São Paulo, bikes, buses and prosecution

Picture 1by Daniel Wagner*

“In the end, the agenda is the stupidity of the automobile. 500 new cars are sold in São Paulo every day. So a lot of things should be done in the direction of discouraging individual means of transportation and encouraging public transportation. However, there is already a general conscious that the automobile became a well-known stupidity. The world is at war over oil, yet you burn oil to ride a 700 kgs piece of junk with a 70 kgs asshole inside it. Something is very wrong.” Paulo Mendes da Rocha, architect and urban planner, 2006 Pritzker laureate

“We are not in Amsterdam!” Shouted a woman driving a car. “Where will my rich clients park their cars?” Questioned a salesperson of a fancy beauty salon. Outraged arguments against São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad – from the Worker’s Party (PT) – reached a peak when a known neo-con journalist started to call the mayor the “Maniac of bikes” and compared his policies to improve bicycle use in the city with a terrorist attack: “a version of ISIS on two wheels” was written when bicycle lanes started to sprout throughout the streets of this 22 million people metropolis.

Haddad was elected in 2012 against the odds. A left-wing young philosophy professor as mayor of a pretty much conservative city, he suffered political attacks from day one. On top of that, in June 2013 Brazil witnessed the greatest popular manifestation in its history, with millions protesting all over the country. In São Paulo alone, more than 200 thousand people took the streets during 5 days. Although the overall message of protesters was blurred in a mix of leftists, rightists, neo-nazis, liberals, conservatives holding flags of anti-corruption, anti-politics, anti-anything, all claiming for their own sake the legitimacy of the movement, actually, it all began with a simple protest against the rise of 20 cents in the bus fare.

Mayor Haddad opens another segment of a bike lane

Mayor Haddad opens another segment of a bike lane

“It’s not about 20 cents!” cried out loud the first demonstrators showing the drop that made an already full glass spill. The mobility issue triggered a wider discussion about the consequences of an unjust, unequal, non-inclusive urban development. This massage mayor Haddad seemed to have understood and as he started an aggressive approach towards mobility. His strategy was to rank priority transportation means, putting pedestrian as the highest, then mass public transportation, followed by bicycles and leaving the automobile as the last priority. New exclusive bus lanes were implemented in a large scale BRT network, squeezing the space for cars. Also now, the bike lanes are taking up parking space and making a huge car dependable population quite angry

Brazil’s largest city suffers from huge traffic jams problems, like many other developing country metropolises. But in São Paulo the scale seems even more astonishing, last year the city beat its record high and registered 344 km of traffic! (http://www.efe.com/efe/noticias/brasil/brasil/paulo-sofre-engarrafamento-recorde-344-quilometros/3/16/2326479) In this scenario, investing in mass public transport for long distances and bikes for short ones just seems the right thing to do. The BRT network is also intended not solely for the daily commuter towards the center, but also as a vector of development to reach far peripheries making the demand for long commutes less intense. The municipality is also building bike parking infrastructure on metro and trains stations fostering a shared solution for people living far from train lines.

Bike activists gather in Avenida Paulista to protest against the bike lanes prohibition

Bike activists gather in Avenida Paulista to protest against the bike lanes prohibition

All of this sound basic and consensual to most of us, but amazingly it’s not. Just last week a State prosecutor – whose state is governed by the right wing opposition party (PSDB) – ordered the halt of the construction of the bicycle network arguing that there were no previous technical studies and popular participation. Two years ago local deputies approved the new Master Plan of the city (http://gestaourbana.prefeitura.sp.gov.br/principal-pde/) after a long process of studies and discussion. Since then, the municipality had made available extensive information about the project and an online service showing the implementation of the lanes on a daily basis. (http://www.cetsp.com.br/consultas/bicicleta/400km.aspx) However in a clear political clash, the opposition was able to legally stop the implementation of the bicycle lane network, at least momentarily. Now the City is appealing to the judge to withdraw the sanction.

Picture 4What is really at stake now in São Paulo’s urban development is the clash between an old car driven segregated city model – as it was until now – and a new paradigm of a city where mass transport and bike are prioritized, where public spaces remain public and where sidewalks are not transformed into parking spaces. The mayor set up the target of building 400km of bike lanes by the end of 2015 – Berlin for instance has over 700km with about 1/7 of São Paulo’s population – until now he’s reached 235km.

In a still widely exclusive and segregated metropolis, the benefits of fostering a non-motorized transportation can get far beyond than just a safe place to ride your bike. It can make people feel closer to one another and not isolated in an encapsulated car. It can bring a greater sense of community making us all see how similar we are to each other regardless of the way we use the city. Let’s hope mayor Haddad completes his plan.

* Daniel Wagner is an architect and urban planner. He has a Master’s degree in urban management from the Technical University, Berlin.

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