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Open response to the editorial in Estado de São Paulo newspaper

In order to successfully address urban mobility in São Paulo, the issue cannot be framed as a polarity of cars versus public transport. In reality, it is far more complex: 38.42% of daily trips in the city are made by public transport, 30.78% by cars and motorcycles, and 30.80% by non-motorized modes of transport, like biking and walking. Photo by Fernando Stankuns.

It’s a pity that one of the biggest newspapers in Brazil, the State of São Paulo (Estado de São Paulo) dedicated its editorial on October 10 to reducing debate on the important issue of mobility in the city of São Paulo to a partisan electoral matter.

“The Mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad, and Municipal Secretary for Transport, Jilmar Tatto, assumed the role of defenders of the no-car movement and began to fight without thinking of the consequences – the multitude of those who dare to take to the streets in their cars, despite facing major congestion every day,” said the editorial. Essentially, the author accused the Mayor and Secretary of Transportation of not caring about “the owners of 7 million vehicles in the capital.”

I’m not writing in order to defend Haddad, Tatto, or public transport, but to examine data concerning mobility in the city, and point out the absurdity of the criticism made by the newspaper.

A closer look at the data of urban mobility in São Paulo

First, before defending the 7 million vehicle owners in São Paulo, you must understand that the data which matters most for mobility is not the absolute number of vehicles, but the number of daily trips made by car. For example, the country with the most cars per capita in the world is Monaco, with a figure of 0.8 cars per person. In comparison, São Paulo’s figure is 0.4. However, São Paulo has much more congestion than Monaco, making the use of cars here more irrational.

If you analyze the trips made daily in São Paulo, you’ll realize that cars are in the minority: 38.42% of trips are collective (public transport), 30.78% are individual (cars and motorcycles), and 30.80% are non-motorized (walking and bicycling). This survey data was collected through a study by the transportation engineer Horace Figueira, which found that only 20% of São Paulo residents get around by car, but occupy 80% of the roads in the city. In short: traffic jams are caused by a minority of people taking up the most space.

At the same time, until earlier this year São Paulo had a huge disparity between the amount of street kilometers available for cars – 17,000 (10,563 miles) – and the distance of bus lanes in the city – only 150 kilometers (93 miles). Although it is not an easy process, this imbalance is currently being corrected with the creation of more exclusive bus lanes. Hopefully, this will prevent buses carrying 60 people from having to compete for space with cars carrying only one person.

Holding individuals economically responsible for their commute

“It is estimated that the proceeds of the fines will grow 22% in 2014, reaching U.S. $1.2 billion, a new record,” the newspaper said. I do not want to defend the so-called “industry of fines,” but there is a point that also needs to be rebalanced with routes: the economics of transport. The Nobel Prize winner for economics William Vickrey held that, “each individual must be economically responsible for their commute.” Those who drive cars require more expensive infrastructure per capita, contribute more to air pollution, and take up more space, but do not pay the bill. Endear commutes made by car is one way to balance the economics of transport that has been successful in Bogotá, London, and Copenhagen, and could be useful for São Paulo, since the resources will be generated and managed.

“This unwillingness to support individual transport affects the city,” said the editorial. The truth is exactly the opposite: the prioritization of the car over mass transit has hurt the city over the last few decades. That’s why the obsolete prioritization of the car needs to be reversed, and emphasis needs to be placed on public transit.

“Before reducing the space for cars to force their owners to let them in garages, we need to create more parking spaces for them through the construction of underground garages – which has been long promised and has never materialized.” Once again, an ugly mistruth from the editorial. As the former Mayor of Bogotá and consultant for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) Enrique Peñalosa has argued, is not the responsibility of the government to guarantee parking spaces for private vehicles.

Mixed-use development as a potential solution for São Paulo’s mobility challenges

The editorial closed with a bold conclusion: “We need, in short, more planning and less demagogy.” This clumsy critique ignores the most important part of the problem of São Paulo’s mobility: the imbalance of centrality in the city. With jobs concentrated in the city’s center and many people living in the suburbs, it’s not creating public transportation lines or car avenues that will solve congestion, but approximating people from their jobs with combined mobility and housing policies, in order to reduce long commutes.

Creating a polarity of cars versus public transport was a disservice done by the editorial, which barely scratched the surface of a much deeper and complex issue.

This post was originally published on Cities For People  (Cidades Para Pessoas).

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