Building a new subway in a big city is difficult, Rio edition

A new subway line in Rio illustrates the issues of constructing subway lines in large cities:

Though it was barely completed in time for the opening ceremonies on August 5, the fact that Line 4 opened this year, let alone this decade, is undeniably because of the Olympics. The state government, which funded the $3.1-billion line, argues that the subway will vastly improve transportation options in the city. The state department of transportation said in an emailed statement that Line 4 will “provide locals and visitors a transportation alternative that’s fast, modern, efficient and sustainable.”

But many outside the government worry that Line 4 was built to primarily serve the Olympics and the upscale real estate developments that are planned in the event’s wake. Critics say Line 4 prioritizes access to the main event venues and wealthy neighborhoods, and disregards the transportation needs of the rest of the city. “This is to serve only the higher classes,” says Lucia Capanema Alvares, an urban planning professor at the Federal Fluminense University. “It’s not to serve the people.”…

This linear design leaves much of the area inside the arc—and the millions of people who live there and in the hinterlands beyond—with little access to rapid transit.

While there are likely unique issues at play in Rio, I suspect these issues would be present in any major city that undertook new subway construction:

  1. Huge costs. Building under a major city is expensive and costs often go beyond budget. The best way to fight this is to have foresight and build such lines sooner rather than later.
  2. Disruption. Again, a large city has all sorts of systems already in place and construction on this scale can take a long time.
  3. Charges of inequality. Who should mass transit serve? Do many major cities primarily have subway and rail service to wealthier areas? (And are these areas better off because they have had mass transit access?) And, why does it take so long to provide service for people who need it?

Such large infrastructure projects are not for the faint of heart but if done well could provide benefits for decades.

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