São Paulo Battles its Traffic
For decades, mega-city São Paulo has been transforming into endless urban sprawl, razing tree-lined plazas, demolishing architectural gems, under-investing in public transportation, and blighting wide swaths with an elevated highway and colossal bloc-style apartment complexes. Some in the rich elite have opted to commute by helicopter rather than drive on São Paulo’s crowded streets.
However, a sweeping movement led by São Paulo’s mayor Fernando Haddad, is achieving something once thought impossible: challenging the supremacy of the automobile. The mayor is a 52-year-old scholar with a doctorate in philosophy, and he has carried out the equivalent of urban shock treatment in an effort to ease São Paulo’s traffic congestion. His efforts have unleashed a fierce debate over mobility, the use of public spaces, and the limits of political power in a metropolitan area with 20 million people.
Drawing inspiration from policies in Curitiba, New York, and Bogotá, Mayor Haddad has embarked on the construction of hundreds of miles of bicycle lanes and corridors for buses to blaze past slow-moving cars. Additionally, the local government is expanding sidewalks, lowering speed limits, limiting public parking, and occasionally shutting down prominent avenues entirely to cars.
“I thought I’d never see a moment like this in my lifetime,” said Renata Falzoni, 62, a pioneering bicycle activist. While Mr. Haddad’s actions have drawn scorn from some in São Paulo because of their breadth and hasty implementation, Ms. Falzoni counts herself among his defenders, contending that emergency measures were needed to deal with generations of policies producing epic gridlock across the city.
Still, the overhaul of mobility policies has opened Mr. Haddad to attacks from his opponents. “Haddad is only making people here unhappier,” said Adriana Fernandes Paisano, 48, a dentist and die-hard motorist. She fumed about finding fewer parking spaces, contending that allowing bicycle lanes to function one day a week, on Sundays, would be an acceptable compromise instead of squeezing cars from the streets throughout the week.
Mr. Haddad, for his part, is forcefully defending his measures, rejecting claims that they are being imposed without much consultation. He said in an interview that his mobility proposals were exhaustively discussed in his 2012 campaign, and he pointed to statistics published in recent days showing that traffic-related fatalities in São Paulo, including episodes in which pedestrians are hit by cars, fell 18.5 percent in the first six months of the year from the same period in 2014.
“How can someone be against the reduction of deaths in the city of São Paulo?” Mr. Haddad asked. Describing São Paulo as a “tense city,” he acknowledged that resistance among some residents to his policies remained entrenched, which he attributed in part to a campaign by some prominent media figures who are seeking to roll back his initiatives.
Mr. Haddad argued that motorists were benefiting from his policies, in addition to bicyclists, users of public transportation, and pedestrians. For instance, traffic is flowing faster in recent weeks along highways where Mr. Haddad lowered the speed limit to 70 kilometers per hour (about 43 miles per hour), after which a 23 percent decline in accidents occurred.
Pondering what to do about dangerous driving has long been a fixture of life in this city. “The Brazilian chauffeur appears to believe that it is his business, like the matador’s, to reduce to its narrowest the margin between life and death,” the British author Peter Fleming wrote in Brazilian Adventure, a 1933 book that unfolded partially in a booming São Paulo.
Indeed, some here still contend that the best approach is to simply let drivers have their way. Mr. Haddad’s speed-limit measure has drawn broad criticism, including a lawsuit against its implementation from the São Paulo chapter of the Brazilian Bar Association, which argues that pedestrians hit by cars on highways are suicidal and breaking the law. “Millions of people in São Paulo should not be blamed for the death of irresponsible pedestrians,” the group said in its lawsuit.
Despite such resistance, Mr. Haddad, a former education minister, who still occasionally lectures at the University of São Paulo, is taking heart from surveys that show relatively high levels of support for his policies. Fifty-nine percent of residents expressed support for building and expanding bicycle lanes, while 64 percent are in favor of shutting down prominent avenues on Sundays to cars, according to a poll by Ibope.
Others contend that Mr. Haddad’s measures are still too timid, with much of São Paulo still reasonably navigable only by car or on crowded trains and buses, especially in poor areas. But some Paulistanos say the policies are opening the way for a broader discussion of improving the city’s quality of life, building on earlier efforts like a ban on outdoor advertising, and boosting the bus system’s efficiency with smart cards.
Indeed, a vertical garden has started to sprout on the facade of a high-rise overlooking the elevated highway called the Big Worm. Parts of Avenida Paulista, the city’s most prominent thoroughfare, evoked the beaches of Rio with sunbathers sprawled on blankets, when authorities closed the route to cars on a recent Sunday.
“We were raised believing that leisure in São Paulo involved getting into a car and driving to a shopping mall,” said Laura Sobral, an urban planner who describes the current mood of change in the city as a São Paulo Spring. “Finally, we’re no longer the vanguard of backwardness.”
Others go even further in contemplating the city’s flux. Marcelo Rubens Paiva, 54, a writer and columnist for the newspaper Estado de S. Paulo, listed the positive changes like opening Avenida Paulista to pedestrians, improvements in public transportation, street parties on weekends, and the invigorating effect of new immigration from Africa, Asia, and other parts of Latin America. “A time traveler from the ’70s,” he said, “wouldn’t recognize the city today.”
Bicycle activists from São Paulo were recently featured in a documentary film that opened in New York on December 4. The film is by the international journalist and filmmaker Fredrik Gertten and called Bikers and Cars.
[Research for this article comes from The New York Times. Photos are by Lalo de Almeida]