After the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte implemented their first major infrastructure budget in 30 years, systemic changes have been recorded in the healthcare, education and transportation sectors. Most notably, the bus rapid transit (BRT) system has greatly reduced traffic congestion in a city with a challenging topography, announces Lauro Nogueria, CEO of Probadel Belo Horizonte. Unlike the US, where BRT systems are at best only quasi implemented, the Belo Horizonte system is true to the transit systems definition: It has a specialized design and services with a dedicated lane and stations. In many ways, its success has begun to mirror that of other BRT systems in South America, such as the TransMilenio in Bogota, Colombia.
“The idea of mobility through the BRT system was to improve the concept of the smart city,” says Nogueria. “The smart city was a very new concept; nobody knew what it was.” A major impetus for the smart city initiative was the World Cup – Belo Horizonte was slated to be one of the key cities for the international sporting event, readying to welcome crowds with their newly solar panel-roofed stadium. On top of efforts to prepare for this event, urban mobility issues had to be improved through broad-based infrastructure investment that was cost-efficient and in tune with the city’s layout. “Belo Horizonte is a landlocked city with a lot of hills and rivers,” says Nogueria. “It’s a very tough topography.” Moreover, the young city of 100 years, like many Brazilian urban centers, has witnessed a population boom. “In the 1950s, we were less than half a million; now we are more than 5 million,” he says.
This “tremendous population growth” greatly impacted the neglected state of the city’s transport – roads were burdened as car sales boomed from a rising middle class. At first, the implementation of the BRT and other physical and digital asset solutions faced opposition. “Public officials did not want to work together,” he remembers, “because they were very attached to their systems; this was a behavior problem occurring behind the scenes where we were talking about what should be the brain behind the smart city.” Most stridently, Nogueria says that forces of change wanted to build on more than just physical assets of the street, but hardware that assisted in operation of the city, which were quickly becoming outdated – “like a kind of museum.”
“We have to move the city into the cloud,” he implored. “We have to stop buying hardware that is quickly outdated. The more infrastructure you have at city hall, the more problems you have because your budget doesn’t evolve at the same speeds as technology.” This view is apt in the US and Brazil – the private sector always outstrips the government in rate of technological adoption. And business is a good teacher in Belo Horizonte, as well. “We are a services city; we have a good culture in terms of startups,” says Nogueria. And, in some ways, the city is already on its way to smartly operating: “Ninety-eight percent of electricity comes from renewables,” he notes. “And we have 252 schools to teach poor people computer science, as well as how to assemble local area, Wi-Fi and cable networks to make them more entrepreneurial and create revolutions inside their communities.”
This grassroots education push came from the city’s mayor, who has worked hard to establish a legacy as an educator. With $6 billion of funds, he began the largest overhaul of the city in 30 years, building up education, healthcare and transportation infrastructure, including the BRT. “More than 150 new schools have been put in place for children,” says Nogueria, “and we have established hospital PPPs.” The BRT has, perhaps, made the most dramatic impact to the most amount of people in the city. “More than half a million people travel in the city every day,” he says. “Our downtown was crossed by 700 bus lines, but because of the BRT implementation there are now only 300 bus lines. Traffic has decreased as a result; people are now moving half the time without traffic jams.”
The BRT project’s price tag was $1.3 billion, and it was originally quite controversial. The Brazilian government is highly bureaucratic, which, combined with the large-scale impact of the project, led to much debate and delays. “More than $300 million of the project funds were used just to indemnify people because we had to destroy houses and move them; it was expensive and complicated,” he recalls. Yet, today the BRT system is a shining example of efficiency, having adopted high-tech computerized networks. “We put in place a very intelligent system into the operation center to tell us if there are problems in the buses; we can talk to the drivers to notify them of speed limits,” he notes. The BRT system – buses and stations – is fitted with 4,000 cameras. But the system proved to be too difficult to monitor with human power through common surveillance systems, so the government began researching AI systems to assist. This upgrade would require bandwidth to increase in tandem, going from 10 billion gigabits per second to 40 billion gigabits per second so that images could flow in real time.
Another spillover effect of the BRT system is the observable decrease in car usage by the middle class citizenry; however, the government does not have any statistics to currently back up this trend. The inability to measure the BRT’s overall effectiveness has, thus tempered its role. “Optimal solutions are the best enemy of good solutions,” says Nogueria. “In the case of the BRT, we were convinced that a metro was best, and the BRT is complimentary. Plus, it would cost 10 times less. The implementation of a metro system in a city with our topography is not a piece of cake.”
In this regard, a BRT system is not a panacea to urban mobility. “Our BRT is approaching throughput. And as time passes, if you don’t implement a true metro solution, problems will be accumulated in a kind of evil buffer. The BRT helped a lot, but the problems did not all disappear,” he observes. “It does not have all the necessary capacity and that’s why it’s only a complimentary solution.”
Belo Horizonte hopes to enter into the realm of other global smart cities in the near future. “By 2018, maybe we will have a smart city,” Nogeueria concludes. “The learning curve was very tough, but now we have the assets, the aerial networks, operators and equipment.”