Rio's Olympic Subway Boondoggle

How a $3.1-billion project is a boon for Rio's richest

Construction workers walk through a newly built subway station in Barra da Tijuca, part of the metro line 4 extension. (Ricardo Moraes / Reuters)

On July 30th, after nearly 20 years in the works and more than doubling its initial cost estimates, the Line 4 subway officially opened in Rio de Janeiro. The mayor, the governor, and the interim president, were all there to inaugurate the 10-mile subway line, and to claim some of the credit for finally getting it built. Also on hand was a figure arguably more responsible for the new subway line: Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee.

When it selected Rio to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games back in 2009, the IOC single handedly catalyzed a suite of city-changing projects like Line 4, as well as all the sports-related construction and development the Olympics require. “The city’s mobility has increased six-fold in as many years,” said Mayor Eduardo Paes during the subway’s inauguration. “It’s a fantastic transformation that only became possible thanks to the Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

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.”

Line 4 runs westward from the iconic Ipanema beach near the center of the city to the wealthy western suburb of Barra da Tijuca, home to the main Olympic Park, the athletes’ village, and venues for many of the Olympic events. Line 4 travels between six stations (plus another that will open sometime in 2017) and connects in Ipanema with Line 1, one of the other two subway lines in the city’s relatively modest rail system, first opened in 1979.

Line 4 will continue the arced layout of Rio’s subway along the southern coast which means millions of locals will still have limited access to rapid transit. (Metro Rio)

Rodrigo Vieira, the secretary of transportation for the state of Rio de Janeiro, calls Line 4 “the greatest legacy in mobility that [the] city will gain from the 2016 Olympic Games.” It will offer a speedier alternative to the notoriously clogged roads between Barra da Tijuca and the city center, cutting a trip that can take more than an hour in a car to about 20 minutes by rail. Ridership is expected to reach 300,000 passengers a day. During peak hours, that could mean 2,000 fewer cars on the road.

The subway line will operate at reduced capacity during the Olympics, offering services only to people working or attending the Olympics between August 5 and August 21. All-day tickets for Line 4 will be sold to credentialed personnel and ticketed spectators only for 25 reais ($7.60), according to a recent report from the Wall Street Journal. A regular one-way trip on the metro system costs 4.10 reais ($1.25). After the Olympics, it will be shut down for additional work and then will reopen September 7 for the Paralympic Games. It is expected to open to the general public in mid-September, after the Paralympics close, but only for four hours a day. Full service isn’t likely until 2017.

But even then, some argue Line 4 won’t do much to serve the average resident. “Line 4 should be understood as an extension of lines 1 and 2,” says Mauro Kleiman, an urban planning professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. The two pre-existing rail lines form what’s basically a wide overlapping arc along the eastern edge of the city, with one small spur that leads westward into the city for about two miles (Line 3, a 23-mile spoke long planned to cross Guanabara Bay and connect neighboring suburbs, has been indefinitely shelved). Kleiman calls Rio’s metro “a two-headed snake” whose trains “are always overcrowded because individuals are not distributed through transfer stations between different lines.” Line 4 is merely an extension of this arc, spreading further along the southern coast to connect to Barra da Tijuca.

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.

The city has tried to address the lack of metro access in this part of the city by building out a network of bus rapid transit lines. Spurred by Brazil’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup and with an eye towards the 2016 Olympics, four BRT lines were planned to connect various sports facilities in the city, and to connect with the metro, suburban rail lines, and the airport. The first BRT line began operations in 2012, but the roll out was slow and only part of two lines were operating during the World Cup. The Transolimpica BRT line connecting to Barra da Tijuca, the third of the system to be realized, will only have three of its stations in operation during the Olympics.

Capanema Alvares says the city has not provided enough options for its transit-dependent low-income population. “They put in two very, very different means of transportation. One for the rich, one for the poor,” she says. “We’re calling it transportation apartheid.”

"Line 4 is not going to benefit the city, because it's all about selling the city," says Capanema Alvares, pointing to Carlos Carvalho, the billionaire developer who's planning to turn the athletes village and Olympic park into a wealthy enclave called Ilha Pura, or Pure Island, after the Olympics. "The metro line is just real estate speculation."

But some are still hopeful the system can be improved to better meet the needs of the entire city. Licinio Machado Rogério is one of the co-authors of the “Manifesto for a Better Route for the Rio Metro Line 4,” written in 2010 with the support of 30 neighborhood organizations. It called for the state government to cancel its plans for extending the linear path of the pre-existing subway lines and re-route the line into the center of the city, creating more of a mesh of interlinked subway lines. Rogério says this was the original design for Line 4 when it was first planned in the late 1990s. Though the straight line approach was built, he says it’s not too late to alter the system. Line 1, he says, should be extended into a ring, and Line 4 should cross through that ring into the center of the city like a no-smoking sign. At its other end, Line 4 should be extended further west to better link with the BRT system.

“Every place we make a line of the metro will be better for the population,” he says. “Line 4 is necessary, but it’s not the priority. We have other lines that are more necessary.”

For now, Line 4 will function as an extension of the system, stretching out to the wealthy western suburbs. But even the route that was built falls short; Line 4’s terminus in Barra da Tijuca is still eight miles away from the Olympic Park and athletes’ village. Shuttles and BRT will bridge the gap between the new subway line and the Olympic events it was built to serve.

This post appears courtesy of CityLab.