Traffic in São Paulo – Photo from Pulsamerica
By Diana Folla, Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)
If you visit Brazil’s economic center and cultural hub, São Paulo, you’ll discover a bustling metropolis with a rich history and no shortage of activities and things to see and do. But you’ll also likely confront an inescapable reality of life in São Paulo: its infamous traffic congestion. Paulistanos are no strangers to long, tedious hours of never ending stretches of vehicles during peak hours and to suffocating, crowded subways and buses. This past November, São Paulo’s traffic reached a historic high of 309 kilometers, or roughly 192 miles, of traffic jams.
São Paulo city is the capital of São Paulo state and the largest city in South America, with a population of over 11,800,000 people. With an average of 112 miles of traffic daily, the city’s poor transportation system is at a critical and unsustainable point. As the city experiences an annual growth rate of 45,571 people, the problem is becoming increasingly urgent and in need of innovative solutions.
My recent trip to the city was met with the usual chorus of complaints from friends and relatives about the traffic and their commutes. They recounted stories of hours spent trapped in their cars, unbearably overcrowded subways, and impossibly slow buses. None of these grievances were unfamiliar to me and in the week I was there I managed to experience all of them, as well.
Packed subway station during rush hour in São Paulo. Photo from NBC Photo Blog
During this visit, though, I saw a notable increase in the amount of construction sites around the city bearing the São Paulo Metro logo. One crowded rush hour, barely visible over the heads of the multitude of passengers crammed together on the Blue Line, I saw advertisements on the subway car walls for the ongoing expansion of the metro lines. Over the next few days I saw the advertisements in various locations around the city, in newspapers, and even in short clips playing before youtube videos.
Subway Expansion Ads. Photos from São Paulo Metro
The ads above feature stories from different subway riders of varying occupations – a librarian, tourist guide, and a TV producer. The city is attempting to appeal to a broader audience and to combat the image of an outdated, inefficient subway used only by those who cannot afford the luxury of an automobile.
Public transportation has become a key issue for Brazil and its president, Dilma Rousseff, following the massive demonstrations in June of last year sparked by an increased bus fare. Responding to the demands of the protests, which brought millions of Brazilians to the street nationwide, President Rousseff pledged to invest in the nation’s infrastructure and in transportation in São Paulo state. São Paulo will receive 21 billion Brazilian Reais ($9.6 billion dollars) in funding to improve transportation in the São Paulo metropolitan region. R$5.4 billion will be allocated specifically to new subway lines.
Despite the increase in funds and the attention being paid to São Paulo’s transit system, the city still faces obstacles in weaning its population off the automobile. One initiative, the implementation and expansion of bus-only lanes, gained momentum shortly after the protests and were found to have improved bus speeds in the city. However, a study by Brazil’s Institute of Education and Research (INSPER) found that bus-only lanes did not increase ridership significantly. It concluded that in order to significantly reduce the number of cars on São Paulo’s roads, it has to become more expensive to own and drive one.
Bus only lanes in São Paulo. Photo from Terra
These findings point to a culture of automobile use embedded within the city’s infrastructure and residents’ daily life. Conversations with friends and relatives attested to this automobile dependence and reluctance to use public transportation. Some of them believe there were no viable alternatives, so they choose to brave the added hour or more in their daily commutes. But others note that they could in fact take the subway, but they turn to their cars out of habit. A few express optimism; one said she felt that in ten years São Paulo would achieve an efficient enough public transit system to make her forgo her car. In fact, many said this was the only direction they felt the city could head towards – perpetuating the status quo would lead to the city’s ruin.
My friends and relatives describe the challenges that many large cities with automobile oriented infrastructure and growth face. Residents are fed up with traffic, the pollution, and the hours of lost time. But they are skeptical of public transportation initiatives and prefer to remain within the comfort of their car.
In Brazil, and especially in São Paulo, progress is not hindered solely by logistics and personal preference. Automobile use and public transportation use are also greatly affected by crippling inequality, violence, and insidious classism. Some view the automobile as a safer mode of transportation. This is a critical factor for residents of the city once proclaimed the kidnap capital of Brazil. For others, it is underlying classist notions that subways and buses are only for the lower classes. This includes a woman from the affluent neighborhood of Higienópolis, who stirred up controversy when she told reporters a new subway station would ruin the “tradition of the neighborhood” and attract “drug addicts, beggars, a different kind of people.”
Inefficient public transportation is a widespread issue in São Paulo, but it disproportionately disadvantages the poor. The urban poor are more likely to live in the periphery with inadequate public services and transportation access. According to the U.N. Habitat Programme, only 15.6% of residents of the favelas, or shantytowns, own vehicles; dependence on public transportation is high. The UN Habitat Programme also reported the following figures on urban transport in São Paulo:
“30.2 per cent of urban travellers use private cars, 32.9 per cent walk, and 37 per cent use public transport, out of choice or necessity 132(many combine these modes). Given that the poor make up 20 to 30 per cent of the population, these figures conceal the inequalities inherent in different modes; for instance, public transport (particularly buses) is mainly used by low-income passengers.” (from São Paulo: A Tale of Two Cities, pg. 59)
Helicopter flying above the long lines of traffic in São Paulo. Photo from The Guardian
The city’s upper classes are not spared from the intense vehicular transit, but the wealthiest elite can resort to other options, such as using helicopters to escape the nightmarish traffic. Access to existing efficient public transportation is often a luxury. In discussing the ability to rely predominantly on public transportation in São Paulo, a family friend told me it is completely possible so long as I live in the right neighborhood. The “right neighborhood” does not necessarily mean the most expensive area of the city, but it does mean living in an area with a higher cost of living as a result of its accessibility. This is prohibitively expensive for the city’s working poor. To achieve equitable transportation does not mean only improving existing routes and covered areas, but also extending transportation to the periphery and making it accessible to the urban poor.
With the World Cup approaching in a matter of months, the city is feeling the pressure to finish its transportation projects before masses of tourists descend upon an already overloaded and broken transit system. The city’s track record for delays with subway expansion, for reasons like safety concerns and corruption, provides little assurance. According to BBC, the São Paulo metro, the oldest subway system in Brazil, has an expansion rate of 1.91 kilometers per year. At this rate, it would take the city 172 years to reach the level of London’s metro.
Regardless of whether São Paulo will be prepared for the increasing numbers of tourists that will be arriving, it is clear the city must see its projects through and continue to improve its public transportation system. Failure to do so will vitiate the quality of life of all of its residents and heavily burden the urban poor. My most recent visit to São Paulo and the conversations I had with residents evinced a need to address various factors simultaneously if the city hopes to achieve success with its transit initiatives. Without addressing inequality, inadequate housing and public services, classism, and spatial segregation, in addition to improving its public transit, São Paulo will perpetuate the crippling societal ills that drew thousands of people onto its streets just last year.