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Dispatches from Rio+20: Visiting with Mayor Bloomberg, Riding the Bus, and More

One lesson from Rio+20 is you shouldn’t confuse what’s happening in the hallways and negotiating rooms with what’s taking place on the ground. A great example of this is the new bus-rapid-transit line that has just started running in Rio de Janeiro. The BRT has gotten a lot of attention this week– not least because New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s visit to Rio de Janeiro brought focus to the city’s transportation system.

On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to join Mayor Bloomberg and Rio’s Mayor Paes, along with my EMBARQ colleagues to visit Rio’s operations center. Mayor Bloomberg was primarily here to promote the C40 Climate Leadership Group’s announcement of C40 cities' actions to reduce 1.3 billion metric tons of carbon emissions by 2030. The Mayor also cited city-level actions already taken that will cut 248 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. As Mayor Bloomberg explained, cities are taking action on climate change, even as many national governments drag their heels. “We don’t have the luxury of just sitting back and talking about the problems because on a whole range of critical action, the buck stops at city hall,” he said at the event.

Given the slow pace of national action on climate change in the United States, this line really resonates.

As cities are looking to rein in their emissions, WRI has recently begun working with C40 and ICLEI to design new standards to measure city-level emissions using the Greenhouse Gas Protocol as an underlying framework.

Mayor Paes gave Mayor Bloomberg a tour of the center, showing off its high-tech systems to monitor traffic, weather, security, and more.

The Mayors addressed the press corps. "I was in Rio 20 years ago, and I can see the differences, primarily in the actions of people,” Mayor Bloomberg said. “The city has evolved. I saw many smiles around here. I think the locals are following the right path toward sustainability.” Mayor Paes recognized the important role of the BRT in advancing sustainable transport, and he went on to praise EMBARQ—WRI’s Center for Sustainable Transport for its technical input on the project and Bloomberg Philanthropies for its financial support. (Bloomberg Philanthropies is one of EMBARQ’s largest funders.)

"Bloomberg Philanthropies has invested heavily in the BRT project in Rio de Janeiro helping to improve road safety, reduce crashes, and save lives,” he said. “This was only possible through a partnership with EMBARQ.”

Visiting Rio’s first BRT

For me, this event came on the heels of my first trip to a BRT. On Monday, I joined a ground of journalists, colleagues, and city officials on a tour of Rio’s first BRT, which just launched ahead of Rio+20. Rio’s BRT will eventually carry around 220,000 people per day, providing safer buses that will halve commuting times for many riders. It was fun to ride on the bus, with its own dedicated lanes, and airy, well-designed stations. We were joined by reporters from Dow Jones, Reuters, and a local Brazilian outlet.

Holger Dalkmann, the director of BRT, explained: “The biggest benefit of BRT systems, or any mass transportation system, is increasing accessibility for the population and improving overall quality of life for the city.”

All four corridors - Transoeste, Transcarioca, Transolímpica and Transbrasil – are expected to be completed by 2016. The complete system will extend more than 150 kilometers, one of the largest public transit systems in the world, with a total investment of R $5 billion ($2.4 billion) from public and private partnerships.

Toni Lindau, President of EMBARQ Brazil said, “The Transoeste BRT represents the beginning of a new era for public transport in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil. It will provide fast, high quality transportation for a large segment of the city’s population, especially for those living far from the city’s center.”

Clearly, the BRT is the kind of innovative, cost-effective solution that can really help improve people’s lives, while reducing environmental impacts. And, BRTs are rapidly gaining traction and expanding in Brazil, Latin America, India, and beyond.

Perhaps this is an idea that some decision makers in Rio+20 are beginning to understand? This week, one of the biggest highlights from the conference, was the announcement from eight multilateral development banks to commit $175 billion (yes, billion) over the next 10 year to support sustainable transport in developing countries.

Now, that’s the kind of commitment we need if we’re going to really find solutions to our global sustainability challenges.

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