Street Mobility in São Paulo

Post by Dr. Paulo Rui Anciaes

This is the second post about the Street Mobility trip in South America to explore community severance and other links between transport and health in large urban areas.

São Paulo is big. Very big. With a population of around 12 million people, if it were a country, it would be bigger than Portugal, Belgium, or Greece. If we count the whole São Paulo metropolitan area, then its population (21 million) would be just a few million smaller than that of Australia. São Paulo also has 8 million motorised vehicles, competing for 17,000 km of road space.

But São Paulo is not a homogenous mass of residential areas; in many places, it is split by large infrastructure such as motorways, massive road junctions, industrial areas, and other major urban equipment.


Two good examples of infrastructure dividing the city are the Marginal Tietê and Marginal Pinheiros, two systems of roads running for 25km each on both sides of the rivers with the same names. The Pinheiros has a total of 15 vehicle lanes and the Tietê has 20 vehicle lanes. The Marginal Tietê was enlarged in 2010 because it did not have enough lanes.


Marginal Tietê. Fernando Stankuns, CC BY-SA 2.5

Another barrier is the “Minhocão” [the worm], an ugly elevated road which in some places is only 30cm away from residential buildings. Shortly after our trip, the Guardian ran a bilingual series of articles about São Paulo; one of them was about the “Minhocão” (and plans to get rid of it). Neighbours of the Minhocão are exposed to noise and to 70% more PM2.5 particles than the rest of the city. The only good thing about the Minhocão is that is not always open to car traffic; it’s closed at night and on Sundays, when it becomes a linear (concrete) park. But even at those times, the pollution is still there, because of the even busier road at ground level. The Minhocão has been subject of many documentaries (the most-well known is Elevado 3.5) and backdrop to several films in scenes where the director wants to show a bit of urban grit.


Still from Elevado 3.5 (M. Buhler, P. Pastorelo, and J Sodré, 2010)


Still from Terra Estrangeira (Walter Salles, 1995)

The barrier effect of large roads in São Paulo has been documented in some studies. For example, Marcos Sousa from Universidade Estadual Paulista looked at the Marginal Tietê as a barrier to access the central part of São Paulo and found a ratio of 66 motorised vehicles for each pedestrian/cyclist crossing one of the bridges over the road. Cláudia Machado and Jaime Wasman from University of São Paulo made a survey in areas near a section of the São Paulo ring road in Osasco municipality, in the extreme west of the city. Only 15% of the respondents said that the construction of the road had improved their mobility – but 60% said the road had decreased their quality of life.

Some roads are theoretically “crossable” but are still a barrier because of fast traffic speeds. But traffic speeds are a contentious political issue in São Paulo. The previous mayor reduced the speed limits in the Marginals Tietê and Pinheiros to 50/70km/h, reducing accidents from an average of 100 to 60 per month. But during the 2016 mayoral campaign, all the candidates (except the previous mayor) promised to reinstate the previous limits of 70/90km/h. The candidate  who ran under the slogan “Acelera São Paulo” (Speed up, São Paulo) won and quickly raised the speed limits. The number of accidents quickly went up again to more than 100 per month.

Even with lower speed limits, many roads would still be difficult to cross. In the São Paulo Street Mobility seminar, Etienne Duim presented the results of a study that shows that the time allocated to pedestrians on crossing lights in São Paulo assumes a walking speed of 1.2 m/s – which is higher than the walking speed of 97.8% of older adults.

There are also problems of urban design, as road space is disproportionately allocated to cars. This does not happen only in mega-roads like the Marginals Tietê and Pinheiros, but also in smaller roads in the suburbs. We visited São Miguel Paulista, one municipality in East São Paulo, where the roads have far more cars than they were originally designed for, squeezing pedestrians onto extremely narrow pavements. And as the second photo below shows, bus lanes are not always effective. However, the local government is planning an overall redesign of streets and public space, reclaiming space for pedestrians, and designating the whole neighbourhood as a (max) 40 km/h area.



There is also an initiative similar to Bogota’s Ciclovía, where 460km of road lanes are transformed into temporary “ciclofaixas de lazer” (leisure cycle lanes) on Sundays and public holidays. And it is becoming easier to cycle on weekdays (and not only for leisure), due to the expansion of the (permanent) cycle lane network. But like speed limits, cycle lanes are also a political issue and the current mayor is planning to remove many of the cycle lanes that were implemented before he arrived.

Air pollution is also an issue, especially for pedestrians. In the São Paulo Street Mobility seminar, Anne Dorothée Slovic presented results from the ASTRID project that suggest that walking is the situation that São Paulo residents most associate with exposure to air pollution, as shown below.


From: Perceptions about mobility and air pollution exposure: the ASTRID project [Link]

But the problem that remains at the heart of all discussions about walking and public transport in São Paulo is fear of crime. We were advised by our local colleagues not to walk a short distance (one underground station) because the only possible route passed an area known as Cracolândia (the name says it all). Fear of crime also prevents people from fully enjoying the benefits of public spaces green areas: even in the peaceful suburban square below there are concerns about crime.


All these problems are related to social inequality, as some areas in the city are more walkable, quieter, greener, and safer than others. The photo below shows the contrast between very dense low-income areas and leafy high-income areas.


Being too big and fragmented by large transport infrastructure, São Paulo also has a problem in providing good and fair accessibility to jobs and other opportunities. In another article in the São Paulo series, the Guardian reports a typical case of a woman living in the eastern suburbs of São Paulo who travels 40 km (each way) to go to work every day, taking over two hours, four modes of transport, and the constant fear of sexual assault.

One of the reasons for poor accessibility is that buses cannot reach some of the narrow unpaved streets in poor suburban areas. So, as in Bogotá, people in some neighbourhoods have to walk long distances to go to and from bus stops or stations or to local facilities – and this walking is often along polluted, noisy, unlighted, and/or dangerous areas. In these circumstances, walking more is not necessarily a good thing, as it is stressful, unpleasant, or it simply takes too much time of one’s time – time that could be used to do other things, such as working, spending time with one’s children, doing housework, or even doing physical activity in less polluted, noisy, and dangerous circumstances. So, as we also mentioned in our post about Bogotá, walking does not necessarily contribute to health and wellbeing. The question that researchers still need to answer is whether and how we can redefine what is “walkable” in the context of huge metropolises in the Global South: in which conditions is walking a good or a bad thing?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s