Carolina Cominotti, our Head of Partnerships interviews Maína Celidonio, the Secretary of Transport of the City of Rio de Janeiro and discusses some of the challenges Rio de Janeiro has had in overhauling their bus system.

Carolina Cominotti: What are the biggest challenges in Rio?

Maína Celidonio, Secretary of Transport of the City of Rio de Janeiro

Maína Celidonio: Our biggest challenge is our buses, or the BRT, Rio de Janeiro’s public bus transportation system. Our bus contract is obsolete and unfortunately, this is a common challenge for many Latin American cities. However, Rio is unique among these cities, since no subsidies are provided for the bus system and all the revenue comes from passenger tariffs. While there are new agreements being discussed to provide public funds, we have yet to see any results from these agreements. In addition to an outdated system, Brazil has suffered an economic recession since 2015 and the Covid pandemic has further exacerbated our economic woes. Needless to say, it is no surprise that Rio’s bus system has collapsed. 

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CC: Are there plans to reform the bus system?

MC: We are trying to change the system and pay per km (for the end user) or pay per service performed (for the companies) so that the system is effectively being subsidized. However, this means we need to completely change the market structure and put a concession fee in place. Presently, the fleet owner owns the garage, runs the bus, and also does the ticketing. We are trying to separate the ticketing system so that it is done by someone other than the bus operator. Changing this market structure is very difficult because the current providers and operators do not want to reduce their market share. To make matters more challenging, this is a market where we do not have that many companies competing.

CC: What solutions are being put in place to circumvent these challenges?

MC: We have three bids currently taking place in Rio. One for the ticketing system has failed to find interested applicants due to complicated conditions, such as a rule that prevents transit operators from being responsible for administering the new ticketing system. Not only are the incumbents against these changes, but the new actors – that can actually replace them – are also discouraged from applying due to the complicated situation. To complete this bid we must overcome many barriers, including legal battles in the Brazilian supreme court.

The second bid process currently taking place in Rio is the massive bus acquisition  to renew the BRT fleet. The plan is to  buy almost 600 new buses, a huge investment of around 600 million USD dollars. The third bid is for updating the operation of the  BRT, which is a contract of 900 million USD dollars for a 10-year procurement. 

CC: How has the BRT been affected by the pandemic?

MC: In Rio, we had an average reduction of passengers by 73% at the pandemic’s peak. However, in some parts of the city, where people can work from home, it went up to almost 90%. In other neighborhoods, where residents need to physically go to work, the reduction has been closer to 25%. Since we have a system that is entirely dependent on income from passengers, there was a 70% fall in revenue during the pandemic. As a result of this, the bus operators stopped maintaining and investing in new fleets. A lot of people changed to private transportation, mostly cars, which has made the congestion even worse. The public transportation system needs to be upgraded quickly so that we can prevent a major shift to cars in the coming years. 

CC: What are the key mobility sectors being focused upon in Rio?

MC: We are focusing the most on MaaS and ticketing. The focus is to increasingly move towards a carless system. We are already planning to integrate a bike share system, and we also have a public taxi fleet. Overall, there is a huge economic opportunity to make a change in Brazil’s public transportation system. Keeping this in mind, a strong MaaS app would be a huge hit. The bike sharing system in Rio is the biggest in Latin America with 310 stations, and 3100 bikes, including 500 electric bikes. In the near future, we will look to expand to almost 600 bike stations and double the size of the bike-sharing system by 2024. 

CC: Can you share with us any new technology that has been successfully implemented?

MC: We have a monitoring team in place and we are increasingly doing everything through an open source system. We are presently implementing a new information system for people through QR codes at the bus stops and at the BRT stations. Why are the QR codes important? Because a lot of people are not literate. Hence QR codes are great in a country where there is high inequality and a poor literacy rate. 

CC: What mobility initiatives linked to women’s safety have been implemented?

MC: We have a lot of problems with harassment in public transportation. To deal with this, we have set up a panic button in the new buses and have also developed an inside-city app. When using this app, there is a harassment button that can be pressed. This is a really bad issue and it is very slowly getting better. So far we have implemented this button in the subway and also the BRT. It is also important to note that in the subway and the BRT we have compartments specifically for women. We also have one secretariat in Rio de Janeiro that only focuses on public policy for women and is focused on women’s issues, so we are likely to see more initiatives soon. . 

CC: What are some areas that Rio needs assistance with?

Boulevard Rio Branco e entorno do VLT no Centro do Rio de Janeiro.MC: While we have the knowledge concerning how we need to update our infrastructure, we do not have the human capital to carry out these plans (especially for integrating electric buses). We need European countries and North American countries to help provide the capital to run these projects. So we are always looking for partnerships. We already have partnerships with some international organizations like C40, ITDP, WRI and GIZ that are very helpful. 

Presently we are in different stages of development for an electric bus project, so to hear how other people are solving problems is really important for us. For instance, understanding models of contracting can be very useful as It is something very technical and complicated. Transport for London (TfL) in London has been very helpful in this context. In addition to modeling, understanding how financing can be most effectively utilized is also important for us. 

CC: What is your dream for Rio?

MC: If we can succeed in implementing a new ticketing system for the BRT, I will be really happy because that will enable us to make a lot of other structural changes. When we started, 1/3rd of all the BRT stations were closed and today they are all open. People were so happy to have them reopened as this meant they no longer had to walk 2 miles to catch a bus.  My goal is to hopefully implement a ticketing system by the end of this year.