While most medium and large cities are having heated debates over tariffs, the municipality of northern Santa Catarina has created a completely public model.
It’s so public that it seems informal. And it's free. The nearly 17,000 residents of Garuva, in the north of Santa Catarina, Brazil have free collective transport. While the majority of cities discuss tariff models, spreadsheets, concessions, free passes, and other technical terms, all that the users of the Garuva system have to worry about is holding up their arms to ask the driver to stop and open the door.
The city has bought a bus and created circular lines that go through about 17 neighborhoods and suburban locations. Three times per week, the bus makes a trip in the beginning of the morning, around midday, and at the end of the afternoon. The arrival and departure location is the downtown area where the City Hall is located, along with several banks, the main health center, and the majority of lottery shops. The median monthly cost for operation stays around R$ 6 thousand (2,000 USD), which covers the driver’s salary, diesel and vehicle maintenance (it undergoes inspection four times per year).
The lines are selling out as residents become more familiar with the service.
On average, the bus runs 130 kilometers per day, and for a large part on unpaved roads. The driver, Mário Weiss, works for the Mayor's office and also plays the role of Tax Ombudsman. If the street is poorly maintained, if it has potholes, if the trash has not been collected, or if there is any abnormality along the way, it is up to him to bring the problem to the secretaries and to Mayor José Chaves.
If the street is full of potholes, for example, the solution must be rapid because not only will the users complain, the maintenance of the bus will be threatened. A flat tire or a more serious problem with the suspension could be expensive and could halt transportation for several days.
The bus driver is called by name and has the liberty to stop as close as possible to where the passengers want to get off. It’s rare, but when it is necessary, he goes off the route to take a sick or wheelchair-bound passenger to the health center.
According to Mayor José Chaves, it was necessity that drove the creation of the system. It was not possible under law to transport students and passengers in the same vehicle, as was done before. And a private business would not be interested in operating such a bus route, whose passengers consist in large part of elderly and infants. The users who realistically could afford to pay the fare would not cover the costs. “It’s worth much more to keep it free. We are considering buying another bus to guarantee the line would run daily,” said the Mayor. In the meantime, the bus makes the trip every other day.
Clearly, such a system does not work for a city with more than 500,000 inhabitants. But Garuva has around 17,000 residents, and is one of the 80 most populous municipalities in Santa Catarina. There are more than 200 cities in Santa Catarina with lower populations. In theory, they would have all of the conditions to enact the same system. Each region has its own reality. The fact is that, by force of necessity, Garuva solved its collective transportation problem.
Does your community have free transportation or a shuttle service? Should the government be required to maintain an affordable collective transport system? Share your stories and thoughts in the comments area below.
Original article, originally published in Portuguese, here.
Credits: Data and images linked to sources.