Learning about transport and health in Brazil

Post by Dr. Jemima Stockton

In May I was one of about 15 UK-based researchers selected to attend a workshop in Brazil on the topic of transport, housing and urban health, funded by the British Council Newton Fund Researcher Link programme. The workshop was held in Belo Horizonte (BH), about 220 miles (360 kilometres) north east of San Paulo and about 200 miles north of Rio de Janiero. Flights to BH from the UK are not direct so some of us took the opportunity to have a stop-over in Rio. Although this little diversion was mainly for fun, I’m interested in transport and health anyway so I took some transport photos which I thought I’d share on this blog.

On the bus journey from the airport in Rio to our hotel, I noticed a lot of tarmac but the roads didn’t seem especially busy…

Around the airport there were lots of slums – or informal settlements – just a few metres from the busy motorway…

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These settlements were clearly visible to us when we arrived in early May but, by July, they were hidden by 10 foot high barriers pasted with posters advertising the Olympics. The barriers cost about £45,000 to put up apparently. As we entered the city, we saw numerous wide pedestrian crossings…

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Our hotel was in Copacabana, just a short stroll – across a dual carriageway – to the beach. Copacabana was very nice. Again, we saw a lot of tarmac but it was good that a fair proportion was designated for cyclists and pedestrians…

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The town was not packed with foreign tourists, possibly because of the Zika outbreak. I saw only two mosquitoes during my stay in Brazil and neither bit me, fortunately. On the bus on the way back from our trip to see Christ the Redeemer…

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we spotted a priority seating sign for the usual suspects plus the obese…

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From Rio, we had a short plane journey to BH which is in the state of Minas Gerais and is Brazil’s sixth largest city. It’s about half the size of London but it has a similar population density…

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Our workshop was held in a couple of lecture and seminar rooms in the Medical School of the Federal University of Minas Gerais. We stayed in a hotel about a 15-minute walk from where the workshop was held. Our daily commute involved trekking across a swimming pool or so’s-length of zebra crossings, first over the 8-lane road outside our hotel and then over the motorway running outside the hospital…

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It probably wasn’t a motorway, actually, given the presence of traffic lights and zebra crossings. But it certainly felt like one, especially as stepping on to a designated crossing point with no traffic lights did not seem to be taken by motorists as a sign that you were intent on crossing, as it would in the UK. I did try using these crossings a few times but gave up when I realised I was provoking a hostile response: drivers accelerated towards me, beeping their horns and forcing me back onto the pavement or into the gutter.

For me, the highlight of the workshop was visiting an informal settlement. We took a minibus from the medical school to an area in the northern outskirts of the city and were greeted by a local project officer from Programa Vila Viva. He gave a presentation – translated from Portuguese to English by Cesar (one of the workshop organisers who is Brazilian but works at UCL) – on work done to improve living conditions for residents. These improvements included the building of better roads and structurally sound apartments, and more frequent bus services, enabling people to get to work in the city. We were worried about the effect of the main road through the settlement in creating community severance.

We were then driven further into the slum and went on a short walk. The roads were incredibly steep. Informal settlements are often built on steep land because planning restrictions prevent formal housing being built there…

After our short walk, we visited a housing development where a few hundred residents had been rehomed into safer housing. We were accompanied by some field project staff who had arranged with the residents to show us their homes. It felt a bit awkward and intrusive but the residents seemed quite happy. There wasn’t always someone on hand to translate so I’m not entirely sure what the residents thought about their new homes. I think they may have received some financial compensation for allowing us to visit.

Another fun activity was a coach trip to the Pampulha region, north east of BH. We visited the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi which was designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer and completed in 1943. The architect intended it to represent God’s hangar on Earth but the Archbishop of BH at the time saw it more as the devil’s bomb shelter. It’s now a UNESCO world heritage site…

The trip to Brazil gave me an insight into the challenges and exciting opportunities for development of healthy, sustainable transport in a rapidly urbanising country. And a travel carbon footprint to rival that of Major Tim Peak. Well, not quite.

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