Monday, January 3, 2011

Sao Paulo: Winner for Worst Traffic

Traffic in Sao Paulo is bad - really bad. Any time of day in practically any place in the city there is a potential of traffic jams and traffic delays. Sao Paulo traffic, in fact, makes all congestion issues in the US seem minuscule in comparison. Sao Paulo is the biggest city in Brazil with over 11 million people within the city boundaries and 20 million in the metropolitan area. Especially since Brazil forms the "B" in BRIC, its fast-growing economy means that more and more people can afford to buy and are buying cars.

A friend told us that Sao Paulo has implemented an every-other-day car ban along particular routes in the city based on even and odd license plates. But instead of encouraging Paulistas (the name for people who live in Sao Paulo) to carpool, economic prosperity has allowed residents to simply buy an extra car! A Times article from 2008 describes how all the extra hours behind the wheel lead to lower productivity levels, aggression and frustration. It also talks about the negative consequences an economic boom can have on quality of life and what the city of Sao Paulo should do to try and improve the situation.

On our explorations of the city, we quickly became aware of Sao Paulo's traffic woes. Below is a picture looking one way from a city's bridge. 

And here's a picture looking the other direction from the same viewing point.

At first, I thought that taking the metro was the perfect solution to all the traffic woes on city streets. In fact, most of the time it was great. Sao Paulo's metro is clean, extensive and easy to use. At the times when we took the metro (after 10am, before 6pm), we had plenty of space and usually a seat.

But I should have foreseen that traffic woes above ground, particularly at rush hour, also meant traffic woes below ground. Here's what should have clued me in - barriers along the platform to corral commuters towards the doors and also to let people exit on the sides.

The day we left Sao Paulo to fly back to Buenos Aires we calculated a 2.5 hour trip to the airport. Little did we know that riding the metro between 5:30pm and 7:30pm would be so crowded! Our journey took us on three metro lines - the first two were full but not overly crowded. But the third....oh my...

We rounded a bend to descend one level to the platform of our last train, here is the sight we saw:

We joined the crowd below thinking a train comes approximately every 2-3 minutes, so how long can it take? Unfortunately, the train was experiencing delays so as people kept arriving on the platform, soon we were packed in like sardines, with people all around us and no escape route except forward. (Notice the barriers and police corralling commuters below.) I clutched our bags with sweat dripping off my nose as we inched towards the airport. As each train finally arrived, the crowd would surge forward, desperately trying to squeeze on the already packed compartments. After around 6 trains passed by we ourselves squeezed on.

So how did our journey end? Well, we eventually made it to the airport, by hopping in a cab instead of the bus as originally planned. But then the cab hit traffic as an accident caused traffic on the highway to slow down immensely. End result, we arrived at the airport 45 minutes before our flight, missing the cutoff, and had to pay US$100 to take a later flight back to Buenos Aires.

So traffic in Sao Paulo is bad - really bad!

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