How Buenos Aires is thinking about sustainable transport

Bus-rapid transit now plies Buenos Aires' famous Avenida 9 de Julio, the widest avenue in the world (Andrzej Otrebski, Wikimedia Commons)

This week, city leaders and experts in sustainable urban transport are gathering in Santiago, Chile for an annual summit called MOBILIZE. The conference is a program of the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP), a global nonprofit working to accelerate the growth of sustainable transport and urban development around the world. Citiscope is a media partner of the event.

One of the conference speakers is Pula Bisiau, assistant secretary for sustainable mobility for the city of Buenos Aires. The Argentine capital has been on the leading edge of several transport innovations, such as bikeshare systems, bus-rapid transit and turning streets over to pedestrians. In this interview, which originally appeared on ITDP’s website, Bisiau talks about what the city has learned from these experiments and what global cities Buenos Aires looks to for lessons.


ITDP: The theme of MOBILIZE Santiago is “just and inclusive cities become the new normal”. How does Buenos Aires’ transport system live up to this ideal?

Paula Bisiau: Having a good network of diverse and well-connected transport is part of having an inclusive and fair city. So, in that sense, Buenos Aires has worked hard for at least 8 to 9 years to improve its public transport network. The reality is that in Buenos Aires, the use of public transport is very high. Almost 80 percent of trips are completed using public transport, on foot, or by bicycle. This means that in Buenos Aires we can talk about a city, in that sense, as fair and equitable because there is public transport throughout the city and the cost is relatively low.

Then, there is the whole accessibility point of view, the inclusion of all people with different abilities. In that sense, we still need more work. However, we have begun to design the streets and sidewalks so that they can be crossed by children, the elderly, and people in wheelchairs.

Q: What other cities around the world are the most interesting to you in the area of mobility?

A: Recently I was in two cities that were very interesting: Copenhagen, obviously, on the one hand, and Tokyo on the other. Tokyo is very different, but with a spectacular subway network, and especially with lots of information facilitated by technology. I was astonished by how I was able to get around so easily and plan my trip within a city I didn’t know, in a country where obviously I didn’t speak the language.

Palua Bisiau is assistant secretary for sustainable mobility for Buenos Aires

I also find Paris interesting and innovative. And what I find interesting about a city like Paris is that it’s a city that preserves all its heritage and history, but constantly renews itself. This power of renewal is very interesting. They started with Paris Plages, then what they did with Les Berges de la Seine was also very innovative. Other cities had already done what they did with bike share. But what they did was fill the city with public bicycles everywhere. And they encouraged all that in a city that was already fully built, which already had many residents and businesses everywhere.

To name a Latin American city, I would say São Paulo also has many innovations for being a megalopolis. I was there maybe two years ago for the first time, and the truth is that I was amazed. Their transportation is also spectacular. But still, they still have things that are not as good as they could be, like urban highways. Not that everything is fine, but as big as the city is, they are still doing a good job. For example, on road safety, they took certain actions that are not easy to take politically, like reducing the maximum speed. And those are difficult political measures to take. But they did so, and thanks to that, they managed to reduce the number of road casualties. Cities have to take risks on new measures in order to improve.

Q: In 2014, Buenos Aires won the Sustainable Transport Award for giving Avenida 9 de Julio, the widest avenue in the world, a transport and pedestrian makeover. Three years later, how are these interventions improving the quality of life in Buenos Aires?

A: The implementation of transit on Avenida 9 de Julio translated into shorter trips for those who used public transport, because all the buses that passed through downtown are now funneled onto the 9 de Julio Metrobus [bus rapid transit]. There was a reduction of almost 50 percent in travel times.

[See: How Buenos Aires unclogged its most iconic street]

Road accidents were reduced because the average speed of cars was reduced. Within what is called the pedestrian zone, the maximum speed is now 10 km per hour (6 miles per hour).  The entire downtown area was once very noisy and heavily polluted. The air and noise pollution levels dropped a lot. Before it was impossible to even have a conversation there.  Now there is economic development, adding life beyond the offices and banks. Nightlife is beginning to come up in that neighbourhood and we hope soon enough that will create the possibility of people moving downtown.

Q: What is the next big mobility project around the city?

A: We’re continuing to develop the Metrobus network. Along 9 de Julio you have the Bajo [Lower] area, near the port. We are adding Metrobus to Bajo and that is also going to be an important change. We are also pedestrianizing part of the area on the other side of 9 de Julio, where the Palace of Justice is; another area where there are also many pedestrians.

There are also two new projects: One that is called Paseo del Bajo, in order to get the trucks out. Buenos Aires is a port city and we have many trucks coming from the port. For that, we found a solution to stop them from going through the city. This project broke ground in May and will be finished in two years. The other is a new regional rail that will connect the Constitución area with the Retiro area.

Q: Has the number of people that use bicycles in Buenos Aires grown in the last few years and if so, why?

A: Yes, mainly because we started building cycle tracks in the most populated areas of the city, places where people go to work and where people live. We started in downtown and continued to the periphery of different neighbourhoods. Today we have 180 km (112 miles) of bike lanes and cycle tracks in almost every area of the city.

[See: After hosting ‘ecomobility’ festival, cars are back but less loved in Suwon]

The number also increased thanks to the public bikeshare system, Ecobici. A lot of work went into education and promotion. We convinced the city of the idea of ​​cycling by talking about cycling in every sector.  However, if I were to give you one main reason, people did not ride a bicycle in Buenos Aires because of road safety issues. In fact, we conducted surveys, and people already owned bikes. Buenos Aires is flat and has a relatively pleasant climate. The main reason they weren’t using it was because of road safety.

Q: Ecobici used to operate on a valet system, now it has docking stations. What was the impact of this shift?

A: Regardless of how it works, the system itself is very popular because it is free. Today, we have more than 200,000 users who have taken more than 5 million trips. We are working to build out the system with 200 stations and 2,500 bicycles. We currently have 1,900 bikes.

Last year was a difficult time for us because of vandalism and theft. That was something we had not planned for and that had not happened in other cities. This, for example, made us stagnate on the number of bike trips in the year 2016. Now in 2017, we are growing again.

Q: Do you think that Ecobici will ever go dockless?

A: We’re studying that. First we want to finish installing these 200 stations that we have planned. Then we want to understand what new technologies are being implemented in other cities around the world. When we think about the growth of this system, we want to move toward what is more innovative and what is working best. Because of our vandalism experience, I have to see to what extent it can work in Buenos Aires, but it seems fantastic to me — much more flexible as a system. All of us who think about transport think this way: Having innovation that is flexible because cities are dynamic, technologies change, and we have to be open to adapting.

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