Long overshadowed by nearby São Paulo, the sleepy town of Curitiba, Brazil got a wake-up call after its population tripled from 120,000 in 1960 to 361,000 in 1980. To grapple with surging transportation demands, city leaders could have taken a page from pretty much every urban development playbook at the time: widen the streets to allow for more cars and launch a lengthy, pricey endeavor to construct a subway system.

Instead, they went off-script with a budget-friendly, quick-win public transportation project: better buses. With its sleek stops, dedicated lanes and prepayment options, Curitiba’s then-bleeding-edge bus rapid transit (BRT) system gave birth to what’s now an infrastructure staple in cities around the world.

The city’s mayor at the time, Jaime Lerner, had been an architect and urban planner, and had no problem questioning the status quo, says Jonas Rabinovitch, a former mayoral adviser and planner at the Curitiba Research and Urban Planning Institute (IPPUC) and now a United Nations senior adviser.

An IPPUC project team developed a master plan designed around central thoroughfares, limiting the urban sprawl that plagues so many fast-growing cities. Buses would run on dedicated corridors flanked by lanes for other vehicles and complemented by tube-like stations and prepaid ticketing.

The project promised the same speed and ease of use of a subway, at a fraction of the cost, says Ilan Cuperstein, deputy regional director for Latin America at C40, a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change. A new BRT system was estimated at 20 to 50 times cheaper than a rail system and was just as convenient, he says.

After the first 20-kilometer (12-mile) BRT corridor opened in 1974, ridership gradually grew. Curitiba’s BRT now spans five routes and 74 kilometers (46 miles), with 80 percent of people in the city using the system. With 170 million passenger rides per year, BRT has cut annual auto trips in Curitiba by roughly 27 million per year. And the influence has been felt around the globe, as urban leaders interested in BRTs “have the luxury of a lot of data and lessons learned,” says Cuperstein.