Wealthy families in São Paulo ditching cars for public transportation

. Jul 05, 2019
public transportation metro

When people ask how long it takes to get from one place to another in São Paulo, there is usually one universal response: anywhere between 20 minutes and three hours. Urban mobility has always been one of the city’s main bottlenecks, and state- and municipal-level administrations have failed to fix it. With 7.4 cars per 10 people, driving in São Paulo is a challenge. And while the city’s subway system is by far the country’s best, it still leaves much to be desired.

Inaugurated in 1974, the São Paulo Metro has inaugurated an average of 1.9 stations per year. That’s far below other Latin American centers, such as Santiago (2.7 stations per year, since 1975), and Mexico City (3.3 stations per year, on average). For decades, many have attributed this neglect to the supposition that wealthier populations didn’t use the subway much, therefore diminishing its appeal to local governments—which have historically catered more to the needs of the elites.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">But a recent </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">study</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> launched by the São Paulo subway company shows an important change in the demographics using the underground. Over the past decade, lower-income families have opted more for cars—partially due to the fact that less-skilled workers have massively migrated to work for </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">ride-hailing services</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">—while wealthier people are relying more on public transportation.</span></p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/464728"></div> <p><script src=""></script></p> <h2>A lack of coordinated public policies</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">More than anything, the study shows how São Paulo&#8217;s state and municipal governments have failed to coordinate efforts and provide a public transportation network combining buses and subway trains in an effective manner. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">On one hand, lower-income people were pushed into their cars due to more expensive bus tickets (the mass street protests of 2013 began with demonstrations against rising bus fares in São Paulo). On the other hand, the federal government invested heavily in tax breaks for the auto industry, eyeing up an increase in consumption. Meanwhile, public investments in new subway lines privileged wealthier neighborhoods.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">That accentuated inequalities in São Paulo. Over the past decade, lower-income families had their first taste of having a family car (there was an increase of 42 percent in the number of households owning vehicles). Meanwhile, the top financial bracket is in a reality closer to developed nations, often having a post-car mentality.</span></p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/464598"></div> <p><script src=""></script></p> <h2>A train network beginning to take shape</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Despite all the shortcomings in the São Paulo metropolitan transport system, some efforts have been made to increase integration. Line 4 of the city&#8217;s subway, which connects the heart of São Paulo to its financial center, has been extended further to poorer regions in the west of the city.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Even during the crisis, the number of trips increased by a rate of almost twice the overall population growth, rising 10.3 and 6.9 percent, respectively. That growth is influenced by a drop in formal jobs and the proportional increase of employment which is itinerant or has no fixed address. Another explanation has to do with the concentration of labor in São Paulo&#8217;s downtown area. Sixty-four percent of all jobs in the Greater São Paulo area are there—increasing the number of people who have to commute.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">And a more integrated network becomes more appealing to users, as it lowers commuting times. A trip between São Caetano do Sul (a satellite city to the southeast of São Paulo) and the University of São Paulo (to the west of the city) could take up to two hours by car—almost twice as long as the journey via overground and underground trains.</span></p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/464744"></div> <p><script src=""></script></p> <h2>Abandoned buses</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">However, if the metro network is beginning to become more functional, the same can&#8217;t be said about the bus system. While the city has invested in creating bus corridors and lanes, it hasn&#8217;t invested in new routes and more vehicles to reduce commute time. As a result, people are beginning to abandon buses. This type of transportation lost 8 percent of its passengers in a decade—which could create a vicious cycle: as passengers migrate to other types of transportation, they reduce the system&#8217;s funding—which makes it even harder to invest in improvements. </span></p> <h2>Bikes emerge as new mode of transportation</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Overall, </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">commutes by bicycle</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> in São Paulo have increased 24 percent to 377,000 each day. But it is interesting to notice that among wealthy Brazilians earning more than BRL 11,000, the jump was of a whopping 275 percent in the past decade.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The trend came about after the municipal administration increased its investments in bike lanes across the city during the term of former Mayor Fernando Haddad. During his four years, bike lanes expanded sixfold to a total of 498 kilometers. Since 2016, however, investments have stalled. Sitting Mayor Bruno Covas promises to kickstart a project to set up 1,420 kilometers of new bike lanes by 2028.</span></p> <div id="attachment_20179" style="width: 1093px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-20179" loading="lazy" class="wp-image-20179 size-full" src="ão-Paulo-bike-lanes.png" alt="São Paulo bike lanes" width="1083" height="902" srcset="ão-Paulo-bike-lanes.png 1083w,ão-Paulo-bike-lanes-300x250.png 300w,ão-Paulo-bike-lanes-768x640.png 768w,ão-Paulo-bike-lanes-1024x853.png 1024w,ão-Paulo-bike-lanes-610x508.png 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1083px) 100vw, 1083px" /><p id="caption-attachment-20179" class="wp-caption-text">Bike lanes in São Paulo</p></div> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The main conclusion of the study is that the city still lacks a proper urban development plan. Investments in public transportation can influence the direction a city grows in. São Paulo should be trying to decentralize the city, instead of reinforcing the same commuter routes.

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Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

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