I have now been in Rio for 3 weeks, so I quite felt like an ITS scout and I took upon myself to understand what is going on and what is interesting for a PhD students in transport. To be fair, when I started telling the cariocas (Rio’s inhabitants), I am doing a PhD in “trasporte“, they smiled to me, like telling me: “Welcome, this is your paradise”. Rio, the “Marvellous city”, seems to be a chaotic sprawl of buildings and traffic, with much urbanisation and nature, that emerge with a dramatic beauty, still shaping the city itself. The mountain that divides the historic centre and the new development constitute a bastion of unspoiled nature and a serious obstacle for transport. The traffic here is legendary. A journalist told me how in the last 10 years the use of “carro particulares” (private vehicles) has increased dramatically: the rise of the middle class coincided with the cars boom and with increasing traffic issues. On the other side there is the infinite number of people that would never be able to buy a car and that rely on public transport or on informal transport modes. They are the people who live on the margins of the official and safe city, at the edges of the Rio of beaches and capirinha. Turning away a moment from the tower blocks of the new development and you will find poverty in the streets, or watching the so-called comunidades, where thousands of people live perched on the mountains.
In that context, small private buses called “combi”, “moto-taxy” or special bikes (see picture 1) are the informal substitute of a really deficient public service. I spent hours and hours travelling on the “onibus”, the city bus which is the most used transport mode, mostly always scary for its speed and drivers’ recklessness. At the same time, the metro line is absolutely insufficient. In this context, it is not to surprising that was exactly the increase of “25 centavos” (25 cents) for the bus ticket that constituted the “straw that broke the camel’s back”, the starting point for a numerous series of protests still going on. They started with a small number of students claiming a better public transport service, but the police repression and the sharing of the reasons for the malcontent, increased the base of the protest in a dramatic way, to the point that a week ago more than 1 million people where on the streets. They claim for an urban reform, investments in education and health, against the spread of corruption and big events that waste public money without any return for the citizen (FIFA world cup next year and Olympic game in 2016), and of course for a better transport system. It will be easy for everyone coming to Rio to start speaking about politics with the taxi driver, the bar man or anyone on the street: citizens are now widely aware and concerned with how the city is developing, with the new metro project and the new port development or with the transport policies or the use of public money.
In this context having the WCTR in Rio is both a big challenge and a big opportunity. A big query is the extent to which the conference will be able to respond to and take into account of the Rio atmosphere beyond it being not just a marvellous city of beaches and mountains, nightlife and carnival festivities, but a city now in mobilization, full of inequalities and contradictions within which the transport systems, urban mobility and planning play a fundamental role.