Friday, December 31, 2010

Touring Sao Paulo by Metro

Sao Paulo is described in the guidebooks as being the New York City of Brazil. A huge sprawling metropolis, the Rough Guide describes the city as having South America's Park Ave - Avenida Paulista, and 100s of art museums, cultural centers, and theater venues. In fact, not only does the city have above ground monuments and places of historical interest, but the below ground arts scene is also worth noting. When I say underground, I really mean it. The Sao Paulo metro system has an extensive art collection with millions of visitors each day.

In addition to this novel idea of showcasing public art at approximately 60% of all metro stations (see above station map), the Sao Paulo metro system runs guided tours of the city using the metro. A collaboration between the city of Sao Paulo and the Sao Paulo metro, Turismetro is a free program which offers two tours per day on the weekend. For the cost of a metro ticket (about US $1.75), visitors get a one hour guided tour in English/Portuguese of a particular city neighborhood (and the metro station, of course!).

Here's how Turismetro describes itself:
TurisMetro is a great way to get to know Sao Paulo. There are 6 itineraries to the city's historical landmarks, totally assisted by specialized tourist guides and the readiness of the fast Subway system. Take a trip to the best of what Sao Paulo has to offer. Embark on the TurisMetro.

Our itinerary took us to Luz, the red light district that the city is working hard to revitalize. There, were introduced to the neighborhood's importance in Sao Paulo's cultural and financial history. Our tour included one English and Portuguese speaking guide and one assistant (see picture below - our guide is in red and the assistant in yellow). Our guide provided us with historical details while the assistant's main purpose was to keep track of all of us (we were only 6 people) in the busy metro system.

At the Luz station, our guide showed us the largest work of art in the metro system which was inspired by objects in the lost and found! Located between the Luz metro station and the Luz suburban train station, the piece is 73 meters long by 3 meters tall and was built by an artist named Maria Bonomi. The color yellow represents the northeast of Brazil; white, the peace that Sao Paulo (a city filled with lots of violence) wants to find; and red, the richness of the soil which enables coffee plantation to grow two crops per year.

Talking to our guide I found out that 3 million people ride the Sao Paulo metro per day (measured in number of rides). I also learned that the maximum speed of all trains on the metro is 88 km/hr. This struck me as quite fast, especially in comparison with how slow car traffic moves on the city streets during rush hour or other random times of the day. The Sao Paulo metro is expanding and building a new line, the yellow line, which will have a maximum speed of 100 km/hr.

Another interesting thing to note is that on some of Sao Paulo's green line trains there is no operator. Our guide told us that soon they will be transitioning all of Sao Paulo's metro system to be operator-less. For the meantime, however, to assuage any passenger concerns, they tint the windows on the control cabin on the first car of the train so that people won't know if their train has an operator or not!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Long Lines at Gas Stations around Buenos Aires

It's been really hot this week (in the upper 90s) in Buenos Aires. A combination of higher demand for gasoline as people flee the heat of the city on summer holidays and disruption in supply routes has led to shortages in supply. Until the past couple days, I thought of lines at gas stations as a something from 1973 and the US oil crisis. But evidence of gas shortages are all over as you go around the city, from gas stations with no lines (meaning they have no fuel available), to gas stations with lines stretching back 10-20 cars (meaning they actually have fuel available).

And to top it off, I just found out today that gasoline prices in Argentina are highly regulated, so all gas stations have just about the same price. So even as the supply dwindles, the price stays the same instead of going up with demand. When panic about lack of gasoline grips the city, drivers are inclined to fill up the tank to maximum, in turn further decreasing supply.

Here is a selection of English and Spanish articles on the current state of affairs:

Friday, December 24, 2010

Not your average Greyhound trip!

In the US, a huge national debate is raging over high speed rail and its costs and benefits. Will people choose rail over driving their cars or flying? Is it just a political move on the part of some politicians? Is it worth the billions of dollars needed in investment to make people move just a little bit faster (but not nearly as fast as high speed rail in other countries)?

In Argentina, no such debate is occurring. The thought of resurrecting the country's ancient rail system built by the British over a century ago is nowhere close to being on a politician's political platform or making the papers. But then again, Argentina is in a completely different situation than the US. While the US has a struggling intercity bus network, Argentina's private intercity bus companies are thriving. There is so much demand for long distance buses that companies offer service to remote cities and towns with high frequencies and multiple classes of service. Let's not forget that Argentina is the 8th largest country in the world in terms of land mass. While Buenos Aires is far and away the the country's biggest city with a population of 13 million the metropolitan area, there are many population centers spread out across the country with very sparsely populated areas in between (take for example the region of Patagonia).

Last month, I took one of these long distance buses with Raja to Posadas where we transferred buses to go to San Ignacio, a small town on the way to Iguazu Falls. San Ignacio is known for its well-preserved Jesuit Mission which operated between 1632 and 1767, housed a couple of Jesuit priests and thousands of Guarani people, and cultivated mate, the preferred local tea of Argentines. We had bought our tickets beforehand from the Retiro Bus Station (it's still not completely possible to buy tickets online and this way we got to ask an actual person all the questions we had about departure, service, etc) located right next to the Retiro Train Station (which still operates suburban trains).

When we arrived at the station half an hour before our bus left, the energy at the station was palpable. For a Monday at 8pm, the station was hopping with travelers. Cafes, jewelry and trinket shops dotted the departure level while the floor above was completely filled with bus company ticket counters. There were over 100 bus bays and approximately 50% of them were full at any given time. I had chosen cama-suite, the top line in bus travel as I wanted to sleep well and the distance from Buenos Aires to Posadas is about 1000 km or 12 hours. Wow was I impressed by the quality of service! I don't know if you can tell by the photos, but in cama-suite, the chair extends almost completely flat. If you're not traveling with someone you know and happen to be on the side with two people, there's a curtain you can pull so you don't have to watch your seatmate sleep. (But conversely, if you are traveling with someone you know, the curtain does not give the two of you more privacy, like a private compartment on a train would.)

I wasn't sure about what sort of food we'd get so I'd packed a bunch of sandwiches. But it turns out that our tickets included an appetizer (rolls with prochiutto and cheese), a full dinner (Raja had steak and mashed potatoes while I had pasta) complete with beer and/or wine, a post dinner glass of champagne, and breakfast served with a copy of that day's local paper from Posadas (one of the biggest cities in Northeast Argentina).

Entertainment featured a movie called Mother and Child which I had the choice of listening to in either English or Spanish (dubbed) with a personal headset. When I decided around midnight after the movie finished that it was time to sleep, I put on my blinders - mine and not the bus company's - unrolled the blanket, and rested my head on the pillow. I woke up to hot cafe con leche (coffee with milk) and a second floor view of rolling sugarcane fields and rich red earth. All in all, it was a very smooth ride and I slept right through the night. In terms of monetary value and convenience, taking the bus to visit the Jesuit Mission at San Ignacio Mini made a lot of sense and in terms of value for money, we definitely chose well.

So what is it that makes Argentina's intercity bus network a success? Is it the impeccable service (similar to flying first class on Emirates) that makes people take the bus? Is it the reliability in terms of quality and frequency (Argentina's two airlines, Aerolineas Argentinas and LAN, tend to go on strike a few times a year, grounding flights and passengers)? Or is it economic (owning a personal vehicle is expensive in Argentina)? I tend to think that the reason is a little bit of all of the above and I must say that I'm not sure what occured first. Certainly the high quality of service on intercity bus transportation in Argentina could serve as a model to bus companies in the US. However, the cost of hiring a driver and on-board attendent in the US could be cost prohibitive since wages are higher there than in Argentina. Certainly though, it seems at least on the east coast, bus companies are pushing a business model of high quality service (complete with WIFI and other amenities) to induce travelers onto the bus and out of their car.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Zebra sightings in....La Paz, Bolivia?

On our recent travels to La Paz, Bolivia, we got to witness a curious sight at the busy intersection of Sagarnaga and Avenida Mariscal Santa Cruz, a huge, noisy expanse of cars, minivans, buses, and motorcycles. We climbed to the roof of San Francisco Church right next to the intersection, where we got a bird's eye view of busy La Paz street life below us. As the traffic lights rotated through the cycle from green to red, pedestrians and vehicles traded turns for physical space on the street with the help of people dressed in zebra costumes! This struck me as an amazing idea to encourage pedestrian safety and educate drivers on the rights of pedestrians in traffic crossings. (It also reminded me of the Halloween I dressed up as a zebra - I think I was around 10 years old.)

Here's a great video that gives a little history on the city of La Paz's use of human zebras at busy intersections - I guess that this traffic safety program has been in place since 2001.

I put up my own video of the zebras on youtube (although without the nifty subtitles and the cinematography of the video above!).Me posing with the zebra traffic guards. The sign says "Hasta que tu quieras a tu ciudad" which means "Until you love your city". I found out later that most of these traffic guards are between 16-22 years old but at the time I just thought they were really short!
The zebra traffic guards are physically pushing this public transportation minivan back and out of the zebra crossing!
While the light is green for traffic, the zebra traffic guards stand with pedestrians in the median and the sidewalk on either sides of Avenida Mariscal Santa Cruz.
I think the non-zebra was a donkey but I'm not sure.

The signs the traffic guards are holding say "Pare" or stop on one side.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

How's this for a map of the suburban train system?

Impossible to find maps of the Suburban train system. Here is the best one that I found:

Please note that even this map has its flaws - namely, that the lines and stations seem to float in midair and aren't anchored by any geography. The only hints that we are given as map viewers is the outline of the city of Buenos Aires (Capital Federal) and that the map appears to be to scale (for example, distances between stations and between lines seem to approximate actual distances on the map). Still, viewers are left to ponder where some of these stations may be in relation to the subte, to different municipalities, and other important destinations.

Well, at least the map shows the entire system, which cannot be said for most other maps.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Trip to Fundacion Banco de Alimentos

Raja and I have started volunteering at a place called Fundacion Banco de Alimentos. We're working in the warehouse, packaging food and other products to be distributed to food shelves and soup kitchens around Buenos Aires. It's a pretty cool operation that takes in over 250,000 kilos of food per month!

Our route to get to our volunteer site has been an exciting transportation challenge. First we walk about 40 minutes, then we hop on the suburban train at Scalabrini Ortiz Station towards Villa Rosa, we travel 4 stops and get off at Munro Station, and walk another 15 minutes or take bus #333. In total, approximately one hour and 30 minutes door to door.

On our walk, we've had a chance to discover some of the greener areas of Buenos Aires. Although you're not allowed to walk inside the Golf Course (think high chain link fence), the Campo de Golf provides a green lush respite from city noise and traffic. And the Lago de Regatas has lots of joggers, fishers, and families who enjoy the birds and plants around the lake. Then we walk through a little neighborhood of houses and apartment complexes before arriving at the Parque de las Americas and crossing a pedestrian bridge to Scalabrini Ortiz station, which is located in the middle of the highway.

The first day I did this route by myself and got quite lost. The most humbling moment was when I stood on the wrong platform and watched my train go by. Why? Because the trains here were built by the British and thus travel on the left and not the right like in the US. One way cost for the train trip is 75 centavos or less than 25 American cents. Wow!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Some initial discoveries regarding the Buenos Aires "Subte" system

The Buenos Aires subway system is called the "Subte", which is a shortened version of the Spanish "Subterraneo". Its first station was inaugurated in 1913 making it the oldest subway system in Latin America and the Southern Hemisphere (for comparison, the oldest underground system in North America is claimed by Boston, which began in 1897). Pretty impressive for Buenos Aires!

Another interesting cultural tidbit is that the cars on Line A, the oldest line are the original wooden subway cars that were built in 1913. I'll post a picture after I ride the line. Last time I was in Argentina Raja and I were given a huge warning by a fellow passenger to beware of pickpockets, hence we took very few pictures as we didn't want to take out our camera. The next occasion I think we will worry a little less.

I found this website,, which in my opinion is by far the #1 site for all things subte news related. It seems like the free metro newspapers that are distributed in Boston, NYC, and other big cities in the United States. Except, this one is online.

Today when I looked at it there was an article on the negative health effects caused by exessive sound in the tunnels, information on which stations were having musical performances, and a critical piece on the impact of inflation on Subte employee salaries.

One of the things that I find confusing with the subway system (and train system in general) is that station names are not unique. For example, the A (red line) and the D (green line) both have a station named "Callao" which is in reference to Avenida Callao. However, these two stations are in different locations along the Avenue.

In my search to better understand the Subte system and how I might be able to use it, I came across a few websites with (and without) maps.

Mediocre to Good transit mapping websites in Buenos Aires

Here is what appears to be the official subte website for Buenos Aires. The map is really quite mediocre - not interactive or anything - and no base to reference where you are. It also has some additional information about how to pay, fares, and times of operation.

An ok site for seeing the subte lines juxtaposed on a google maps base. You can turn the lines on and off.
Seems like this site is actually under construction. But it looks like it should be pretty nice once they finish putting it together. Right now it's got a graphically pleasing map of the subte that is supposedly interactive but is actually under construction.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

New bike paths in the Almagro neighborhood

When Vijay and I were exploring the Almagro neighborhood on a chilly August day, we came across one of the new bike paths we heard about. The green solid section is at the intersection. Smart idea to put a barrier in the main section of the bike path to keep aggressive Argentine drivers away from the bikes.

Just watch out for the manholes as you cross the intersection on your bike! They look rather dangerous.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bicycling towards better health and less traffic

Check out this recent article from July 14, 2010 from on plans to expand bicycle facilities and promote bicycle usage around Buenos Aires. A couple reasons are behind this initiative including health concerns and ever-growing traffic jams around the city. Interesting that the World Health Organization appears to be involved in this effort!

Buenos Aires becomes a bicycle usage model in Latin America
Luis Roberto Escoto, a World Health Organization (WHO) consultant on family and community health, is proud to report that Buenos Aires is well on the way to becoming a model Latin American city when it comes to bicycle usage.
More than 14 million people live in and around the Argentine capital, and like all large agglomerations, the city suffers because of high population density.
According to Escoto, the 21st century’s health problems are largely related to population aging, urbanization and climate change.
“These are the three great topics, whose effects translate into health problems. It is interesting to see how bicycling directly affect them,” Escoto, a Honduran who received his degree in medicine from the National Autonomous University of Honduras, told dpa.
The WHO Health and Transportation Program states that a sedentary lifestyle is the main health risk in industrialized nations. Some 1.9 million people die each year all over the world from illnesses connected with not getting sufficient exercise.
Bicycle use as part of daily life, half an hour five times a week, contributes towards strengthening muscles, bones and tendons, among other benefits.
“It has an effect on diminishing premature arthritis, heart ailments, osteoporosis, certain kinds of cancers and diabetes, and it also contributes to emotional wellbeing,” Escoto said.
Cities also benefit because transit and gas emissions diminish and residents get healthier lives.
Physician Claudia Valenti, an advisor to the Argentine Health Ministry and head of Paediatrics at the Jose Maria Penna General Emergencies Hospital, said that around 40 percent of children and teenagers are obese or overweight.
“When physical activity is prescribed for clinical reasons, many say they don’t have the money to go to a gym. Sending people to walk when they are overweight is to increase their joint pain. We usually tell them to ride a bicycle. Therefore, bike lanes are extremely important,” she added.
Buenos Aires City Hall has made its “Better on a Bike” program a priority and the intention is to encourage residents to use bicycles on a daily basis to improve their health.
“The only way to deal with global warming is to change the way citizens act. A key point is fuel use because automobile exhaust fumes are the main polluters, not factories,” Buenos Aires Deputy Transportation Secretary Guillermo Dietrich, said in an interview.
“It is essential to incorporate bicycles to diminish environmental pollution,” he said.
Following trends set by other large cities such as Paris, Barcelona, New York and Bogota, the Argentine capital also seeks that bicycle use become a strategic ally to alleviate traffic jams.
Under the plan, by the end of 2011 the city will have built 100 kilometers of protected bike lanes connecting to train stations, universities, and other areas where crowds gather, such as office districts.
The city has completed 25 kilometers and a growing number of Buenos Aires residents are using them in the crowded downtown area.
The project includes parking lots, a rental system, promotion and driver education so that society can learn about cycling as well as a corporate social responsibility program so that private and public institutions and schools and universities can encourage employees and student bodies to use bikes.
Escoto said that if the policy is kept up success is practically guaranteed and Buenos Aires in eight or 10 years could be a model city on a world scale in the use of bicycles as a healthy and sustainable means of transportation.
He said that Buenos Aires has the advantage of being a flat city, unlike others in the region, and that bicycle use is necessary in a city with “more and more inhabitants and whose streets are collapsing because of the heavy transit.”
Escoto said city authorities must guarantee appropriate places where to leave bikes, deploy additional police agents and educate the population.
Some Buenos Aires residents have voiced concerns about the safety of bicycles for those who ride them and others, because drivers are unfamiliar with them.
“As bicycles become more common and people come to see them as a regular form of transportation, drivers too will begin to respect them,” Escoto said.