The Olympic Challenge: Countdown for a Transformation in Rio de Janeiro City’s Transport System

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Rio de Janeiro - City Landscape picture by Patricia Menezes

Rio de Janeiro: Olympic city

Will Rio de Janeiro be ready for the Olympic Games? Will the city infrastructure be enough to handle the great flux of spectators and tourists in the city during the games? Will the transportation system be efficient enough to serve the games and a living city without collapsing? Those were the questions raised by the world in October of 2009 when the IOC (International Olympic Committee) awarded the city the right to be the host of the summer Games in 2016. The challenge of hosting the first South American Olympic Games in history just two years after hosting another global sports event like the Brazil FIFA World Cup of 2014 could be not only a risk for Brazil’s already suffering economy and political image but an opportunity for a transformation in Rio de Janeiro’s transportation system and urban infrastructures.

The effects of this transformation is already felt by Rio’s population less than an year after the games. Those changes brought not only a new understanding that the improvements made in the seven years preceding the games were of essential contribution for its success, but that continuing this transformation is a key tool to integrate the urban environment and to fulfill mobility needs bringing growth to the city itself.

Rio de Janeiro - City Landscape (picture by Patricia Menezes)

Rio de Janeiro – City Landscape (picture by Patricia Menezes)

Rio de Janeiro: Overview

The transportation system in Rio de Janeiro city, Brazil, like in many other cities in the world, is directly connected to the spatial organization of the city, thus influencing the city social and economic scenery. In fact, it is important to comprehend the historical process that led to the present configuration of Rio’s transportation system.

The development of public transport mode in Rio started in the middle of ninetieth century. Before that, the less than 200,000 inhabitants had its mobility limited to the downtown area. It was after the second half of the ninetieth century that the use of first conventional buses and ancient trams allowed the consolidation and occupation of the many urban areas of the city.

The beginning of the twentieth century represented a big population growth of the city. At the same time, there were significant urban transformations like the construction of roads and the installation of the working classes in the city’s suburbs. After 1920, Rio’s transport matrix became focused on the private modes with cars and taxis. Ironically, it was in this period that the number of passengers in the new limited rising train and tram systems started to increase (SILVA, 1992 apud DUTTON, 2012). The growth of the rail systems stabilized in the 1950 decade but Rio’s population had exploded initiating what would be a huge collapse to the transportation system of a city which was at that time the capital of the country.

After 1950, the policies of modernization of the country with its expansion to the countryside, the capital change to Brasilia, the construction of new roads and with the campaigns of incentive to automobilistic industry increased even more the use of buses and cars, in detriment of public transport systems like metro and trains. All this, aligned with important urban infrastructure constructions like tunnels and viaducts contributed to shape a city that although very urbanized, had its transportation system focused mainly in road transportation, going from 56,000 cars in 1960 to 1,375 thousand in 1970 (SINDIPEÇAS, 2009).

It was only at the end of the 1970 decade that Rio de Janeiro inaugurated its first subway line, serving at first only five stations in downtown area. In the 1980 and at the end of 1990 decades the metro system expanded, gaining a second line going to the suburbs, a very modest number for a city which at that time had a population of 5 million only in the city area.

Due to this historical influence, this preference for road systems contributed to the following scenario:

  • The city dependency to the conventional bus owned by private companies and consortiums which divide till today their operation in four zones in the city. Those consortiums gather today more than 40 different companies.
  • Conventional Bus lines unequally divided serving mostly the downtown area and the south zone of the city.
  • Increase in time travel and big traffic jams. Nowadays, more than 40% of Rio’s workers take more than 2 hours per day to go from home to work and from work to home (IPEA, 2013).

This precarization in Rio’s public transport system resulted in the development of the so called “alternative transport system” composed by private vans and even motorcycles. Those new systems, in addition to perpetuate the road transportation, have perpetuated the offering of irregular services that are of difficult regulation.

With Rio’s city population reaching 6 million in the XXI century and with the increase in the circulation of people, services and goods in the city, the mobility question has extrapolated the physical matter. In fact, the mobility challenge started to be comprehended in a systemic and sustainable way, integrating not only physical but also social, environmental and economical dimensions.

The Olympic Transformation: challenges and opportunities

Big sport events like the Olympic Games are celebrations that serve, at the same time, as source and catalyst of transformation, aiming a sustainable legacy for the host city and country.

Indeed, as a catalyst for the tourism activities, the Olympic games have attracted to Rio de Janeiro, an estimated value of 1 million additional people to the city during the games, including international and national tourists. In fact, the efficiency of the transportation system during the games allowed, not only the access of athletes, volunteers and spectators between Olympic installations but also, that a city of 11 million people in its metro area continued to function in its daily activities.

Among the transformation compromised by the local committee for the Olympic Games many programs formed the base of sustainable development, such as the improvement of the public transport system with the inclusion of new exclusive BRT lines, a new Light Rail (Tramway) system and the expansion of the metro system reaching new areas never served before like the Barra da Tijuca cluster where the Olympic Park was installed.

Other renovation projects such as the revitalization of Rio’s port zone and its connection with the downtown area, at the molds of the transformation made for the Olympic games of Barcelona in 1992 were implemented in addition to the Olympic installations. These were infrastructure construction projects resulting from public policies that  were made feasible and accelerated due to Rio’s selection as Host City of the Games.

Olympic boulevard in revitalized port zone (picture by Patricia Menez)

Olympic boulevard in revitalized port zone (picture by Patricia Menez)

Rio de Janeiro: Reorganization and transformation planning

The heart of the Olympic candidacy for Rio 2016 was the creation of four competition zones or “clusters” within the city area where the Olympic events would be concentrated. Therefore, guaranteeing the fast and efficient circulation between those four zones of competition was vital for the event’s success. With that in mind, the strategy was to implement the concept of a transport network which would ease the fragmentation which characterizes Rio’s transportation system. Indeed, the Olympic system was conceived aiming the easy circulation of tourists during Olympics but mostly aiming the circulation of the Rio’s population in the years to come. This transformation intended to impact not only the physical aspects but the social-economical aspects of the regions affected by this transformation: areas impacted will benefit with future investments in urbanization, services, etc.

Olympic Park in Barra da Tijuca cluster (picture by Patricia Menezes)

Olympic Park in Barra da Tijuca cluster (picture by Patricia Menezes)

Rio de Janeiro: Transformation

Strategic projects considered by the local committee such as the metro expansion for the construction of Line 4 (South Zone – Barra da Tijuca cluster), a 200 km Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network which included the TransOlímpica line, connecting Barra da Tijuca to Deodoro cluster, two of the competition zones for the Olympics; the TransOeste line which connects Barra da Tijuca cluster to Santa Cruz and Campo Grande suburban zones and the TransCarioca line which connects Barra da Tijuca zone to Rio International airport in Ilha do Governador area and the train stations modernization, are objects to this reorganization of the transport system beyond the Olympic limits and commitments.

Besides that, the environmental challenge is present with the use of sustainable transport systems such as the Light rail system connecting the revitalized port zone and the downtown area and the soft transport system modes such as the 450 km bikeway system that now extends all the way through Rio’s coast.

The new metro line will add to the system 300,000 thousands passengers/day taking more than 2,000 vehicles per/hour peak out of the Rio’s roads every day. The new metro line is the biggest legacy for Rio’s transportation system, representing an investment of 9,700 million of Brazilian Reais.

The new tramway system was part of an initiative that had the intention to reorganize degraded areas that have been forgotten in the Port Region, which strategy put into place by the Rio de Janeiro state and municipal governments was designed to guarantee adequate transport infrastructure for holding the 2016 Olympic Games, in addition to benefitting the population that uses the region’s public transport network. This new network connects the subway, SuperVia trains (urban train system), ferries, BRTs, conventional bus network and the Santos Dumont Domestic Airport, helping to consolidate the concept of Integrated Transport Network.

In addition, a new and vital ICT initiative was included with the Bilhete Unico Carioca intermodal smart card system which allows the connection and efficient use of intermodality travelling, integrating conventional buses, BRT system, train, metro, ferries and Light Rail systems.

New tramway system in revitalized Rio Port zone (picture by Patricia Menezes)

New tramway system in revitalized Rio Port zone (picture by Patricia Menezes)


Rio de Janeiro city is a major urban centre that has used the Olympic challenge as an opportunity to improve its transportation system and to address the importance of an efficient transport infrastructure to boost a city integration and growth. The way Rio de Janeiro’s population perceives mobility has been changed and elevated to a new degree, specially the way Rio’s citizens evaluate and approach service quality and efficiency indexes and the way its population addresses government about its real mobility needs.

After the Olympic Games, despite all the advancement and improvement of the last years, the real challenge is to use the Olympic legacy as an opportunity of permanent change in the way government understands the management of urban infrastructures and the way opportunities like the Olympics are used as a bridge to reach the future.



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