the remaining working class.
Lima said she feels as though the government actively makes things worse to benefit others instead of addressing problems. "We're fighting, trying to make a change, but who knows?" she said. "In a few years we may give up, just like all the others gave up."
Recently, Rio mayor Eduardo Paes claimed the BRT would improve mobility for residents in the city's North and West zones. Local officials already had failed to clean up Guanabara Bay, so this light rail was all they had left to offer citizens as part of the Olympic Legacy projects.
It was a promising idea: a new bus route that would run through the North Zone and connect with other parts of the city. What could go wrong?
Here's what: the BRT doesn't go to where people in the North Zone generally want or need to go. Christopher Gaffney, a University of Zurich geographer who has extensively studied the impact of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics on Rio, told Rio On Watch that the BRT routes address none of the city's transportation problems but instead "run through the Olympic ring of Barra da Tijuca, the center of real estate speculation in Rio." Rather than help working class riders get from the North Zone to the city center and South Zone—the areas with the most congestion—Gaffney says the BRT helps "to bring poor, relatively immobile people to Barra to work for the expanding upper-middle class" while raising real estate values in the Barra region.
Originally, the BRT wasn't even going to go through Ramos, but at an extra cost to taxpayers of 500 million Reals ($157 million), the line was extended to connect Barra to the international airport in order to satisfy a major requirement for the Olympic bid. As of today, the TransCarioca BRT line, which runs from Barra, through Ramos, and to the international airport, is estimated to cost 46 percent more than projected: 1.9 billion Reals (approximately $600 million), or some 48 million Reals ($15 million) per kilometer.
This expensive—yet inadequate—system is the result of a lack of central planning by the city for public transportation. Instead, private companies asked the government for permission to do what was in their best interests, and deals were cut with little or no thought to the needs of people who rely on the system. The architect and historian Nireu Cavalcanti told RioOnWatch, "There is no general plan, these are specific issues for which the bus companies decide what should be done in the city."
The poor planning came at a tremendous cost. RioOnWatch reports that Gaffney estimates a total of at least 10,000 homes, businesses, and public spaces have been forcibly removed, including entire communities that were never replaced.
Technically, the BRT is owned by the city, but Gaffney told VICE Sports they are "run as long-term concession[s]. These same companies get concessions from the city to operate the other bus lines. [There is] no transparency and no 'public' transportation in Rio de Janeiro."
This arrangement works out well for the bus companies. The city paid to build the BRT, then handed it off to them to reap the profits. Who exactly owns these bus companies is fairly opaque. A 2013 study by Globo made it appear an awful lot like a government-backed cartel. Forty-one different bus companies operate in Rio, but they are heavily controlled by four consortia, or business groups, which maintain significant market share in specific city zones. There is a lot of overlap between consortia as some companies operate in several zones. But three of the consortia are dominated by the transportation and banking magnate Jacob Barata, who was dubbed by Globo as the "Bus King." The BRT is operated by these same companies.
Lima has lived in or near Ramos for her entire life, but she's not sure how much longer she will stay. It's an increasingly difficult neighborhood in which to raise kids. Drug dealers hang out under the newly created BRT overpasses, resulting in an uptick of addicts that didn't used to be there. It's still not easy to get to work downtown, and there's no solution in sight.
Costa may not be so anxious to leave. After Lima returned home to collect her kids from their grandmother, Costa drove me to Igreja da Penha, a mountaintop Catholic church at the top of several hundred stairs carved out of the mountain's original stone. The church was Rio's main tourist attraction before 1931, when Christ the Redeemer became the city's iconic structure. At the top, Costa excitedly pointed out all the stunning views of the entire North Zone, as well as its absurdities. Why does the BRT run parallel to the existing—and severely underinvested—train line? Why did the city allow favelas to be built directly under high capacity power lines, endangering the lives of those underneath? Why are the surrounding working class neighborhoods charged for the illegal electricity usage by favelas?
A city is like a body, Costa says. If one part doesn't work, it puts stress on the others.
The wind at the top was so strong that it was blowing our sunglasses off our faces. According to Costa, it only blows that hard when it will rain the next day. (I opted not to bring my rain jacket the next morning and got caught in an afternoon storm.) After we descended the stairs, holding our glasses in place, Costa drove me back to the BRT station for my trip home. Like a concerned dad, he insisting on walking me to the bus, stating that muggers would target me due to my pasty complexion.
As we walked, Costa told me about his experience with the New York City subway. He would excitedly descended the gritty staircases, and laugh when he saw massive rats. But what excited him most were the countdown clocks. He could look up, and like magic, there would be an electronic sign telling him exactly when the next train would come. To his surprise, they were right: the sign would signal an arrival, and sure enough, a train would come barreling down the tunnel.
Costa smiled with genuine awe at a public transportation system working that well. "It is amazing," he said.
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