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Dossiê "Fronteiras, ativismos e (i)mobilidades: perspectivas estético-políticas"

The Map, the Photograph and the BRT: Between Promise and Reality on Rio’s Bus Rapid Transit

Bryan McCann
p. 81-96


Rio de Janeiro’s Bus Rapid Transit system, implemented in the years before the 2016 Summer Olympics, reproduces and expands inequalities long associated with the city’s traditional bus system. This article explores the middle ground between structure and subjectivity in order to reveal these patterns. To begin, it contrasts the BRT system’s schematic map with the photography of Yan Carpenter and the analytical maps of Lucas Faulhaber. It then moves onto examine tendencies built into the Curitiba model of BRT, the local history of Rio de Janeiro and its bus service, and the specific political context of the run-up to the Olympics. In regard to both iconographic examples and larger patterns, the goal is to explore the shared space between structure and individual subjectivity.

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Notas da redacção

Date received: 2021-06-28
Date accepted: 2021-12-21

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1On June 8, 2020, photographer Yan Marcelo Carpenter took a snapshot that captured the stress and grinding inequality of Rio de Janeiro in the midst of pandemic, and much more. Carpenter’s photograph shows masked, beleaguered passengers packed into a crowded Bus Rapid Transit cabin in Rio de Janeiro’s West Zone. Carpenter knew the line well—his day job was working in a burger joint in a shopping mall in middle-class Barra da Tijuca, and at the time he was living in Rio das Pedras, a vast favela in the marshlands between Barra da Tijuca and the working-class suburbs to the north. He was intimately familiar with the daily grind of commuting between home and work on Rio’s BRT system.

Photo by Yan Marcelo Carpenter (@yancarpenter), June 8 2020.

  • 1 “O Novo Navio Negreiro: foto de ônibus lotado na reabertura do Rio viraliza,” Brasil247 Sudeste, (...)

2Carpenter explains, “It was a Monday, my day off, but I went out to make some photographs. It was in front of Città América mall, I think it was the Benvindo de Novaes BRT Station, and it was insanely crowded. I had my camera in my backpack and I said, ‘This is an opportunity to take a photo of what really happens.’ I snapped a shot, left the BRT and connected the camera to wifi, analyzed and edited the photo on my phone and posted it on the web. But I didn’t expect all that repercussion.”1

3Carpenter’s image went viral. He took the photograph on the first day of Rio’s tentative reopening after a month of lockdown. As the municipality eased restrictions, allowing citizens to return to work, middle-class, mostly white citizens sheltered at home. Dark-skinned members of the working poor did not have the option of social distancing. The image made the logic of the pandemic viscerally apparent: no matter what precautions they took, the working poor would bear the brunt of the suffering. The image circulated on social media, then via traditional media organs like the Estado de São Paulo newspaper and Veja magazine. On his Instagram account, Carpenter captioned the photo with “o avião do trabalhador,” the worker’s airplane. But on social media it was often captioned with the phrase O Novo Navio Negreiro: the new slave ship.

4It was not happenstance that the defining image of pandemic Rio was made in a BRT cabin, taken by a photographer intimately acquainted with the indignities of the BRT commute. The creation of Rio’s BRT system in the years preceding the 2016 Summer Olympics intensified longstanding patterns in Rio’s geography of inequality. Between 2013 and 2016, thousands of working-class families were uprooted from their homes to make way for three new BRT lines stretching across the vast municipality (the TransOeste, the TransCarioca, and the TransOlímpica).

5The working-class homes cleared to make way for the new BRT lines were far from luxurious, but they were close to employment, schools and community networks. Uprooted families were generally settled farther west in Rio’s vast municipality, in areas farther from employment, educational opportunities and longstanding communities. In many cases, these homes were relatively close to stops on the new Transoeste BRT line, which skirts the western perimeter of the municipality. The result was that the residents dispossessed to make way for the TransCarioca BRT line, which cross-cuts the heart of the municipality, joined their new neighbors in making the sweaty commute from distant, precarious suburbs to middle-class Barra da Tijuca on another, more peripheral line.

  • 2 Construction of the TransCarioca line alone delivered over $2bi reais (approximately $1bi USD in (...)

6The construction companies that won contracts to build the new BRT lines and the bus consortium that won the concession to operate the system profited handsomely.2 Real-estate corporations bought properties adjacent to the new BRT lines—in many cases acquiring portions of properties expropriated by municipal government for BRT construction—and built market-rate housing. They gradually sold off units as values rose—a rising value largely attributable to the BRT itself—capitalizing on their investment. The construction companies, the bus consortium and the real-estate corporations were all tightly linked to municipal administration, and drew the benefits of BRT construction. Those uprooted to make way for the BRT lines suffered the consequences.

  • 3 Manderscheid, “Criticising the Solitary Mobile Subject,” 190.
  • 4 Manderscheid, “Criticising the Solitary Mobile Subject,” 190.

7This article uses Carpenter’s viral photograph as an opportunity to reflect on the inequities of the implementation of BRT in Rio de Janeiro. I begin by considering the implications of Carpenter’s photograph in light of two other iconographic sources. The first is Rio de Janeiro’s schematic map of the BRT system. The second is a pair of maps created by urban planner Lucas Faulhaber, showing expropriations, evictions and resettlements of working-poor families in the process of Rio’s BRT implementation. I consider these three contrasting iconographic sources in an attempt to explore what Manderscheid (2014) describes as “links between social and spatial structures on one hand and practices of mobility and immobility on the other hand.”3 Manderscheid advocates for “researching links between structures and practices of mobilities,” and for exploring the terrain between macro approaches, with their concern for structures, patterns, flows and circuits, and micro approaches, with their concerns for subjectivities and narration of lived experience.4 I propose that triangulation of these three iconographic sources helps illuminate the difficult terrain between the idealized aspirations of Rio’s BRT system, its contentious and disruptive creation, and the daily experience of its riders.

8In the second half of the article, I consider the historical background for this state of affairs. The global expansion of BRT over the past quarter century presents a striking case of what is now broadly recognized as policy mobility (Peck & Theodore, 2010; E. McCann, 2011), understood not merely as the transfer of methods and approaches, but of “socio-material assemblages,” (Crivello, 2015; McFarlane, 2009; Prince, 2010), bearing the social imprint of their original context, thick with implications for their new, adoptive homes. I argue that Rio de Janeiro’s BRT has been deeply marked by three formative inputs: first, what I describe as BRT’s DNA—those aspects of the Curitiba model of BRT, initially developed in the 1970s and refined through the 1990s, facilitating not only a mode of public transportation, but larger patterns of urban development and spatial reorientation. Second, by Rio’s prior history of municipal bus service, fraught with political compromises and ingrained neglect of passengers and workers. And third, by the context of implementation in the run-up to the 2016 Summer Olympics and the attempted reinvention of Rio as a “smart city,” (Freitas, 2016; Freire-Medeiros and Freitas, 2020) a process driven by the pursuit of branding and efficiency, often at the expense of the city’s most vulnerable residents.

9I argue that all three of these formative inputs have shaped Rio’s BRT system, its role in the transformation of the city, and the lived experience of its riders. Attributing specific shortcomings of the system and its workings to any one of these three inputs would be impossible and pointless. Considering the formative role of each is necessary to understanding the challenges of Rio’s BRT. The article concludes by linking this historical analysis back to the iconographic inquiry of the opening pages.

10Yan Carpenter’s photo presents a sharp contrast to the global image of BRT as smooth, clean and efficient, and provides a strong indication that, rather than solving the problems of Rio’s traditional bus system, BRT largely shifted them to a new mode of transportation.

11Compare Carpenter’s photo to the schematic map of Rio’s BRT system. The map is widely reproduced, and available for download at​wp/​downloads/​mapa_estacoes.pdf

12The schematic map conveys the idealized promise of BRT as a rubber-tire, surface-level metro system. The mode is meant to be as easy to navigate as underground metro, at a fraction of the construction costs. For urban planners, overall system legibility is a key component of the BRT package. The BRT map is self-explanatory. To go from the airport to Curral Falso, pay one price, board the TransCarioca at Galeão, travel to the end of the line at Terminal Alvorada, transfer to the TransOeste, and exit at Curral Falso. Smooth and easy.

  • 5 Rio de Janeiro is 485mi2. Los Angeles has 468mi2 land área. New York City is a mere 303mi2.

13All schematic transit maps offer this compelling promise: with time, patience and a transfer or two, any station is within reach. Rio’s BRT map suggests easy accessibility from one end to another of a municipality that is as large as Los Angeles, and 50% larger than New York City, in terms of total area.5 This suggestion is not entirely fictional. The BRT system has indeed made traveling from Santa Cruz to the city center, or from Barra da Tijuca to the Ilha do Fundão, straightforward and easily comprehensible, rather than circuitous and requiring arcane knowledge.

14But Carpenter’s photo reminds us of the messy reality behind that schematic legibility. Two additional maps offer further insight. Faulhaber and Nacif (2012) were among the first to grasp the scope the reorganization of the city underway in the preparation for the 2016 Olympics. Faulhaber created a series of maps for their 2012 article on expropriation and removal of favela residents in favor of real-estate and construction conglomerate interests. The maps offered powerful visual representation of that process, clarifying a logic of expropriation and marginalization. Faulhaber’s maps did not go viral in the same way Carpenter’s photograph would a few years later. But they circulated rapidly in a more circumscribed network of academics and activists resisting human rights abuses in the run-up to the Olympics.

15This map, for example, shows expropriation and eviction of favela residents to make way for the new BRT lines, among other removals. As the map demonstrates, the vast majority of cases of expropriation and eviction of favela residents occurred along the new BRT lines:

Image Two, “Desapropriações,” Map by Lucas Faulhaber, 2015.

16BRT revived a logic of removal and resettlement of the urban poor. Rio de Janeiro endured an aggressive wave of favela removal in the 1960s and early 1970s (Brum, ; Benmergui, ) but that process largely ceased with the beginnings of redemocratization in the late 1970s (McCann, 2014). Preparation for the Olympics, and the implementation of the BRT in particular, put favela removal back on the table, and back on the map (as Faulhaber demonstrates).

17This second Faulhaber map shows that favela residents removed or induced to resettle in the run-up to the Olympics were overwhelmingly pushed to the western reaches of the municipality. The lavender circles represent original homes, the yellow houses represent new housing projects built under the Minha Casa Minha Vida (My House My Life) federal housing program.

Image Three, “Reassentamentos,” Map by Lucas Faulhaber, 2015.

  • 6 Faulhaber, 2012, 67. Faulhaber’s maps became key illustrations for the Popular Committee for the (...)

18As Faulhaber noted, this process uprooted citizens and relocated them to zones controlled by militias, who profit by extorting residents in return for protection and basic services. The implications of this pattern of compelled relocation became even more vivid in subsequent years, as the political connections of these militias at the municipal and federal levels became more apparent. 6

  • 7 Manderscheid, “Criticising the Solitary Mobile Subject,” 190.

19Considering these three iconographic sources in light of Manderscheid (2014), one might say that the schematic map of the BRT represents not the structure of the system but a highly-abstracted idea of that structure, absent all friction and complication. Faulhaber’s map illuminate the process behind the making of the BRT, one shaped by expropriation, eviction and resettlement on the urban periphery. Carpenter’s photograph reveals the subjectivity—including the “corporeal sensualities of mobile practices” Manderscheid (2014) suggests are often absent from strictly narrative micro studies.7

20The photo also, of course, bears the shadow of the processes revealed by Faulhaber, and much more. As the popularly-bestowed title of O Novo Navio Negreiro suggests, the photo also speaks to the legacy of centuries of enslavement and racial inequality in a deeply divided city. All these factors existed prior to Rio’s BRT system. But—true to the promise of the mode—BRT made the links between them concrete and accelerated their progression.

The DNA of BRT

21How much of this can be ascribed to BRT, how much to the long history of Rio de Janeiro, and how much to the particular context of frenetic development in the run-up to the Olympics? It is futile to attempt to break this down as a strict percentage or a list of attributes, with some ascribed to BRT, some to Rio’s history of inequality, and some to Olympian opportunism. But it is vital to consider how each of these inputs contributed to shape the implementation of BRT in Rio in important ways.

22Several tendencies encoded within BRT’s DNA reached powerful expression in the fertile wetlands of Rio’s West Zone. There is an inherent tension in BRT of maintaining construction and operating costs low while striving to provide a rider experience as similar to underground metro as possible.(Ardila-Gomez, 2004) Even in the best cases, this often leads to overcrowding and increasing rider frustration. In the meantime, publicly subsidized BRT lines generate rising values on adjacent land. Unless the municipality implements policies to capture part of those rising values and invest them in low-income housing and other social programs, they lead towards real-estate speculation, gentrification and displacement of working-class and working-poor families.(Branco, 2016) In cases where municipal administrations are more closely aligned with real-estate interests than with low-income citizens, those effects will be particularly pronounced. This has been the case in Rio de Janeiro.

  • 8 The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) subsequently based its standards f (...)

23The transit mode globally known as BRT is heavily based on innovations made in Curitiba in the 1970s and refined in that city through the 1990s. These innovations included defined by dedicated lanes, off-board fare collection, level boarding, signal priority, and overall system branding and legibility. The Curitiba model of BRT served as the basis for Bogotá, Colombia’s system in the early 2000s.(Ardila-Gomez, 2004; Hidalgo, 2013) Bogotá’s system was subsequently emulated in cities around the world, particularly in the global south, including Rio de Janeiro.8 Brief detail on Curitiba’s experience helps clarify subsequent experiences in Rio.

24Curitiba’s model emerged at a specific juncture, when a center-left urban planning institute achieved unusual leverage under a right-wing dictatorship. At the time, Curitiba was a mid-size, secondary city in the process of rapid growth. The Curitiba model thus benefited from both visionary planning and dictatorial leverage, at a time when the city was pliable and the local economy was booming. These are difficult conditions to duplicate.(Moore, 2007)

  • 9 São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro were the only Brazilian cities with underground metro in the period, (...)

25Curitiba’s model was also deliberately intermediary: it was designed to be as much like a surface-level metro system as possible, without the infrastructural investment and long-term commitment required by rail transport. BRT was clearly more modern and efficient than traditional bus service, the traditional mode of the working class, but not as expensive as underground metro, a mode largely limited to the upper middle class in Brazil until the 1990s.9 Curitiba’s BRT responded to and facilitated a new geography of inequality in the city, one where the new middle class lived along BRT lines and used the system, while the working poor were pushed to the city’s southern periphery. In some ways, it is a successful example of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD), where public transit sparked commercial and residential density within easy reach of the system. But it is also a negative example of gentrification, where public transit not only failed to serve the urban poor, it in some ways exacerbated their challenges.(Branco, 2016; Duarte & Ultramari, 2012; Albuquerque, 2007)

26As in Rio, this played out in ways shaped by both local history and the changing political and economic context. In the 1950s and early ’60s, Curitiba nurtured an innovative group of architects and planners dedicated to the remaking of the city. They founded the Instituto de Planejamento e Pesquisa Urbana de Curitiba (IPPUC). The group’s 1966 plan for the city emphasized development along two principal axes, one running north-south, the other east-west. This became the matrix for the city’s growth, and IPPUC itself became Curitiba’s official urban planning agency.(Silva, 2000)

  • 10 Technically, the state governor appointed the mayor of the capital city, but as state governors w (...)

27IPPUC’s early years coincided with increasingly authoritarian measures by the military dictatorship that had seized power in 1964. The military regime and the urban planning institute established a cautious but prolific working relationship, marked by a shared interest in technocratic interventions that privileged the state-led capitalism of construction and engineering firms. In 1971, the regime appointed Jaime Lerner, an IPPUC founder, mayor of Curitiba. (During the dictatorship, the regime appointed mayors of state capitals, including Curitiba, the capital of Paraná state.)10 Lerner would ultimately serve three, non-successive terms as mayor of Curitiba (1971-74, 1979-83, 1989-93), twice appointed by the dictatorship, once elected in the period of redemocratization. These three terms would mark the key phases in the creation of Curitiba’s BRT system and the remaking of the city, more broadly.(Moore, 2007; Duarte & Ultramari, 2012)

  • 11 This description simplifies the global expansion of BRT for the sake of brevity. Other cities exp (...)

28Lerner imposed a “trinary system” on Curitiba’s major axes. The trinary system was defined by broad avenues running along the major north-south and east-west axes, with parallel avenues one block away on either side. The central lanes of the major axes became dedicated busways. Relying on the leverage of the dictatorship, Lerner compelled private concessionaires to run traditional bus service to terminal stations at the end of the axes (establishing the pattern for subsequent BRT systems, like Rio’s). The first line, along the north-south axis, opened in 1974. Over the next fifteen years, the city refined the characteristics subsequently exported to Bogotá, and then to the rest of the world.11

29Residential and commercial density grew along the city’s major axes, according to plan. Those in favorable positions speculated on this growth, waiting for a favorable moment to verticalize. When they converted low-rise development into high-rise, they reaped the windfall. Real-estate speculation increased inequality, as those favorably positioned exploited gains while onlookers competed for space. Lower-income development was pushed farther out to the city’s periphery, beyond the BRT system.(Branco, 2016; Duarte & Ultramari, 2012, Carvalho, 2013)

30By the early 2000s, Curitiba’s BRT system was crowded with riders who lived far away, in ill-served interstitial neighborhoods or in peripheral municipalities. Curitiba’s BRT system helped to consolidate the lifestyle of a middle class that now no longer uses it much, while serving the working poor inconsistently. This may ultimately be too pessimistic a conclusion for a system that is still widely perceived as a model. But the limitations of Curitiba’s achievements are real, and help illuminate challenges subsequently faced in Rio.

BRT and the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro

31In his enthusiasm for Transit Oriented Development, Jaime Lerner arguably failed to foresee and contain the most pernicious aspects of gentrification, displacement and the marginalization of the urban working-poor. In Rio de Janeiro under Eduardo Paes, mayor of the city between 2009-16, gentrification through displacement was not an unintended consequence, but part of the plan.

32Pursuit of real-estate valorization has been Paes’s foremost goal for most of his career. In the 1990s, during mayor César Maia’s first term (1993-97), Paes was part of the César Maia Youth, helping to facilitate Maia’s policies of city beautification. Paes served as Maia’s sub-mayor for the West Zone, mediating between local interest groups—including developers, favela residents and middle-class apartment-dwellers—in a rapidly changing part of the city. The West Zone has historically been sparsely populated. Rural land has given way to irregular subdivisions in a sporadic process over the past fifty years, leading to the densification of some neighborhoods, like Campo Grande and Jacarepaguá, that are small cities unto themselves, interspersed by vast stretches of irregular subdivisions. Maia’s initiatives helped to valorize West Zone land, and Paes earned a reputation as a sub-mayor who catered to the interests of developers.(Faulhaber & Siqueira, 2019).

33The announcement of Rio de Janeiro as the host city for the 2016 Olympics in 2008, shortly before Paes’s 2009 inauguration, gave him the opportunity to remake the city on a much larger scale. Preparations for the Olympics coincided with an oil boom in the state of Rio de Janeiro and major federal investments in infrastructure projects, bringing unprecedented levels of domestic and foreign investment to Rio during Paes’s term. And the impending Olympics created the exigency to accomplish major reforms quickly, allowing Paes to shortcut lengthy bureaucratic review and competitive bidding.(Faulhaber & Siqueira, 2019; Comitê Popular da Copa, 2012).

34Paes announced a series of pharaonic projects, including major transport and mobility initiatives. And he established a Centro de Operações Rio (COR, Rio Center of Operations) with the goal of not only overseeing these vast operations but unifying them under the umbrella of a globally-branded “smart city.”(Freire-Medeiros & Freitas, 2020; Freitas, 2016) This branding presupposed enthusiastic adoption of perceived global best practices, reproducing patterns of policy mobility and policy tourism prominent in the last two decades (González, 2011; Crivello, 2015) The implementation of a BRT system cross-cutting and encircling the vast municipality was the most ambitious and consequential of these reforms, and necessarily reinforced this pattern. Planners of the Rio system consulted directly with counterparts in Bogotá and sought to adopt the global standard of BRT in Rio. Without doubt, that model brought some efficiencies: Rio’s BRT primarily serves low-income riders, and has increased the overall availability of public transportation in the West Zone. At the same time, it has imposed significant costs on Rio’s working poor, starting with the thousands of families displaced to make way for BRT lines.(Mendes & Legroux, 2016; Faulhaber, 2016)

  • 12 The same consortium that has negotiated with the city to run bus lines for decades won a bidding (...)

35Numerous obstacles complicated implementation of BRT in Rio, beginning with the city’s feared bus consortium. The bus consortium is a collection of roughly a dozen privately-owned bus companies which negotiate with the city for concessions to operate bus lines throughout the city.12 (With the exception of a short-lived experiment in the 1980s, Rio has had no significant publicly-owned bus service over the past sixty years.) Rio’s traditional bus lines are overcrowded, uncomfortable and dangerous for both workers and passengers.(Caiafa, 2002) The consortium’s leverage over city officials has long prevented any serious attempts to improve these conditions. That leverage also enabled absurd redundancy of service in some areas of the city and scarcity elsewhere.

36Inauguration of the BRT was ostensibly intended to change all this. Circuitous and redundant lines would be eliminated, replaced by new trunk lines terminating at BRT stations. The TransCarioca, TransOeste and TransOlímpica would provide efficient, reliable service to the most underserved areas of the city. And BRT would provide a level of comfort and predictability more similar to the city’s underground Metro system than to its traditional buses. (The Metro system, notwithstanding challenges of its own, is generally comfortable and reliable. It is also more expensive than the bus, and covers only a fraction of the city.)

  • 13 Under Brazilian law, municipal, state and federal governments all have limited powers of expropri (...)

37The combination of legal pressures, financial inducements and veiled threats used to clear families from the path of the new BRT lines has been explored elsewhere.(Nacif, Costa & Porcino, 2014; Faulhaber, 2016) The imperative of the upcoming Olympics, and the frenzy of infrastructural projects, real-estate speculation and grandiose architectonic statements they unleashed, allowed officials to shortcut legal processes and move quickly towards expropriation of working-class and working-poor families.13

  • 14 See Global BRT Data at for ridership and other data on Rio’s system, and also for com (...)

38There was no possibility of implementing the BRT quickly without welcoming the consortium to the bargaining table. The result was that the bus consortium became the dominant player in implementation and management of Rio’s BRT. The consortium agreed to eliminate dozens of traditional lines in return for a stake in BRT fares. As envisioned in the plan, they created trunk lines terminating in BRT stations, channeling suburban residents into the BRT in order to continue their commute to the city center or upscale areas like Ipanema and Barra da Tijuca.(Faulhaber, 2016) Seen from one perspective, this looked like success: Between 2011 and 2018, Rio’s BRT ridership went from zero to three million passengers per day, a staggering growth trajectory.14 Seen from the perspective of the passengers, this looked like Carpenter’s photograph: crowded, oppressive, and dramatically unequal—a contrast that again calls to mind Manderscheid’s advocacy for mobility studies exploring the terrain between these macro and micro perspectives. (2014)

39The indignities of the daily commute in overcrowded cabins arguably pales in comparison to the greater social cost of BRT implementation—expropriation and eviction of working-poor families on a massive scale.(Mendes & Legroux, 2016b) In reality, these two costs are linked, as residents evicted from homes relatively close to the city center in order to make way for BRT lines were resettled on the western periphery of the municipality, where they were entirely reliant on the new BRT lines for public transportation.

40The BRT lines were routed through favelas and other working-class neighborhoods, requiring displacement and relocation on a scale not seen since the 1970s, under Brazil’s military regime. As these were new highways, they not only removed thousands of homes, but deeply divided existing neighborhoods. There was a transit logic to these routes: it made sense to run BRT lines adjacent to working-poor neighborhoods. And it was impossible to serve a population centers without running lines through some outlying favelas. But the working poor of those neighborhoods bore the brunt of this construction, in a process marked by aggression and disdain. Workers from the Municipal Housing Department marked homes for removal in favelas and working-poor neighborhoods. Residents were given little warning and had minimal legal recourse. Residents were moved farther west, to interstitial neighborhoods far from employment opportunities. Poor people were evicted from neighborhoods where public investment created conditions for real-estate valorization, and relocated to devalued neighborhoods—a textbook example of compelled gentrification. Those who refused these terms were left to find housing on their own, an option that almost always meant settling for worse conditions.(Faulhaber, 2016, Mendes & Legroux, 2016b)

41Without doubt, some low-income riders have benefited from the creation of Rio’s network. Many others, however, have found their commute times lengthened by the elimination of traditional bus lines. Research suggests that most low-income riders from the West Zone now face longer commutes. As strikingly, even before covid-19, average access to jobs decreased by 4%, and average access to public high schools decreased approximately 6% between 2014 and 2017. Middle-income riders closer to the South Zone have benefited. Pockets of low-income riders in communities closer to the South Zone have also drawn benefits, but less consistently. For most cariocas, commuting got harder with the transition to BRT, and opportunities dwindled. (Pereira, et al, 2019)

42Even before covid-19, the insufficiencies and indignities of Rio’s BRT system were already evident. Overcrowded and sweltering conditions are endemic. BRT lines have been plagued by accidents at rates far exceeding those in other BRT systems. And stations have been plagued by petty crime and violence. While these characteristics speak to larger challenges in Rio de Janeiro, it suggests that that city’s BRT branding strategies, like much of its projection of Olympian sanitization, have been superficial. Under the surface, Rio’s BRT system bears the same characteristics as traditional bus service in Rio. The experience of BRT in the midst of the pandemic only makes these characteristics more apparent.


43In sum, the Curitiba BRT model, Rio’s history of bus service and of inequality more generally, and the context of the run-up to the Olympics all contributed to the shortcomings of the city’s implementation of BRT. Just as Manderscheidian analysis of the space between structure and subjectivity helped illuminate the implications of the iconographic sources, the same is true for these complex dynamics. Curitiba’s own experience suggests that tendencies towards unequal spatial reorganization of the city are latent within its BRT model. But local history and politics will determine how prominently those latent tendencies emerge. In Rio, the local history tends towards greater inequality, and towards the veiled power of a private bus consortium acting in its own interests. And the context of the Olympics only intensified those tendencies. As in the iconographic case, attention to the middle-ground between structure and subjectivity helps illuminate these tendencies.

44Returning briefly to the iconographic case, the official schematic map of the BRT system offers the appeal of clarity but obscures experience. Faulhaber’s maps offer powerful evidence and explanation of the process that created Rio’s BRT system and how its costs and benefits are distributed. And Carpenter’s gripping photograph reveals the corporeal dimensions of that process, on the level of a handful of passengers in a crowded cabin, albeit in a way that speaks to the experience of the city itself.

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1 “O Novo Navio Negreiro: foto de ônibus lotado na reabertura do Rio viraliza,” Brasil247 Sudeste, 11 June, 2019,

2 Construction of the TransCarioca line alone delivered over $2bi reais (approximately $1bi USD in 2013-14, when most of the payments were delivered). Construction firms also benefited directly from expropriation, as their contract included perquisites to sell or build on expropriated land adjacent to the BRT line and required for the construction phase, but not occupied by the BRT line itself. See Faulhaber, O Jogo Imobiliário Carioca, 126-129.

3 Manderscheid, “Criticising the Solitary Mobile Subject,” 190.

4 Manderscheid, “Criticising the Solitary Mobile Subject,” 190.

5 Rio de Janeiro is 485mi2. Los Angeles has 468mi2 land área. New York City is a mere 303mi2.

6 Faulhaber, 2012, 67. Faulhaber’s maps became key illustrations for the Popular Committee for the World Cup and the Olympics, a loose-knit coalition resisting eviction, real-estate speculation and gentrification, and advocating for an alternative agenda of sustainable Olympic upgrading. The Popular Committee incorporated Faulhaber’s research into a series of dossiers and posts published between 2012 and 2016, documenting human rights abuses in the preprations for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. See, for example, Rio 2016 Olympics: the Exclusion Games, Mega-events and Human Rights Violations in Rio de Janeiro.

7 Manderscheid, “Criticising the Solitary Mobile Subject,” 190.

8 The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) subsequently based its standards for the mode on Bogota’s innovations to the Curitiba model, including passing lanes, low emissions, universal accessibility and integration with other forms of transportation. The ITDP became one of the chief conduits of policy mobility in the sector over the past two decades. Its scorecard of BRT systems around the world grades different cities on their application of the model. For the ITDP BRT Scorecard, see

9 São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro were the only Brazilian cities with underground metro in the period, and both systems catered heavily to the upper middle class until the mid 1990s. Rio’s example was particularly clear: it’s Line 1, modern and air-conditioned, ran underground and served the city center and middle-class neighborhoods in the city’s South Zone. It’s Line 2, stifling and poky, ran aboveground and served working-class neighborhoods in the city’s North Zone. Subsequent extensions and upgrades have not dramatically altered this pattern, but the ridership has grown more diverse everywhere.

10 Technically, the state governor appointed the mayor of the capital city, but as state governors were elected from a short list approved by the regime and necessarily functioned at its behest, this amounted to appointment by the dictatorship.

11 This description simplifies the global expansion of BRT for the sake of brevity. Other cities explored similar innovations in parallel with Curitiba, and policy mobility in the early 2000s had several nodes. But the Curitiba-Bogotá nexus was decisive in establishing what became the global model.(Halais, 2012)

12 The same consortium that has negotiated with the city to run bus lines for decades won a bidding process to operate the BRT. The BRT consortium includes the following bus companies: Expresso Pégaso LTDA; Auto Viação Jabour LTDA; Transportes Barra LTDA; Viação Redentor LTDA; Transportes Futuro LTDA; Auto Viação Três Amigos S/A; Auto Viação Bangu LTDA; Transportes Campo Grande LTDA; Transurb S/A; Caprichosa Auto Ônibus LTDA; Real Auto Ônibus LTDA; Auto Viação Tijuca S/A; Translitoral Transportes LTDA; Transportes Santa Maria LTDA; Transportes Paranapuan S/A; Viação Madureira Candelária LTDA. While there are seventeen listed here, several companies are owned by the same individuals or groups.

13 Under Brazilian law, municipal, state and federal governments all have limited powers of expropriation for the purposes of public utility. Decreto Lei nº 3.365, de 21 de junho de 1941: Art. 5º grants executive authorities powers of expropriation for public utility in cases of: opening, preserving or improving roads, railways and public places; execution of infrastructural urbanization; division of land, with or without construction, for improved economic, hygienic or aesthetic use; and the construction or expansion of industrial districts. This functions in similar ways to the concept of eminent domain in United States law. In practice, it is traditionally constrained by interests in upholding private property rights, adverse possession and even preserving informal housing, in some cases. In the run-up to the Olympics, these traditional defenses were generally unsuccessful in fending off expropriation, ostensibly justified by the need to construct BRT and other projects related to the Olympic Games. For analysis of expropriation and real-estate valorization in conjunction with the BRT, see Faulhaber, O Jogo Imobiliário Carioca, 2016, especially pp. 124-130.

14 See Global BRT Data at for ridership and other data on Rio’s system, and also for comparative data on hundreds of global systems.

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Índice das ilustrações

Legenda Photo by Yan Marcelo Carpenter (@yancarpenter), June 8 2020.
Ficheiro image/jpeg, 287k
Legenda Image Two, “Desapropriações,” Map by Lucas Faulhaber, 2015.
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Legenda Image Three, “Reassentamentos,” Map by Lucas Faulhaber, 2015.
Ficheiro image/png, 1,8M
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Para citar este artigo

Referência do documento impresso

Bryan McCann, «The Map, the Photograph and the BRT: Between Promise and Reality on Rio’s Bus Rapid Transit»Cadernos de Arte e Antropologia, Vol. 11, No 1 | -1, 81-96.

Referência eletrónica

Bryan McCann, «The Map, the Photograph and the BRT: Between Promise and Reality on Rio’s Bus Rapid Transit»Cadernos de Arte e Antropologia [Online], Vol. 11, No 1 | 2022, posto online no dia 01 abril 2022, consultado o 04 outubro 2023. URL:; DOI:

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Bryan McCann

Georgetown University, Washington D.C., USA

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