In 2008, Brenda Medeiros joined WRI Brasil as one of its first interns. Today, she serves as its Urban Mobility Director, focusing on the optimization of public transport systems.
With degrees in both civil and transportation engineering, Medeiros earned her Ph.D.in public transportation regulation at Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (Porto Alegre, Brasil). In this interview, she talks about the challenges of creating integrated transit networks and the importance of listening when planning public transport systems.
A version of this article was originally published in Portuguese at wricidades.org
Insights: How did your academic work lead to your current position?
Brenda Medeiros: When I was working on my master’s degree, I focused on a very technical area: operational issues for BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), centered on performance, capacity, speed and traditional engineering. I was eager to apply all my academic knowledge on cities, but I also realized that this was something very difficult to do―even our most basic knowledge is sometimes problematic to apply. So I asked myself: “Why is it so difficult?” That’s when I started to get interested in understanding the relationships among stakeholders, the people, the way organizations are structured and how they interact with each other. Of course, as an engineer, I wanted not only to understand and qualify, but to quantify and establish values. Who are the most relevant stakeholders? What is the strength of their relationship? From these questions, I started to model and map these relations.
Who are the stakeholders involved in public transport systems?
BM: Transportation involves different actors: City Hall or the mayor, the operators (because transport systems in Brazil are generally run by private companies) and the public. I concluded that it was vitally important to include people in the decision-making process regarding public transport. People are not obliged to use public transport―they are customers. They have needs and desires, and they want to have them met. They want to be well informed and receive good service, and they need a good reason to use public transport.
Other services have improved their performance after considering that people don’t use them by obligation, but by choice. The same is true for public transport. We need to see people as important stakeholders when it comes to the operation of a public transport system.
What do you believe that city administrators still don’t do – but need to – in order to guarantee popular participation in public transit?
BM: Governments and administrators should listen to people, because it’s people who use public transport every day and know its qualities and inefficiencies. Often, a planner or a technician who is developing a project has a different view from a person on the other end, the one who receives the service. It’s essential to establish a connection and open communications channels with people to understand what they need, what they don’t like, what their complaints are and what shortcomings they see. When a new system is planned or when improvements are implemented, people are impacted.
At WRI, this is a vision that we have worked for some years to build: to understand the quality of public transport not only in technical or operational terms, such as average speed and travel compliance, but from the perspective of who is served.
One of the challenges in developing countries like Brazil is to build integrated transport networks. What are the key steps in this process?
BM: A fundamental requirement is that all the stakeholders involved in the operation of the system must have a common vision. Of course, all the parties will have their specific objectives: bus operators and private companies have a business to run; mayors must respond to the public demand for good, reliable service. But these interests need to be combined for a greater vision: an integrated transport network. And that’s when the conversation begins. What kind of transport network does a city need to operate in a clean, safe and efficient way to meet people’s needs? This is the network we want, and we need to work together to do it.
How is WRI contributing to this process?
BM: Organizations like WRI can apply academic knowledge to ignite positive change. There’s a lot of research and knowledge being generated that needs to reach our cities. Our task is to build bridges that transform theory, data and models into applied actions, into changes that actually improve urban mobility and quality of life in cities. Because that’s our goal: to change reality in cities. Not to do research for the sake of research, but to offer a real change and create a better world for people.