Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO – Last week the Curmudgeon opined on bicycles on Rio streets, mentioning the dangers of cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles — but he should have mentioned the dreaded vans.
An op-ed piece entitled “Vans on the Run” appearing in the NYTimes this week indicates that NYC cut the MTA budget for buses, so MTA canceled routes. Therefore, Hizzoner Bloomberg has licensed private vans to run discontinued bus routes.
The article claims that the Mayor has “offered assurances that better regulations will keep the city from becoming an American Calcutta or Rio de Janeiro.” Rio is now famous for its vans, for better or worse. Mostly worse.
All Carioca drivers know well the plague that vans represent, notwithstanding regulation. They weave in and out of lanes, cut off cars and even buses, they stop abruptly wherever they want, they feature youths riding shotgun hanging out the windows braying blandishments at potential passengers.
They cram people inside like sardines in a tin, without air-conditioning. Who would ride in one of these death traps? The answer is simple: a person who would rather take buses but can’t — for the vans go where buses fear to tread, i.e. to the slums.
Bus service in Rio’s Zona Sul is much too plentiful. Just about anywhere you’re going between Glória and Leblon or Gávea, you won’t have to wait for more than one or two minutes to have your choice of bus. Almost any square of any size in the Zona Sul has a bus home station. As a result, traffic is always hopelessly snarled with buses that are always half empty, whose drivers compete for passengers with each other and the vans.
But, even within the Zona Sul, woe betide the people who want to take a bus to work from Rocinha or Vidigal; these are extremely few and exceeding far between. If you live west of Dois Irmãos, meaning Recreio or Santa Cruz, good luck, Chuck! And while some middle class parts of the Zona Norte are well served, bus service to poorer areas is almost non-existent. Don’t even think about busing in from Água Santa.
Enter the vans! Just as banks only loan to people who don’t need the money, Rio bus companies provide service where most people don’t need it. That created a vacuum, filled by the vans. Unlicensed early on, most are now licensed, are painted white and have designated routes. The vans labeled São Conrado start and finish in Rocinha and Vidigal; thousands of users who work in the Zona Sul and Centro depend upon them.
The City of Rio has just announced with much fanfare that it has completed a competitive bid scheme for bus companies, and that things will improve dramatically. There will be only four concessionaires, one for each part of town, rather than the current 100 or more.
All buses will now be painted white. Buses must now allow transfers between lines for a fixed price ticket. Routes will be re-allocated to serve the populace. Connections to airports and metrô will exist. Etc. Etc. Etc.
Will this scheme mean the Vans are on the Run? The Curmudgeon thinks not, at least not until the slums are fully pacified and the bus companies can send their vehicles in safety to those locales, which today they can’t.