Brazil's Urban Mobility Crisis

[All links lead to Portuguese-language pages, except where otherwise stated]

The recent protests relating to the quality of public services and the hike in public transport fares, which brought thousands of people onto the streets of Brazil, placed the theme of urban mobility at the top of the political agenda and revealed a likely crisis in the sector.

Professor of Public Transport at the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (USP), Dr. Jaime Waisman, reflects:

Essa crise existe e há bastante tempo. Cidades de menor porte estão aumentando progressivamente esses deslocamentos e isso reflete numa queda da mobilidade urbana. De acordo com Waisman, um transporte público caro e de má qualidade gera um processo de exclusão social, cujo reflexo recai sobre a lentidão das cidades deixando-as menos interessantes para investimentos por causa da redução progressiva da mobilidade.

“This crisis has existed for a long time. Smaller cities are progressively adding to these problems and this is reflected in the deterioration of urban mobility.” According to Waisman, public transport, which is expensive and of poor quality, leads to a process of social exclusion, which has knock-on effects on the development of the cities, leaving them less attractive for investments due to the progressive reduction of mobility.

The disregard for the law may be observed in the fact that only 15 of the more than 5,000 Brazilian municipalities have completed the projects set out in the National Policy on Urban Mobility (12.587/12), implemented in January 2012, which stipulates that by 2015, cities with more than 20,000 inhabitants must draw up a mobility plan. The organisation Greenpeace is leading an online campaign to monitor the cities which are preparing their mobility plans.

Individual transport

Traffic in the Anhangabaú tunnel, São Paulo, photo by Ze Carlos Barretta, from Flick under Creative Commons license, taken 5th July 2012.

Traffic in the Anhangabaú tunnel, São Paulo, photo by Ze Carlos Barretta, from Flickr under Creative Commons license, taken 5 July 2012.

The investment policy of the government on automobile ownership has caused socio-environmental and economic damage to the population. In April 2013, the Department for Transport (Denatran) registered 77.8 million new vehicles in Brazil, including cars, lorries, buses, trailers and motorcycles. In 2011, it was 70.5 million. The increase in the national fleet is reflected in the quality of life of the population. Research by the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that about 30 percent of the residents of the São Paulo Metropolitan Area, the largest in Brazil, suffer from mental disorders resulting from the accelerated pace of life in the city and the stress caused by traffic.

A report by researcher and professor of urban studies Juciano Martins Rodrigues, published in September 2012, says that “in addition to the increase in the number of vehicles, and consequently the increase of traffic jams and travel time in the cities, another side of the mobility crisis concerns the efficiency, safety and management of public transportation:

E nesse sentido o Brasil também vai mal. (…) O principal problema é a ineficiência da gestão pública na área da mobilidade urbana, devido sobretudo à falta de transparência, clareza em termos de aplicação de recursos e respeito à população que paga tributos, porém não recebe serviços seguros e eficientes de transporte.

And in this sense too, Brazil is going wrong. (…) The primary problem is the inefficiency of public administration in the area of urban mobility, mainly due to a lack of transparency, of clarity in terms of the allocation of resources, and of respect for the population, who pay taxes yet do not receive safe and efficient transport services.

Professor of the Institute of Economics of Unicamp, a public university in São Paulo state, Dr. Eduardo Fagnani claims:

O problema é que nunca tivemos uma política nacional com gestão de transporte público compartilhada, entre os três níveis de governo nos últimos 60 anos. Essa questão precisa ser enfrentada.

The problem is that we have not had a national policy of public transport management in the last 60 years at three levels of government. This issue needs to be addressed.

SP metro, Photo by Kazzttor, from Flick, under Creative Commons license

SP metro: “Overcrowding, constant faults, especially at peak times. A state (mis)government which neither invests, nor seeks solutions to the problems of the people.” Photo by Kazzttor, from Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.

Information from the federal government shows the release [en] of 50 billion reais [22 billion US dollars/14 billion British pounds] of investment in the sector as a response to appeals from the public. Half of the funds have already been requested by three of the 26 Brazilian states. The applications for urban mobility infrastructure from the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Bahia alone totaled 25 billion reais [11 billion US dollars/7 billion British pounds].

In an article entitled “Urban mobility moves trillions of US dollars around and provides fertile ground for corruption around the world”, environmentalist and consultant at Mobilidade Sustentável (Sustainable Mobility) Lincoln Paiva calls attention to the fact that “evidence of corruption involving the establishment of transport systems in Brazil” occasionally emerges:

(…) muitos deles acabam se confirmando, alguns são arquivados  por falta de provas, outros  resultam  na paralisação da construção da obra, com prejuízo direto para a população. No entanto, o que se observa é que não há punição para os envolvidos, empresas continuam fazendo negócios com os governos ou em PPP’s (parceria-público-privada) e pessoas  seguem por aí trabalhando em governos, nas empresas ou em consultorias privadas.

(…) many of the cases do end up being proven, some are shelved due to lack of evidence, others result in the shutdown of construction work, with direct losses for the population. However, what one observes is that there is no retribution for those involved; the companies continue to do business with the [federal] governments or in PPPs (public-private partnerships) and the people end up working in governments, businesses or in private consultancies.

In search of solutions

While Brazil deals with the lack of urban mobility planning and plods along with a law which was not incorporated by the majority of the cities, the mobility solutions adopted by the big European and American urban centres include investing in metro lines, increased congestion charges [en] in the city centres to raise funds for the improvement of public transport, and expansion of cycle paths and bus lanes.

In the blog Planeta Sustentável (Sustainable Planet), Mariana Viktor identifies a set of measures which can help to improve urban mobility. Among them are the safe sharing of lanes between buses and cyclists and the integration of bicycle transport with other forms; participation in the design of city mobility plans; carpooling and walking for health benefits; and, finally, seeking to work more at home.

Hoping for investments, some activists are beginning to ‘humanise’ the big metropoles by encouraging the use of bicycles.

A documentary produced by the movement Vá de Bike (Go by Bike) demonstrates the relationship between cyclists and São Paulo. The documentary Pé no Pedal (Foot on the Pedal) features a few groups dedicated to cycling in the city and interviews cicloactivists, the Mayor and others. One of the interviewees, Aline Cavalcante, who shares, in the documentary, a “passionate statement on how it all started and why the bicycle makes/made her feel an important part of the city”, concludes:

Sem dúvida ouvir boas histórias de revoluções pessoais muda bastante a maneira como passamos a enxergar a bicicleta e o ciclista.

There's no doubt that listening to stories of personal revolutions significantly changes the way we look at the bicycle and the cyclist.

Watch Pé no Pedal:

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