Frequently flaunted as the world’s widest avenue, Avenida 9 de Julio of Buenos Aires sports as many as seven lanes traveling in each direction at its widest spots. But it is what lies between the many lanes that is currently sparking a major controversy in the city, one that is brewing not in the pages of the Guinness Book of Records but, rather, on street itself.
In January, construction began on the Metrobus project outlined by Buenos Aires city mayor Mauricio Macri. The project consists of 3km of dedicated bus lanes, five stations, 800 buses, and regular stops from San Juan at the southern end of the avenue to Arroyo at the northern limit. The stations will contain screens detailing arrival times, security cameras, and Wi-Fi.
The corridor would run through the centre of Avenida 9 de Julio, with a wide, bus-only lane in either direction. The system would be the second Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in Buenos Aires, following the implementation of a Metrobus corridor at Avenida Juan B. Justo in 2011, while another Metrobus route is projected to connect the city’s southern neighbourhoods.
The argued benefit of a BRT system like this is that it offers a service similar to rail in that it is unaffected by other traffic, but with a cheaper infrastructure and more flexibility.
The Macri government argues that the service, which is intended to provide 180 journeys per hour, will increase bus usage in the area by 25% and will reduce total travel time for the avenue from 55 minutes to 20.
The initial resistance to the project came as construction began with the displacement of 277 trees from the medians of the iconic avenue. A protest was held on the avenue on 19th February, four days after an injunction filed by city legislator Facundo di Fillipo resulted in a order by judge Guillermo Scheibler for the city to halt “any activity involving pruning, transplanting, removal, or destruction of public woodland” in order to make way for the construction of the Metrobus corridor.
In response, the Macri government pointed out that of the 277 trees to be moved, 169 would be relocated within the area, 108 would be transferred to nearby parks, and only 2% of the total number of trees, those determined to be in poor condition, would be removed.
Furthermore, the project’s proponents added, the avenue would actually end up with 414 more trees than it started with. However, as journalist Daniel Politi noted in an article for the New York Times, “saplings can’t compare with trees half a century old.” He also expressed concern at the loss of open space that had previously been used for public gatherings and would not be possible with a corridor running through the middle of the avenue. In addition to the loss of greenery, many argue, the new Metrobus network would have a negative cultural impact on the avenue.
Earlier today, Scheibler ruled that work on the 9 de Julio Metrobus route could continue, though under strict controls regarding the displacement of trees and removal of green spaces.
For all its vocal detractors, however, the new Metrobus line does have some supporters as well. Andrés Fingeret, director of the Argentina branch of international NGO the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) believes that while the displacement of trees is regrettable, the system is the most viable option for the city’s environmental wellbeing because it provides a more environmentally stable end goal.
“The ‘ideal project’ is never realised,” he says. “I feel that the overall result will be positive, and I would love to have the trees still there, but I prefer the proposed situation (to) what we have now.”
Fingeret said the history of BRT systems elsewhere has shown that the amount of CO2 emissions will decrease with the new system. In 2010, for instance, Guangzhou, China installed a 22.5km BRT corridor and the statistics have been promising. For both motorists and bus riders, travel times have improved, system usage reached 805,000 riders daily, and the CO2 emissions for the city were reduced by 86,000 tonnes per year, according to an IDTP study.
It must be noted however that, compared to the Guangzhou system, one of the most acclaimed BRTs in the world with peak flow trailing only the TransMilenio in Bogotá, the government estimates the usage of the Avenida 9 de Julio corridor to run at about a lower total of 200,000 people per day.
Moreover, as with most other BRTs, the environmental benefits of the Metrobus plan are primarily based on the idea of incentivising the use of public transport and encouraging less severe braking and accelerating by buses – thereby reducing fuel consumption – rather than replacing existing buses with cleaner vehicles. In the Juan B Justo corridor, only two lines currently use the longer, articulated buses, which can significantly reduce CO2 consumption per passenger.
Concerns have also been raised regarding the way in which the project was begun. Critics have pointed out that the undertaking did not undergo an approval process by the city’s legislature before its commencement, as was argued in the injunction that led to Scheibler’s ruling.
An additional concern voiced by those such as Vukan Vuchic, an engineer and professor specialising in urban transport, in a contribution to Clarín, has been that it is redundant to create a bus line directly above the subte line that runs below Avenida 9 de Julio. Vuchic argues that resources would be better spent on cooperative efforts between multiple modes of public transport rather than creating bus lines on top of preexisting subtes.
Fingeret, however, disputes any redundancy the line would have with its matching subte line.
“One thing has nothing to do with the other,” he says. “Passengers that use the bus system are different than those using the metro because the bus lines that go through Avenida de Julio go to places were you don’t have metro. And I would say in most cities in the world when you have a metro line you have buses on top of that metro line and that makes sense everywhere in the world and it does here.”
BRT systems are also economically advantageous to subte lines, Fingeret argues. “In terms of efficiency of the money invested in transport systems, BRTs are in most of the cases the most efficient way of investing your money in transportation.
“For example, if you need to build 10km of metro, you will most probably be able to build between 80 to 100km of gold-standard BRT system. And you will reduce much more CO2 emissions with these 80km of BRT than with 10km of electric underground.”
The similarities with the Metrobus system on Avenida Juan B. Justo also raise concerns for the Avenida 9 de Julio project, however, as Gabriela Sorda argues in an article for news agency Paco Urondo. The corridor system requires a more inconvenient method of charging patrons than the side-of-the-street bus stops used across the city, Sorda argues. Unlike the current Metrobuses, in BRT systems, payment takes place outside the bus, similar to the subte process. This method of payment is often considered favourable because it allows passengers to rapidly board the bus via all doors upon its arrival.
Sorda also expressed concerns that, as with her experience with the Juan B. Justo Metrobus, the corridor system makes it more difficult for passengers to quickly locate the correct bus, as all the lines are located in the same hub. Furthermore, housing the buses in the centre of the street loses one benefit that side-street bus stops offer: clearing the street sides of poorly parked cars.
Fingeret, however, argues that the Juan B. Justo corridor shows how the proposed system would increase usage of public transport. When space is designated specifically for bus traffic, according to Fingeret, not only does bus traffic improve but the decreased space for automobile traffic makes public transport a more attract option. According to the Technological Centre for Transport and Road Safety (C3T), bus journey times along the Juan B. Justo route fell by an average 32% after the Metrobus system came on line.
This, he acknowledges, does come with a grace period during which car traffic will suffer heavily.
Numerous concerns regarding the corridor’s efficacy as well as the questionable process under which the process began have already temporarily halted construction, and it remains to be seen whether further action against the project will be taken. Either way, the face and future of a historic and iconic avenue still hangs in the balance.
What do porteños think about the new Metrobus project? Click here to find out.