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Sao Paulo: City of Walls

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São Paulo is a city of walls erected on a foundation of fear, with it’s 11 million residents, or at least the subset that can afford to, hunkering down in gated condominiums, strolling in private parks, playing soccer on private fields, and driving private vehicles, all to keep out the storm of crime and violence that has pummeled the city. As the wealthy and middle classes retreat from public space and seek security behind walls, the urban poor have been left to fend for themselves in the neglected and decaying public space.

As is the case in many large cities, the poorest residents – those who are most dependent on mass transportation – live on the city’s periphery where jobs in the formal economy are scarce and basic infrastructure, like mass transit, plumbing, and electricity are utterly lacking. As Sociedad do Automovel so successfully shows, the public transportation system is not nearly adequate to meet the needs of these people, many of whom commute more than two hours just to get to work each day, an indignity that only increases the social exclusion of the urban poor.

With the quality of public transportation so low – and fear of assaults so high – people of means opt for private transport, like cars, which provide a veneer of protection. Yet it’s hardly clear that cars make people safer; cars are an indicator of wealth and many robberies happen to people who are locked in their cars: “lightening” kidnappings, muggings at traffic lights, and car heists.

But fear is a powerful feeling, and coupled with the desire to be part of middle and upper classes, a desired inextricably linked with car ownership, people continue to buy cars. And at an astounding rate: on average, 800 new vehicles are added to Sao Paulo’s streets every day! According to Irineu Gnecco Filho, of the 5.4 million cars circulating daily on the highways, only 3 million are traveling at the same time simply because there isn’t enough space for them all. As anyone who has visited Sao Paulo knows, the traffic congestion has become out of control. And with it, the air pollution has become lethal; the pathologist Paulo Saldiva estimates that as many as 7 and 10 people are dying daily in Sao Paulo because of air pollution.

The mindset of São Paulo residents – driving their own car to fulfill every need, refusing to carpool, not using bicycles to get around town – is one of the biggest causes of Sao Paulo’s traffic woes. The traffic jams last all day, not just during rush hour, as was once the case. The horrendous traffic has only heightened tensions in a city already on edge, contributing to the stressed out caricature of the “paulista,” as residents of Sao Paulo are affectionately known.

As shown in the movie, the feeling of safety has taken São Paulo to a critical situation where, in the past 28 years, the population increased in 23%, the highway systems increased 25%, and the vehicle fleet increased 280%. Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city where mass transport could work most effectively, is now the only city among Brazil’s largest city where more trips are done in private vehicles than in public transportation. And, consequently, Sao Paulo is a lot worse off.

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