Carnival and Cars: Will the Olympics Accelerate Transportation Development in Brazil?

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 Photo compliments of The Guardian.

With the conclusion of what has been considered a banner year for the Olympics and Paralympics in London, the world’s attention now turns toward Brazil. This emerging economy will host the world’s two largest mega sporting events within two years of each other—the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. Despite the Brazilian government’s optimistic confirmation that “A new city is being born”, many people question Brazil’s readiness to host these events. Rio de Janeiro’s mountainous terrain and dense population of 6 million residents contribute to what may be the greatest test of their readiness: the nation’s ability to transport people.

Brazil is no newbie when it comes to hosting mega events—just last summer it played host to thousands attending the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. And in terms of sporting events, the nation hosted the Pan American Games in 2007, the CISM 5th Military World Games in 2011, and will also host the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2013 and the 2016 Paralympics following the Olympic Games.

In the late 1990s, Brazil spearheaded a concerted effort to bring these global events to South America. The country conducted planning for what would ultimately be two failed bids to host the 2004 and 2012 Olympic Games. As a rising global power both economically and politically, Brazil continues to pursue these events to further raise its international profile and signal its increased readiness to participate in the global marketplace. Besides serving as a way to flex its political and economic muscle, Brazil’s “mega-event focused” strategy is also a decisive effort to bring in much needed development—particularly in the area of transportation.

Billions of dollars are being invested in metro extensions, rapid transit, and other transportation projects, notably the bullet train between Brazils two most heavily populated cities—Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. And while these costly projects have been talked about for years, mega sporting events are serving as the impetus to unite the funding and political will necessary to make real progress. Metrô Rio CEO José Gustavo de Souza Costa said that “the Olympics and World Cup are essentially catalysts for necessary investments” and confirms that transportation projects “will all be ready for 2014 [and] 2016”.  These projects include a $1 billion expansion of the current metro system as well as investments in an interconnecting rapid transit system with a price tag of $1.2 million. Transportation investments such as these are expected to increase capacity and result in quicker travel times and better traffic flow.

With Brazil serving as host to so many significant mega sporting events, the country’s leadership has also taken into consideration the need for streamlining preparation efforts for back-to-back events. These considerations have lead to strategic development decisions to build dual-purpose facilities or to remodel existing facilities to meet the needs of the Games. For example, Rio’s Maracanã Stadium is being remodeled for the World Cup and is expected to also host the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games.  These investments also reflect the public sector’s efforts to avoid post-Games “white elephants”, experienced by many other host Olympic cities, by ensuring public monies go towards projects that will provide long-lasting benefits to residents.

Brazil’s mega-event movement has been championed at all levels of government. Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva led the bid for the 2016 Games and President Dilma Rousseff has wielded her influence to give infrastructure development precedence—tying this priority to the two fast-approaching mega-events. This past August, President Rousseff announced a sizeable investment package to repair the nation’s aging roads and railways worth $66 billion stating, “Brazil will finally have an infrastructure that’s compatible with its size”.

Would this level of investment in transportation infrastructure exist in the absence of these mega-events? It is hard to say given the multitude of factors playing into Brazil’s growth and development. Still, the beauty of the Olympic bid process is its catalyzing powers to bring together the people and resources needed for infrastructure investments. Outside of the pressure, timetables, and budget constraints of actually hosting the Olympics, cities stand to receive benefits from the bidding process that are often lost in the spectacle of the Games. What we can be certain of is that Brazil has learned a lot about uniting support and resources, as well as legacy projects, both from its two previous failed bids and from its experience hosting several global sporting events.

Still, skepticism of the country’s ability to safely and responsibly meet deadlines for the World Cup and Olympics is widespread. Only time will tell if Rio and other Brazilian cities will weather both the Olympics and the World Cup with sustainable infrastructure that improves the daily lives of city residents.

At BID, we will track whether this Carnival-crazed country’s cultural allure, government investments and push for these events, and economic power will translate into success with the Olympics and World Cup…particularly in the arena of transportation development.