I was interviewed recently for a documentary about transportation in Brazil, I had the opportunity to present my observations as a European living in Brazil, but also as an urban designer. Here are some notes about the points that were raised:
- Freedom to walk in the city. In America it is illegal to "jaywalk" (to cross the road in any place other than the official pedestrian crossings) and it is regularly punished. In Britain it is not so enthusiastically discouraged, however I always know that if I find myself in a dangerous position while trying to cross the road in Britain it is almost always because I didn't follow the correct procedure, I didn't cross at the designated place, follow the signs or wait for the green man. In Brazil I frequently find myself in terrifying situations trying to cross the road and as a British person I automatically assume that I made a mistake reading the signals and I should have taken a different course to cross the road. But this is not the case, often there is no possible way to cross the roads safely. The standard way is to wait and eventually build up the courage to take your risk and it's necessary to run. Therefore it is a numbers game; sooner or later there will be a fatal accident on almost any street corners. I worry that I may trip and fall over when running, I worry that I can't always run when I get older, it makes me think Brazil is a bad place in which to be old or bad at running. It would be different if these problem crossings were located in in industrial areas far from where people need to carry out their day-to-day activities, but they are in popular residential areas in high density downtown neighbourhoods, where people naturally walk to the local shops and municipal destinations.
- Cyclists: rich or poor? One difference in Brazil is that cycling is associated with transportation for the poor. In Europe cyclists can equally be middle class, wealthy or working class. In fact amongst young, well educated city dwellers car ownership can be unfashionable and more associated with poorer neighbourhoods farther out in the suburbs. Some people I know have bicycles worth 3 times more than a car, some people will spend £3000-4000 on a good bicycle whereas you can get a reasonable secondhand car for £1000. With this in mind I was surprised to speak with a government official in Porto Alegre at a transport forum. I asked why is it so difficult to cycle to the shopping centres, there are no cycle lanes, no safe way to arrive or anywhere to enter the gate and no obvious or secure place to park a bicycle. His answer was that it is the free market, the private companies who build the shopping centres don't cater for bicycle riders because the shops are aiming to sell to the people with money who travel by car. It's a chicken and egg situation because I know of plenty of well off youngsters in Brazil who want to cycle but are too frightened.
- A democratic system of transport. One memorable sight in Munich was an eldery couple travelling by metro late at night, about midnight, with a picnic hamper. Obviously they were returning from a day trip. As people age, they naturally start to lose their reaction times, motor functions and/or eye sight sufficiently so they become unsafe to drive, or simply start to dislike driving, as it is stressful at certain times and in certain places. A study in the USA showed how the quality of live deteriorates extremely rapidly when people can no longer drive. (reference pending) Teenagers who are not yet allowed to drive and people with mobility problems or other disabilities are excluded, put in danger or made to suffer by the transport system in Brazil. A democratic society should allow all its citizens to dislocate around the city equally. I saw on the TV news in Brazil that approximately 80% of government spending on transport goes towards road infrastructure for motorised transport. However only 20%-30% of the population are car owners, you could argue that the majority of the population use this infrastructure in the form of buses, but bus transport in the big cities is unacceptably inefficient and most customers/citizens are unsatisfied with the quality.
- Garrafamentos/traffic jams and personal freedom to choose. Making the traditional trip to the beach from Porto Alegre at for bank holidays (feriados) is an example of a widespread problem in inter-city transport. In the UK we have regular and terrible traffic jams, but there is a feeling that it is somehow more acceptable in the UK; most people stuck in the congestion are aware that they are there by their free choice, they could have chosen to make the journey by train. They were probably able to make the more ethical choice in means of transport, and leave more space on the roads for other people. In Brazil, people do not have the choice, they get stuck in infernal traffic jams or they stay at home. There is a feeling of helplessness at this growing problem.
- Airport improvements or efficient transport to airports? There is much talk in Brazil about improving airport infrastructure ahead of the world cup. But my experience of air travel has been fine. Once at the airport the journeys have been smooth and fairly trouble free. However arriving at the airports is a different matter. In Curitiba the airport is so far away from the city centre the journey can take 2 hours by bus, and worse still, in the absense of a train, the road journey is vulnerable to delays caused by congestion, meaning that people are much more likely to miss flights. In Porto Alegre the airport is closer to the city, but the train which goes to the airport is extremely slow and the airport station is positioned far from the airport entrance, with no efficient means to walk from the train platform to the airport entrance. In reality it's not too far, perhaps 400m but it could be miles away for all the clarity and lack of direct route. To arrive at the airport is torturous, climbing up and down bridges, crossing very busy roads, with no pedestrian crossing, it's a matter of wait very patiently and then run, no signage to point passengers in the right direction and no clear route for passengers to take. ie At decision points in the path there are two or more routes to take and no clear way that is the best route to the airport. At the airport entrance the pavement finishes and passengers have to walk in the path of cars turning the corner often at speed, the final 100 m there is no pedestrian path. Passengers have to take the risk of walking in the path of cars and be very vigilant, still unsure if they are really arriving at the airport entrance or round the back of a shed. It seems to me that there is little point improving airport infrastructure and capacity if it is not done in parallel with transport improvements within the city. Tourists on short visits don't normally choose to drive in a foreign country, and they are not entirely happy to take taxis long distance from the airport when they can't speak the language. The common worry of the tourist is that airport taxis might overcharge. For this reason tourists are normally happier to take trains or buses from airports to reach the city centre and then take a taxi a shorter distance. Some cities are better than others but a simple solution that would represent a significant improvement would be to run a bus service through the night. In Porto Alegre the bus to the airport runs during normal times from 6-7am until 10-11 at night, which is quite inappropriate to meet the demands of aeroplane arrivals and departures often at nighttime hours.
- Brazil, to stay behind developed nations? Brazil seems to be behind the curve of current thinking in transport, even the United States is starting to admit that the big experiment in suburbanisation has many problems. Walkable neighborhoods are starting to have the most expensive real estate, the US is building a large network of high speed rail. Young people in diverse developed countries from Japan to the USA and Europe are making the lifestyle choice to not have a car but to live in a cool location, unlike their parents. There is growing acceptance in the international community that there is simply not enough space or resources for everyone to live the car based lifestlye as in American suburbanisation. My observations so far in Brazil are that most young Brazilians still want the car lifestyle, it is almost universal. And transport engineers in the government are also pulling in the same direction, there is very little infrastructure development taking place on the ground that isn't for automobile transportation. I attended a forum to discuss bicycle infrastrucure and cycle advocates are treated like real leftfield radicals, there is a lack of will to build cycle infrastructure because it is thought that only a dozen hippies would ever use it. In terms of some of these atitudes Brazil is behind the international curve. However, Brazil doesn't have to be behind other rich nations in this, Brazil has unique opportunities now to develop excellent, sustainable and efficient transport systems suitable for an economic giant, suitable for a post-carbon 21st century. Brazil's economic situation means it can acheive this far more rapidly than other countries, where infrastructure is already well established and with less room to make changes.
- Dignity in car ownership or dignified public transport? In London, most people I know don't desire car ownership, because the public transport system is quicker and cheaper. It could even be irrational to choose to drive when the journey is stressful, longer, breathing the polluted air, dificulty in finding a parking space, unpredicable timescales. Driving, therefore, is more a choice for the disadvantaged of European cities. Somone I know was an executive director of ICI, the large chemical company, and when he was based in Basel in Switzerland he always travelled to work by tram. It is common to spot celebrities taking the underground in London, the tube is commonly used by millionaires and working class people alike. There is no low-class stigma attached to taking public transport in some cities, but in Brazil there is a common conception that as soon as you have a good enough job you should buy a car. Trains and trams in many European countries are a desirable transport choice for the higher classes. It is dignified, clean and efficient. Whereas taking a bus in Brazil is very undigified, uncomfortable, frustratingly time consuming, often inaccessible for the elderly and other people who are physically disadvantaged. Also the air quality while travelling by bus is awful.
- Car travel: a matter of pride and ethics. One big cultural difference between Brazil and many European countries is the pride in taking an ethical decision about personal transport. In Denmark approx 90% of politicians travel to work on public transport or by bicycle, (citation coming) it is a matter of pride, they set a good example and this behaviour wins popular support amongst voters, it is politically advantageous. Also the general population see it as a little politically incorrect to use a private car. In Brasil I would guess that at least 90% (perhaps even 100%) of politicians do not travel to work on pubic transport or by bicycle, again it is a matter of pride. A different culture.
- Economic development, GDP and the happiness indicator. Everyone I speak to who has been to São Paulo only say good things about the city, but they all have the same criticism: the terrible traffic problems. Even foreigners who have never even visited Latin America know about the legendary traffic problems in São Paulo. It has to be bad for business, not to mention quality of life. If I were an economist or business leader I would lament the lost opportunities to create wealth when each employee of each business could be wasting valuable working time sitting in traffic for up to 5 hours a day. Money is being thrown down the drain with every hour lost to businesses. If I were a psychologist or sociologist I might think it's a human tragedy that these millions of people are spending hours of every evening sitting in a car, alone, lonely and bored when they could be seeing their children, or doing things they love, playing sports with friends or studying for a university course. Economically, as well as in terms of mental and physical health, and also culturally as a nation, it's very unfortunate that these traffic problems persist. And nobody gains any advantage from the situation. Nobody wins.
- Education of drivers. One common experience in Brazil is crossing a road in a quiet residential neighbourhood, it could be near a school or park, or near an old people's home, and suddenly a car speeds around a corner without attempting to slow down to take the corner at a safe speed. Often I've closely missed being hit in a collision only by my ability to run. Again, this is not democratic. As a young adult I am in the lucky position to have a healthy body that is capable of sudden aceleration to avoid danger. The deaf or visually impared, the elderly, children and many other members of society are not so lucky as me. They either risk death and injury or are prisoners inside their homes and cars. When I was learning to drive in Britain, one of the most important things I had to learn was how to turn blind corners at a safe speed, ie very slowly in case there is an injured person lying in the middle of the road or a a child playing just around the corner. This part of driving etiquette is either not taught in Brazil or not accepted in day-to-day driving. I know people in Brazil who are normally peaceful, calm and rational who suddenly change when they drive. Even the most peaceful and patient people become aggressive, impatient and dangerous when driving. I am genuinely scared to travel by car in Brazil, even with friends and even by taxi. A common conception about Brazil by the world outside is the high level of violence associated with poverty and drug gangs. In my experience, living in Brazil for over 2 years, the dangerous thing is how people drive and how the roads are designed. I think the statistics will substatiate my claims; the numbers of deaths caused by car collisions is many times higher than caused by gun crime.
These are the main points I tried to get across in the filming of the documentary. I think these could be of interest to planners in Brazil. Some of the problems are very easy and cheap to solve. It requires will and simple common sense. But a significant challenge in Brazil is to change attitudes, status and self image are inextricably linked to car ownership in the Brazilian psyche. In this way, Brazil really is behind normal attitudes in other rich countries, but conversely Brazil has the economic conditions now to take advantage of the opportunity to be a world leader. In creating world class business hubs and an enviable quality of life for citizens.
Various other people are being interviewed for the documentary; transport engineers, politicians, other urban designers, drivers, cyclists, elderly people, families, wheelchair users etc. I'm not sure when it will be released, but am delighted to have been part of this project. I hope it can help clarify some of the problems Brazil faces in relation to transport, democracy, a dignified life for it's citizens and it's reputation outside the country. I see transport as a basic human right that should be accessible for all, but also it makes good business sense. The sooner Brazil provides an efficient system of transportation, the sooner it will reap the benefits for the economic and social development of the nation.
What do you think? Do you have any observations or suggestions? Do you have differing opinions? I'm always very happy to hear others' views on this.