Thoughts on Rio de Janeiro’s public transport system

When thinking about transportation in Rio de Janeiro, I started a reflection about our spaces and political choices within an unequal city. Rio has flat and green areas, mountains, bays, beaches, luxury condominiums and favelas.

From 1992 until 2012, we increased the numbers of cars in the city from 900 000 to 2.5 million. Rio is struggling with congestion day and night. To complement this, we have two mega-events coming soon – next year we will host World Youth Day, which expects to attract 2 million young Catholic people – demanding more from our transportation system.

So join me on this short tour of the options available to get around Rio de Janeiro, and how they impact on the future of our city.


The subway system in our city that has a very simple design with only two lines crossing the city. The subway routes are linear leaving little opportunity for integration or a more transversal system. (I once saw a funny video joking about the “simplicity” of the system, since you can’t get lost in our subway!)

We have “subway bus lines” which means that one of the lines is complemented by bus transportation. But if you are not accustomed to the subway diagram map you would understand that as a real “subway”. More interesting to note is that this type of solution is provided to the wealthier zones of the city, such as Leblon and Ipanema. People from others neighborhoods, like myself, have the option to use “express integration”, which means that there is also a bus service connecting the subway to near places. The main difference is that for South Zone (the wealthier one) you do not have to pay extra. In the end, it is just an example of how the fare structure and planning of the system does not make sense.

A diagram map of Rio’ subway. In blue, are the bus lines seen as “subway”.


In some neighborhoods of Rio, we can find bikes to rent in a project called Bike Rio, which I have just recently discovered how to use. You have to create an online account and pay a monthly or daily fee. This bike rent is provided by our prefecture in partnership with SERTTEL and the sponsorship of a big Brazilian bank, Itaú. This service is offered mostly at tourist zones of Rio, near the beaches or the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon. According to the map, only Madureira – from North zone – has this specific bike rental offer.

Where I live, we have wide sidewalks, but the government preferred to just paint another line in the road for cyclist. It doesn’t feel safe, as buses, cars and even the bikes make of a scary ride.


In some areas the BRS (bus rapid service) concept, allows buses to stop fewer times and cover routes faster. In Rio downtown, for example, an important avenue has two of its four lanes exclusively for buses and taxis. Some argue that the improvements made by the municipal government have left the bus companies with more profit than before, with higher fares after (ordinary bus fare R$2.75 or about US$1.35) the changes.

A good thing is that since the end of 2010, the Bilhete Único (something like “single ticket”) was introduced which allows us to pay a single ticket if you take two buses or a bus and a train within a duration of two hours. This doesn’t work for the air-conditioned buses, which is a pity for a city that gets very warm (in the summer, about 40 degrees Celsius). Another recent modification in our bus system is that all the different colors of the vehicles were changed to a patterned model: they are all grey with a pastel color indicating the zone they are going to. Although this change makes the streets more beautiful, it is not as useful because it has become harder to identify a bus, especially for those with poor sight.


For the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games the prefecture is planning and constructing a BRT system – TransOeste is 56km completed route within the city – and another three (TransOlímpica – 26km -, TransBrasil – 32km – and TransCarioca – 39km of distance) will soon be introduced. They will connect distant areas of the city, like airports and Olympic facilities. These BRT routes will also connect to the train system at certain points. With four years until the Olympic Games almost 100km of BRT routes needs to be completed.


Complementing the buses we have the vans, which help move people over short distances. Until recently, vans were not allowed to use “single ticket” (although at our Mayor’s website it states that you can integrate buses and vans… but I have never seen this) and there are connections between this service and the militias (groups, that work like mafias, mainly formed by corrupt policemen and former policemen). This mafia transportation is the main source of income for such groups, especially at West zone of the city.

My experience of using a van is not great as I don’t feel this is a safe form transportation at all. It is small, rarely has seat belts, is mostly overcrowded. While there are some “improvements” -e.g. a mechanism to open and close the door automatically, you can still hit your head on it. I really prefer to wait for the bus.


The local government is also going to build 30km of VLT (Light train) near the port area of Rio. This system is a part of a huge project called Maravilha Port (Wonderful Port), which will lead to major changes, with a complete modification of transportation, creation of green areas and the building of the Museum of Tomorrow, in that area of the city. It seems very interesting but I am unsure yet if this will be good to all local inhabitants. I recently read a public letter from the Providência favela entitled of: “Did you know that the oldest favela in Brazil is being destroyed?”, in which they explain their point of view and criticize top-down decisions made by the government.


Yes, Rio also has a train system. But I have to confess: I almost don’t use this and the places I usually visit don’t have this kind of transportation. This year, for the first time I used a train and it worked to go from Engenhão Stadium to downtown. But these are old trains, that are not well maintained and are often in the news for a variety of problems. The train system connects downtown to the suburbs and even to other cities near Rio (connecting, for example, people who live in Japeri city and work in Barra da Tijuca – about more than 90km of distance).

Santa Marta’s elevator

But what is very interesting in Rio is the peculiarities in various neighbourhoods. Think of the many favelas and the way each one has developed its transportation. Santa Marta, located at Botafogo neighborhood, is a favela where only walking between two points is possible. No cars, bikes – unless you are a radical cyclist -, buses, motorcycles. Just lots stairs, tortuous streets which only in 2008 received a kind of elevator (we call “inclined plan”) with 5 stations, which is free of charge for everyone. This transportation within the favela was very helpful as it is useful – besides going up and down with less effort – to carry groceries and goods, to stimulate tourism and to help the local waste collection service.

It was clear that this improvement fostered local development, in my vision, as more people can circulate inside this favela and generate more cultural and monetary exchanges.

Another example of this approach is the cable car of Complexo do Alemão (Germain Complex), a big group of favelas, comparable to Rocinha, the largest carioca favela. But critics have questioned its usefulness and whether used frequently enough (seems another top-down government decision).

Elevator Station



View from the Elevator


What we have in Rio is a variety of transport modes, nodes and systems, as diverse as the city. But, one always hopes that the intentions, behind the promotion of big events, are aligned with the interests of our inhabitants. From the rich to the poor – Rio is not only Ipanema, Copacabana and Barra – and transport can create opportunities for a more physically and socially integrated society.

About Beatriz Watanabe

I am a Japanese granddaughter with a Paraguayan mother, born and raised in Rio de Janeiro city. Studied at Fine Arts School and now I'm in the Engineering. My interests: taking pictures, doing handmade creations and researching sustainability, critical thinking and design.

There is one comment

  1. Sean Dayton

    Thanks Beatriz, it’s funny because it sounds so familiar – like you’re talking about Cape Town sometimes. The elevator is a great idea, would be so nice to see something like that in Cape Town. I don’t know if the city would ever want to encourage people building so far up a slope and where they aren’t next to a road.

    How do they get ambulance services or fire-fighters to the tops of these favelas in emergencies?

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