The Mega-issues with Megaprojects

By Emily Duchenne - Geography Student @ Brasenose College, Oxford

Megaprojects are complex developments that through their significant cost, timescale and number of stakeholders involved are (or rather, hope to be) hugely transformational in their operations. Transport megaprojects aim to reshape how individuals are able to be mobile, such as through new bridges, light-rails or airports, impacting the everyday for millions of people. They are intended to enhance the spaces they are constructed in and benefitting the lives of those able to use them, Furthermore, transport megaprojects are considered by many planners and politicians to be vital for increasing the global competitiveness of cities, regions and nations through imaginations of an ultramodern, efficient and equitable way of life. However, it is this focus that ends up leaving the citizens that the projects were meant to serve being marginalised within their own spaces.

The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro exemplifies these concerns surrounding transport megaprojects. The Games are an important international event, where the world looks to one city as a representation of the country as a whole, pushing city planners to project an impressive image of a cooperative and contemporary culture. Rio was under pressure to provide a comprehensive transportation system for the millions of citizens, tourists, athletes, and officials who would be travelling across the city each day, and so opted to implement four new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines to the cost of $3.1 bn to allow for smooth mobility during the Games. This was justified as a long-term investment for residents through the North-South integration of the city. This legacy was planned under the slogan “Revolution in Transport”, with the four lines, Transcarioca, Transoeste, Transolímpica, and Transbrasil, connecting the Olympic venues that were located across four different regions in the city (Figure 1).

Figure 1: BRT lines. Rio de Janeiro, 2019. Source: Yamawaki et al., 2020.

While BRT systems are popular bus-based urban transit across the world, projected as fast, comfortable and low-cost operations, Rio’s government failed to create a positive Olympic transport legacy by prioritising Olympic plans over the city’s post-Games needs. These failings were witnessed most strongly across the 26-km long Transolímpica BRT line that connected venues between high-income Barra da Tijuca and low-income Deodoro. One issue to arise straight-away was the eviction of thousands of families along this route, especially in Barra da Tijuca, in an attempt to expropriate properties and vacate land. Despite being reasoned as key to establishing links between poorer areas of the city with employment zones, in reality the high-value Barra da Tijuca – a closed-condominium, car-dependent residential neighbourhood which holds only 12% of the formal employment sector – is hardly an employment zone. Instead, developers and politicians chose it as a promising area for real estate investors.

Furthermore, the companies that hold the concession to operate the city's BRT lines had invested in the construction sector, and thus ended up benefiting from the infrastructure development in the Barra da Tijuca neighbourhood. The Transolímpica line’s legitimacy was one that politicians and developers lobbied for, resulting in only 38% of the estimated 70,000 passengers per day by 2019.

The poor ridership is also due to the cultural factors implicated in BRTs in Rio. Higher-income residents are more resistant to using public transport and prefer to use their own private vehicles for reasons including comfort and status. What is more, the “Transolímpica ExpressWay” was constructed along the same route - a toll road to serve the flow of private vehicles, cementing Rio’s road-planning history of prioritising private automobile users instead of equitable mass public transport. This further brings into question the purpose of prioritising public transport links to wealthier areas that are already well-connected to the city through automobile access.

The bypassing of employment cores across the Centro and Zona Norte regions, or tourist centres like Copacabana and Ipanema, for already well-connected as automobile-concentrated valuable real-estate areas emphasises Rio’s shortcomings and political sway at the expense of their citizens, particularly those without private transport who depend on bus lines to move throughout the city.

BRTs can promote the development of their surroundings, with many cities across the world finding successes in this form of rapidly implemented, low-cost transit. However, the Olympic Games in Rio were unable to bring about compact and sustainable urban transport due to investment ‘legacies’ being motivated by political and economic desires to turn Rio into a globally competitive city on the world stage, rather than the prioritisation of the citizen population and area regeneration through transport infrastructure.

Further reading:

  1. Hensher, D.A. and Golob, T.F., 2008. Bus rapid transit systems: a comparative assessment. Transportation, 35(4), pp.501-518.

  2. Kassens-Noor, E., Gaffney, C., Messina, J. and Phillips, E., 2018. Olympic transport legacies: Rio de Janeiro’s bus rapid transit system. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 38(1), pp.13-24.

  3. Pereira, R.H., 2019. Future accessibility impacts of transport policy scenarios: Equity and sensitivity to travel time thresholds for Bus Rapid Transit expansion in Rio de Janeiro. Journal of Transport Geography, 74, pp.321-332.

  4. Sturup, S. and Low, N., 2015. Storylines, leadership and risk, some findings from Australian case studies of urban transport megaprojects. Urban Policy and Research, 33(4), pp.490-505.

  5. Yamawaki, Y., Castro Filho, F. and Costa, G., 2020. Mega-event transport legacy in a developing country: The case of Rio 2016 Olympic Games and its Transolímpica BRT corridor. Journal of Transport Geography, 88, p.102858.