February 5, 2019

Why Curitiba, Brazil, is Not Houston, Texas

By Paul-Matthew Zamsky, Head of Strategic Partnerships at Waycare

Can Cities Ban Cars? Curitiba is a Brazilian city a thousand miles south of Brazilia, capital of the state of Parana, and built to replicate the futuristic city to the north.

Many years ago,  in the early 1970s, a young architecture student named Jaime Lerner decided to run for mayor of Curitiba, 12 days before the election – and surprisingly, he was appointed (by the military regime then in power in Brazil). 

What was his platform?  “It was a change in the conception of the city.  Working, moving, living, leisure, we planned for everything together. Most cities in South America separate urban functions – by income, age.  Curitiba was the first city that, in its first decisions, brought everything together.” [1]

Curitiba was broke, Lerner soon discovered. He invoked a new principle, now widely quoted. “If you want creativity, take a zero off your budget. If you want sustainability, take off two zeros.”

In the context of traffic management, the Lerner principle says:  Roadway expansion, and arterial roadways (high-capacity urban road), are very expensive and bring pollution.  If you have money, you do them. If you have no money, you find other solutions.

In 1972, Lerner proposed transforming a major Curitiba artery, the Fifth of November Road (Rua Quinze de Novembro) into a pedestrian mall. Cars were banned. No cars in center-city Curitiba!

The shopkeepers were furious! Their customers were used to driving up in their cars, parking in front of the store, popping in, buying what they wanted…and departing. The shopkeepers decided to file a legal injunction to block Lerner’s plan.

How do you implement change and overcome resistance? You make the change and show that it works before the opposition can mobilize effectively. Lerner went to the Head of Public Works and said, we need a rapid bus transit system to the city shops …I need it in 48 hours!  The head of Public Works said, you’re insane, I need at least four months.

Lerner and his team began to work on Friday sundown – after the city’s courthouse closed, so shopkeepers could not file their injuction. And indeed, the project was completed in 72 hours,  on Monday night.  At the end, one of the shopkeepers told Lerner, here, take this injunction, keep it as a souvenir, because  now we want the whole street, the whole sector pedestrianized!”  And it was.

What do we learn from the case study of Curitiba? Is the lesson, that cities can and should ban cars from the center city?

No – if anything the opposite.  The population of Curitiba in 1970 was about 580,000.   It was small enough to make pedestrianizing the central shopping district feasible.

Logically, pedestrianizing Houston, Texas,   New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, with populations 10 times greater and more,  might make sense.  If only because highway driving (using central urban arteries) takes enormous amounts of space and land, and the paradox is, the faster the traffic, the more space is needed, because faster vehicles need more space between them.  Indeed,  automobile travel requires ten to one hundred times as much road space as walking, cycle and public transport.   So, yes, in center cities,  where real estate and land are enormously costly,  it does make sense to ban cars.

But it won’t happen.  Because the transition from cars to public transport will take years in megalopolis cities, and coalitions will form to block it long before the project begins.  Lerner did it in 72 hours.  New York City?  It would take years – and so, it won’t happen.

The reality is, we are stuck with cars in our major cities. So the question returns to the core issue – how to move cars better, safer, faster? Curitiba banned cars. But, as the Yiddish saying goes, for instance is not a proof.  In fact, Curitiba’s for-instance is a proof – that cars and cities are married forever and ever.


[1] See David Adler, “how radical ideas turned Curitiba into Brazil’s green capital”,  The Guardian, May 6 2016.

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