BY JIMENA MARTIGNONI
Walking around parts of Buenos Aires can be dizzying, with cars speeding down the large boulevards as people walking find themselves having to race from corner to corner to stay out of their way. But a central part of the city that was once quite chaotic is being tamed by two programs that give pedestrians and public transportation priority over cars. The programs—Metrobus, a new bus rapid-transit (BRT) network that is being implemented by the undersecretary of transportation, and Prioridad Peatón, or the Priority for Pedestrians Plan, implemented by the Ministry of Urban Development, both under the auspices of the city government—are recent parts of a long-term Sustainable Mobility Plan that’s making deteriorated parts of the city more navigable, more hospitable, and more appealing to those who want to walk rather than drive.
The Metrobus network has three different corridors in the city: Metrobus Juan B. Justo, which covers 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) and has 21 stops, was completed in 2011; Metrobus 9 de Julio runs along 3.5 kilometers (about two miles) and has 17 stops in the central area of the city; and Metrobus Sur, which has two different lines and a total length of 23 kilometers (14 miles) and 37 stops, and is still in construction in the southern area of the city.
Of these three corridors, Metrobus 9 de Julio is the most comprehensive, owing to its presence in the unforgettable 9 de Julio Avenue, which has been dubbed the “widest avenue in the world” (it has 14 lanes of car traffic). The city replaced car lanes with bus-only lanes—the key to true BRT—and created a distinctive bus corridor aligned with the median for the length of 17 stations. The stations were designed by the architect Diana Cabeza, Affiliate ASLA, principal of Estudio Cabeza, which specializes in urban furniture design, and the industrial designer Martín Wolfson, a director at Estudio Cabeza. The firm, based in Buenos Aires, had already won a national competition in 2005 sponsored by the municipal government to create all major urban furniture in the city. That program included bus shelters and commuting hubs where bus stations connect with main train stations. Elements from those earlier designs were used for the bus stations of the Metrobus 9 de Julio and Metrobus Juan B. Justo.
Though corridors all have the same basic design, Cabeza designed each of the corridors a bit differently to reflect its place in the city. Juan B. Justo is an avenue that extends along the channeled Maldonado Stream, so the design of the stations’ vertical panels and pavers incorporates images of rippling water. Metrobus 9 de Julio’s translucent green vertical panels and glass roofs have screen printings of leaves, given that some trees had to be transplanted from the center and sides of the avenue, which was controversial, not least because the corridor has an important historic context and is already so exposed. In this way, the design seeks to recall the original urban landscape and the city’s memory of it. “In this avenue,” Cabeza says, “the landscape can be perceived as an “o” [the letter]: the bottom with cars and people, the sides with the grand facades, and the [top with] large native trees and the sky, so characteristic of this city. We want to re-create and scale down that image with the stations.”
The bus stations are 3.3-meter modules with different arrangements of benches (with or without seat backs), handrails, and signage. The station structures are made of steel and the benches of cast aluminum. At night, bright yellow signs light up along the top of the structures with the names of the streets at every stop and create a new iconic element for the city.
The most clever aspect of the Metrobus’s design and situation in the streets is the way it plays at two scales: the scale of the city, overwhelming and complex, and part of a larger “industrial” system, seen in the large station armatures built along the grand avenue; and the human scale, intimate and vulnerable, representing the everyday needs of the city dweller, found in the little elements at each bus stop that respond to the individual—the seats, the pavers of varying materials (partly to aid the blind), and the signage.
The individual’s needs also lie at the heart of the Sustainable Mobility Plan, which began in 2009 and is found most conspicuously in the Priority for Pedestrians program. The city government focused on turning certain areas of the city, particularly some central streets downtown, into walking zones. The sidewalks were set on grade with the street, widened, lined with bollards, furnished, and, whenever possible, planted with trees. Cars can still use these streets but with tight speed restrictions. People walking by or crossing are given preference. Some of the streets had bike lanes added to them—creating a 300-kilometer bicycle-lane network—so now drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists travel together and, combined, create a new, vibrant urban space.
In addition, the city has expanded the public bicycle-share system and added traffic-calming and road-safety infrastructure. The transformation caught the attention of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in New York, which in January made the city of Buenos Aires the 2014 winner of its ninth annual award for sustainable transport, which recognized the city’s improvements to urban mobility and safety for pedestrians and cyclists.
Not everyone has embraced the changes; many drivers opposed them from the start, which is one of the reasons the projects are being implemented in phases and under a sensitive process of street selection. But the response to the new pedestrian streets has been mostly positive and has had benefits beyond transit. The outdoor areas of restaurants and cafés blend seamlessly with the new pedestrian-friendly environment that office workers and tourists enjoy at all times of the day, and in these places, the city feels like a saner, friendlier place to be.Jimena Martignoni is a landscape architect in Buenos Aires.
Project Metrobus 9 de Julio and Juan B. Justo
Undersecretary of Transportation: Guillermo Dietrich.
Metrobus Project’s Coordinator: Manuela Lopez Menendez.
Overall Architecture Project: Architects Carlos Colombo and Patricio McLoughlin.
Stations’ architecture, industrial, and graphic design: Architect Diana Cabeza.
Designer: Martin Wolfson.
Graphic Designer: Gabriela Falgione.
Design Team: Diego Ross.
Project Priority for Pedestrians: Ministry of Urban Development.