Gridlock in Brazil’s urban centers is an onerous fact of daily life, and nowhere are traffic arteries more clogged than in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Congestion has only become worse in this century, thanks to a strong economy and social programs that have elevated millions into the middle class. Car sales have been booming.

Roadbuilding has not kept pace, especially in Rio, which has a population of 6.3 million. After winning office in 2008, Mayor Eduardo Paes began making good on a campaign promise to upgrade transportation infrastructure. The city has been on a road and transit building spree, resurfacing dilapidated roads, adding a new metro line and building out Paes' pet transit strategy: the bus rapid transit (BRT) system.

Crosstown Traffic

Architect Jaime Lerner conceived of Brazil's first BRT in 1974, when he was mayor of the southern city of Curitiba. Paes plans to scale up Rio's system into a robust public transit system in time for the 2016 Summer Olympics. The system is designed to tie into Rio's international and domestic airport and the subway system.

Metro modernization plans are aimed at doubling ridership, which now stands at 600,000 a day. System improvements include new stations and interconnections that will save commuters time by eliminating transfers. One expansion is scheduled for completion before the 2014 World Cup. Another new leg, Line 4, aims to connect Ipanema with the developing Barra da Tijuca neighborhood in the city's western zone.

"Right now, we only move about 18% of the population via high-capacity transit," says Paes. With system improvements, he says, "Our goal is to move about 63%."

The mayor's fast-tracked transportation vision dovetails with urban renewal plans that cut into some of the oldest and largest favelas, or shantytowns.

The program would clear the way for Olympic facilities, and President Dilma Rousseff's administration is offering financial support. The federal government's share of the BRT and the metro improvements is about 90%, with the city of Rio kicking in 10%.

Even in soccer-mad Rio, support for the transportation and urban renewal schemes are by no means unanimous.

In a recent post on his 2016 Olympics blog, Christopher Gaffney, a visiting professor in education management at Rio's Fluminense Federal University, wrote, "The question about being ready on time is not completely relevant as the six-week demands of the Games tend to justify a thousand urban interventions that will not prepare the city for the demands of 2017 or 2025 [or any date in the future]. The main obstacles are a lack of professionalism in management, conflicts of interest, bureaucratic obstacles, lack of public participation, lack of transparency and a lack of planning for post-event uses."

For the most part, the BRT construction adds dedicated, bus-only lanes to existing crosstown highways. Contractors don't like the BRT because, Paes jokes, most construction is roadbuilding on the surface and "there is not a lot of digging required." There is plenty of civil work within the four corridors under construction: more than 150 kilometers of road, more than 100 stations, scores of overpasses and a 1.1-km tunnel.