(im)mobility and socialterritorial dimensions in São Paulo

originally published in Audi Urban Future Initiative Blog (Award 2012)

São Paulo is heterogeneous, multifaceted, uneven, and entropic. It is a fascinating metropolis, fueled by a laissez-faire of opportunities and opportunism and marked by unregulated and segregating urbanization. Over the course of the twentieth century, São Paulo demolished and built above itself at least three times; it reversed the course of its rivers, rectified, channeled, and fouled them, and allowed its hilly topography of Atlantic forest to be overlaid by thick layers of paving surfaces, buildings, highways, and viaducts. The city synthesizes both the dynamics and socioterritorial characteristics of urbanization in Latin America and Brazil, which is the result of both the European colonization in America and multiple migration processes.

The Copan Building, designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer (1951–1966), offers an extraordinary perspective, both about and inside of downtown São Paulo.

Since the early nineteenth century, São Paulo has been the hub of economic activities in the state and the country, with direct implications on its territorial formation and demographic dynamics. [1] For economist Alvaro Comin, in Brazil and other developing countries, this “strategy of hyper concentration produced high levels of regional inequality, as well as deep internal inequalities in these central spaces.” [2]

During the last century, São Paulo’s population multiplied several times. The country’s urban population increased from 31 percent to 81 percent between 1950 and 2000. During that period, the country’s population increased threefold, the city of São Paulo fivefold, and the São Paulo Metropolitan Area (SPMA) seven times over. Currently, about twenty million people reside in the thirty-nine municipalities of the SPMA, including approximately eleven million in the capital. The metropolitan area is nearly 8,000 square kilometers, and the city encompasses an area of some 1,523 square kilometers. The city that accounts for about 12.5 percent of national gross domestic product, but only 5 percent of the country’s population, presents a sharp contrast between wealth and poverty.

Map of São Paulo. © Urban-Think Tank

Inequitable living conditions between high- and low-income groups in São Paulo defines the conflicting relationships within its territory, making this metropolis one of the most unequal places in the world. São Paulo is marked by a strong pattern of isolation and segregation between individuals from different social groups. The urban dynamics of São Paulo are the result of the relationship between the distribution of land uses and inhabitants’ diverse everyday practices. Living, work, education, health, leisure, culture, commerce, and urban fabric have very distinct configurations according to the region and one’s socioeconomic situation. Unequal conditions establish networks of mobility and accessibility to urban spaces and goods and services; these conditions define different scales of socioterritorial distances and proximities. [3]

Distances and Proximities

Founded in 1554 by Jesuits, São Paulo operated as a small trading post for centuries. The city grew rapidly from the nineteenth century onward, driven by the wealth generated by coffee exports and, following the abolition of slavery, the work of a new urban labor market (mainly Italian, Spanish, and Japanese immigrants) in the early republican period. [4] Urbanization and modernization became important in Brazil in the early twentieth century and from the 1930s onward, with the rise of industrialization (due to the international economic crisis and drastic reduction of export crops). São Paulo played a key role in this change, with an intense process of migration from the whole country, mainly from the Northeast and Minas Gerais. Since then, its territory has been settled in terms of class segregation: “the central region, intended for the elite and a place of urban interventions, and outside it, on flood plains and basins along railway lines, a city without rules that received the poor, where budding industries were set up.” [5]

Until the 1920s, São Paulo grew along with the tram system. The main transportation mode was collective and on tracks. The city in the early 1930s, with 888,000 inhabitants, had a tram network with a linear extension of 258 kilometers (accounting for 84 percent of the city trips made in collective mode), four times bigger than the current metro extension. [6] However, the tram system gradually declined until it disappeared in 1968, [7] replaced by the road system for the car-based model and the buses as the predominant mode of collective transportation.

In the 1950s, São Paulo established itself as the leading financial center and largest conurbation in the country through a developmentalist process based on the automobile industry in the metropolitan area. It was the period after World War II, when President Juscelino Kubitschek promoted the motto: “fifty years in five” of a “Modern Brazil.” Brasilia, which was founded in 1960, was the new federal capital, and São Paulo was described as the “city that cannot stop.” The ring road model became the guiding principle set by both the Plan of Avenues (1930–1938), conceivedby engineer Prestes Maia, who later became the city’s mayor, and the Program of Public Improvements for the City of São Paulo of 1950 directed by New York City planner Robert Moses. Along with the popularization of car manufacturing, the ring road defined the mobility structure [8] and the continuous peripheral expansion of the city, which continues to this day. As urban planners Raquel Rolnik and Danielle Klintowitz have emphasized in a recent article (here, translated from the original Portuguese):

“The processes of restructuring roads provided the physical infrastructure for the real estate expansion and the increase of circulation for the middle classes—for consumption, leisure—through the increasing of speed and flexibility led by cars. At the same time that the collective transportation model facilitated the opening of low-income housing settlements in the metropolitan periphery, providing a suited mode of transportation toward a dispersed and low-density expansion.” [8]

The city of São Paulo is divided into five zones: center, north, south, east and west. The southwest vector concentrates the economic elite, employment and work opportunities—with a combination of industrial and service-oriented economic activities—and the largest public investments in road infrastructure and the metro. The historic downtown area, which was a prestigious place until the 1950s, gradually lost its economic and demographic importance for the elite, becoming a “commuting territory”—a very lively area occupied by diverse popular activities and groups. The urban primacy of the business and financial center, and associated large-scale urban interventions and real estate speculation, migrated to Paulista and Faria Lima Avenues in the 1960s and 1970s, and Berrini Avenue-Marginal Pinheiros from the 1990s onward. Both avenues are near high-income and middle-class residential neighborhoods and not far from the Congonhas City Airport. The most recent relocation occurred following self-segregating spatial strategies of the local elite, including large gated residential developments, corporate office buildings, shopping malls, and hundreds of thousands of square meters of parking spaces. Geared toward the interests and operations of a “world city,” São Paulo, today, tends to push even more of its lowest-income residents to the edges of the metropolis, due to the high cost of living and skyrocketing land prices. [10]

The cable-supported bridge in the Berrini Avenue-Marginal Pinheiros area (south zone) was inaugurated in May 2008, as both a synthesis of the “world city” scenery and a new symbol of São Paulo.

High-income residential buildings nearby the Berrini Avenue Business Area (south zone), which recently saw a real-estate market boom.

The Bandeira Bus Terminal was implemented at the bottom of Anhangabau Valley in downtown São Paulo, connecting the city’s north-south axis.

Due to a combination of buses, illegal land uses, and autoconstruction, the occupation of peripheries has sped up since the 1940s. Millions of low-income residents and migrants live mainly in the east and south zones of the city, at a distance of more than forty kilometers from the center of São Paulo. It was a clandestine model, with the state’s consent, as a form of solving the housing problem at low cost, without urban and civil rights, without or with precarious urban infrastructure, far away from their places of work. In the 1980s, the periphery-center pattern of urbanization changed considerably. The emergence of condominiums in the suburbs, and, at the same time, the expansion and densification of cortiços (tenements) in the central region, besides various areas of favelas (settled in stream edges, hillsides, and margins of dams), shuffled the position of social groups in the city. Different social groups now lived in close proximity, but they are separated by walls and security equipment. A paradigmatic case is the neighborhood of Morumbi, with favelas and luxury condominiums side by side. In the last decade, the peripheries have changed, as they no longer correspond to the images of rarefied occupation and desolation of thirty years ago. There are completely new territorial configurations, with large private investments, such as supermarkets and shopping malls, as well as public facilities, such as hospitals, the Centers for Unified Education (CEU), and more urban infrastructure. However, these physical improvements have not affected the unequal social stratification of the metropolis. [11] The contemporary metropolitan territory is much more heterogeneous and complex, with ongoing contradictory and conflicting processes.

Paraisópolis Favela in the Morumbi neighborhood of the city’s south zone.

Social housing and self-built constructions in the east zone.

A low-income residential neighborhood in the east zone.

The three main business centers and road infrastructure in São Paulo.

People waiting for the train during evening rush hour at Vila Olimpia Train Station/ Marginal Pinheiros in the south zone.

Congestion: Conditions and Consequences

Every inhabitant of São Paulo has to be a strategist to commute, as they must negotiate time, money, comfort, traffic jams, stress, and living and working conditions. Income level is the main variable related to mobility (i.e. the lower one’s income, the lower one’s capability of geographical and social mobility). [12]

The number of daily trips in the SPMA is approximately 38.1 million. [13] In São Paulo, walking trips account for approximately one-third of daily trips, public transportation accounts for one-third, and private transportation for one-third. Of the walking trips in the SPMA, 88.5 percent are associated with short distances and 5 percent are due to the high cost of public transportation. The survey does not count walking trips if they are part of a journey that involves any other means of transportation—a symptom of the nonsystemic view of urban mobility and pedestrian patterns in São Paulo.

The private car is still the priority form of transportation in São Paulo. Its use has been growing exponentially since the 1950s; in the last five to ten years, automobile ownership has been made possible for more people through easier access to and availability of credit. It is no coincidence that the automobile industry accounts for approximately 20 percent of Brazil’s industrial gross domestic product. In 1997, the municipality implemented a system of license-plate control, known as rodizio, that forbids 20 percent of the registered cars per day to circulate in the “central zone” during peak weekday hours between 07:00 and 10:00 and 17:00 and 20:00. Still in place, the system actually had a reverse effect for reducing the number of cars. Mainly middle- and high-income residents bought a second car, which allowed them to keep a car for private daily use. The current total fleet is of more than six million vehicles; about 800 new ones are registered everyday.

Surrounding the downtown São Paulo area, the Elevado Costa e Silva, an elevated highway known as "Minhocão,” or "big earthworm," was built in the 1970s during the dictatorship period. Connecting the east and west parts of the city, it is paradigmatic of the conflict between the metropolitan scale of road infrastructure and the local scale of urban territories—a conflict that degrades adjacent residential neighborhoods.

The cable-supported bridge, completed in 2008, is in the Berrini Avenue Business Area of the city's south zone; here, looking toward Roberto Marinho Avenue and the Congonhas City Airport.

Surrounding the downtown São Paulo area, the Elevado Costa e Silva, an elevated highway known as “Minhocão,” or “big earthworm,” was built in the 1970s during the dictatorship period. Connecting the east and west parts of the city, it is paradigmatic of the conflict between the metropolitan scale of road infrastructure and the local scale of urban territories—a conflict that degrades adjacent residential neighborhoods.

The two express highways, along Tietê and Pinheiros river basins, define the west and north borders of the “restricted central zone,” and connect the city to the regional and federal network of roads. About half a million vehicles use the highways on a daily basis, including individual cars, buses, and trucks. Cargo transport and logistics (loading and unloading, parking, and routes), and their environmental impacts, are directly related to the activities in the city. A restricted rodizio system has also been implemented for trucks (according to their dimensions) in specific zones of the city. According to a 2009 Urban Age survey, about “20 percent of all daily truck trips either originate from or are destined for the SPMA and around 45 percent of the trucks circulating in the state of São Paulo cross the SPMA.” [14] Intended to reduce traffic congestion, a larger regional ringroad infrastructure, known as the Rodoanel, was built, in part, as an attempt to redirect traffic flows not destined for the metropolitan area.

The average time spent in traffic in São Paulo per day is two hours and forty-two minutes, which means that people living in São Paulo spend twenty-seven days per year stuck in traffic jams. [15] The daily average of congested roads in the city is 118 kilometers during morning and afternoon peak hours. [16] The average speed of traffic was 19.3 kilometers per hour at peak time hours, between 2000 and 2008. [17] Today, the average is between 14 and 17 kilometers per hour. Everyday, about three million people commute to work from their homes in São Paulo’s east zone to its central southwest area, mainly by combining bus and metro, spending more than fours hours in traffic under crowded and precarious conditions.

The SPMA’s 436 kilometers of mass-transit systems [18] are at the limit of their operational capacities, due to a lack of integration between the different transport modes, lack of overall planning and institutional integration at the metropolitan and municipal levels, governance problems, the structure of subsidies and taxation, lack of investment in infrastructure, conflicts of interests, and patterns of urban land use.

The current municipal collective transport system is the result of governance changes made between 2001 and 2005, a time that saw the implementation of an interconnected system of state (metropolitan buses, subway, and CPTM trains) and municipal services as well as the introduction of an electronic “single ticket,” or bilhete unico, that is based on time instead of a fare based on the number of connections or the distance traveled. The bus services are operated by private companies and divided in two subsystems: the structural (buses by medium- and large-sized companies or consortia) and local (microbuses by smaller companies and cooperatives), with a fleet of 14,937 vehicles [19] that operate along 1,347 lines under the management of municipal publicprivate company SPTrans. There are still few designated lanes for buses (with some elements of the bus rapid transit system in operation). The bus system faces problems of overloading, delays, and inadequate responses to demand.

A bus lane on Santo Amaro Avenue (south zone) toward downtown and Bandeira Bus Terminal.

Most public transportation competes with cars and motorcycles for available street space. In fact, approximately 80 percent of the lanes are dominated by single-occupant, private cars. The average time spent traveling via mass transit for the six million passengers per day is 2.13 times slower than the individual mode. [20]

Implemented in 1968 and operating since 1974, the metro network follows the same radioconcentric configuration established by the road system, with south-north and east-west lines crossing at the center of São Paulo. Currently, four lines are managed by the public company Metro and one by the private company Via Quatro [21]; together, they cover a total of 65.3 kilometers, and include fifty-eight stations. With heavy public sector investment, the Metro is the more popular of the two. For both passenger and cargo transport, the railway system [22] has six lines managed by CPTM, with a network of 258.6 kilometers in length and 89 stations in the SPMA. However, recent reports have pointed out in both rail lines and the Metro systems an inhumane situation, with daily overcrowding and delays, worsening of maintenance, and more accidents in the last couple of years. New lines started being implemented with monorail system above the ground in the south of the city, close to the Berrini Avenue business area. Both the Metro and train have begun to encourage, if only in a timid way, an intermodal system that incorporates bicycles, with about thirtytwo stations that offer a bicycle parking.

Estação da Luz in downtown São Paulo.

The city has only two bike lanes, totaling 4.5 kilometers, [23] outside of those found in public parks, and they are discontinuous and in bad condition. Despite the city’s hilly topography, there is a growing popular movement and demand for broader regulation encouraging the use of bicycles as a sustainable, more democratic, accessible, and nonpolluting mode of transportation.

Due to their maneuverability, motorcycles have been increasingly used for daily commuting between home and work, and for messenger services. In the last fifteen years, the number of motorcycles has increased exponentially, with increasingly serious consequences in terms of traffic accidents. The motorcycle’s presence in the metropolis is a direct response to increase in traffic jams and the demands from the “world city” for delivery services, as is the increasing daily use of helicopters, with an estimated 450 privately operated in the city, a number inferior only to New York City. [24]


São Paulo has followed an urbanization pattern driven by the real-estate market, in which government policies and public investments have tended to respond predominantly to those private interests and away from concerns about the public sphere. The provision of public transportation infrastructure per million inhabitants in the SPMA decreased from thirty-eight kilometers in 1967 to twenty-three kilometers in 2002, according to the Urban Age report, confirming the hegemony of public investment for the road system since the 1930s up to today, as well as its very collapse.

Unfortunately, São Paulo is the model of urbanization replicated in other Brazilian cities, and it is the metropolis with the most serious mobility crisis in the country at the moment. A study coordinated by economist Marcos Cintra, from Fundação Getulio Vargas, estimates that traffic jams will cause a loss of 56 billion Reais for the economy of São Paulo this year, or nearly 10 percent of the city’s gross domestic product, including direct and indirect costs. [25] The implications are significant for all of São Paulo’s inhabitants, with high crime rates, security issues, problems of public health, pollution, flooding, human-environmental impacts, inefficiency of public transportation, traffic jams, and increasingly long commuting distances.

The city suffers from an immobility that reduces its capacity to produce wealth equitably, a situation that supports extreme socioterritorial inequalities. As urban planner and president of Brazil’s National Association of Public Transport, Eduardo Vasconcellos concludes that São Paulo is the failure of the city model based on the car: “Our current formula is the formula for failure.” [26] But there is a growing awareness about the need to address issues of sustainable mobility, with studies, proposals, plans, and initiatives for São Paulo and its metropolitan area being produced by different actors. [27] However, besides technical and economic decisions, the situation requires political will, excellent governance capacity, and long-term commitments—all in close collaboration with society and in a democratic, participatory process. A systemic mode of thinking and operating that fosters and integrates new modes of mobility and accessibility across the SPMA is the best hope for a cohesive metropolis.

[1] Baeninger, Rosana (2011). “Crescimento da população na Regiao Metropolitana de São Paulo: desconstruindo mitos do seculo XX.” In: Kowarick, Lucio E. Marques, Eduardo (orgs.). São Paulo: novos percursos e atores, São Paulo: Editora 34; Centro de Estudos da Metrópole.

[2] Comin, Alvaro (2010), City and economy: changes in São Paulo metropolitan context, Seminar: Metropolis and Inequalities, Centro de Estudos da Metrópole

[3] Telles, V.S.; Cabane, R. (org.) (2006). Nas tramas da cidade: trajetórias urbanas e seus territórios. São Paulo: Humanitas.

[4] From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, slavery (Africans mainly) in Colonial Brazil shaped the country’s socioeconomic structure. Independent from Portugal since 1822, Brazil only abolished slavery in 1888, beginning to attract European and Asian immigrant labor.

[5] Fix, Mariana (2003). Urban Slum Reports: The case of São Paulo, Brazil. In Understanding Slums: Case Studies for the Global Reporto n Human Settlements 2003, United Nations. p. 2

[6] Vasconcellos, Eduardo. (1999). Circular é preciso, viver não é preciso: a história do transito na cidade de São Paulo. São Paulo: Annablume, p. 158

[7] Nobre, Eduardo. A. C. (2010). Ampliação da Marginal do Tietê.: demanda real ou rodoviarismo requentado? AU. Arquitetura e Urbanismo, v.191, p. 58-63.

[8] “At this moment, the beds of hundreds of streams in the city began to be confined in channels or underground sewers to make way for the new avenues. Nearly all the city’s major avenues were thus built at the bottom of valleys, producing an unavoidable ecological disaster” Fix, Mariana (2003) Ibidem p. 4

[9] Rolnik, Raquel; Klintowitz, Danielle (2011). “(I)Mobilidade em São Paulo.” In: Estudos Avançados 25 (71), pp. 89-108

[10] Also to the state of São Paulo’s countryside and back to the Northeast region. See Comin, Alvaro (2011). “Cidades-regiões ou hiperconcentração do desenvolvimento? O debate visto do sul”. In: KOWARICK, Lucio e MARQUES, Eduardo (orgs.). São Paulo: novos percursos e atores, São Paulo: Editora 34; Centro de Estudos da Metrópole. _ In 2011, Brazil’s 23- percent increase in real estate value was the second highest in the worldwide according to Exame magazine.

[11] Saraiva, C. e Marques, E. (2011). “Favelas e Periferias nos anos 2000”. In: Kowarick, Lucio e Marques, Eduardo (orgs.). São Paulo: novos percursos e atores, São Paulo: Editora 34; Centro de Estudos da Metrópole.

[12] Survey Origem Destino (OD) by Metro, in http://www.nossaSãopaulo.org.br/portal/files/sintese_od_2007.pdf

[13] Survey Origem Destino (OD) by Metro, 2007.

[14] (Dersa, 2005), Urban Age, London School of Economics (org.) (2009). “Chapter 6 – Mobility, Integration & Accessibility,” in: Cities and Social Equity – Urban Age South America Detailed Report, http://www.urban-age.net

[15] Rolnik, Klintowitz, 2011, p. 89. Data in: http://www.detran.sp.gov.br/frota/frota_jan.asp>

[16] Rolnik, Klintowitz, 2011, p. 89. “Média aritmética anual dos congestionamentos, em km, nos horários de pico. Obs.:Os anos de 2009 e 2010 foram calculados com base no indicador de congestionamentos media mensal. Fonte: CET (Companhia de Engenharia de Tr.fego) – Elaboração: Rede Nossa São Paulo. Disponível em: http://www.nossaSãopaulo.org.br/observatorio/regioes.phpregiao=33&tema=13&indicador=114.

[17] Rolnik, Klintowitz, 2011, p. 89. Source: CET (Companhia de Engenharia de Tráfego).

[18] Metro, commuter rail, and bus corridors, in Urban Age, 2009 Report

[19] Data in April/2012 in: http://www.sptrans.com.br/indicadores/ See map: http://www.sptrans.com.br/pdf/biblioteca_tecnica/guia.pdf

[20] OD 2007 in Rolnik, Klintowitz (2011)

[21] http://www.metro.sp.gov.br/metro/numeros-pesquisa/estrutura-fisica.aspx (access in May 2012)

[22] http://www.cptm.sp.gov.br/e_companhia/gerais.asp

[23] Rede Nossa São Paulo (2011) (org.) “Diretrizes para o Plano de Mobilidade Sustentável do Município de São Paulo”: in http://tcurbes.com.br/images/stories/files/pt/Relatorio_NossaSP_final_internet.pdf

[24] “De Helicóptero é mais barato”, by Humberto Maia Junior, in Exame magazine, São Paulo, May 2nd, 2012. Pp.51-54 (www.exame.com)

[25] Exame Magazine, São Paulo, 2 de maio 2012

[26] “A nossa fórmula atual é a fórmula do fracasso”, in AstizRodrigo (director) Soluções para o Transito, Documentary. Production Mixer, Exhibition Discovery Channel. Also available In: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8j_G0eVI_s (4 parts)

[27] The official government plan PITU 2025 (Integrated Urban Transport Plan) has incorporated some elements from the Strategic Master Plan for São Paulo (2002) and regulations by the City Statute (2001). The mobility federal law (2012) has been recently approved. The municipality launched the initiative SP2040 last year; and from the civil society, NGOshave been proposing guidelines and public campaigns, among others.

Further reading


This article is downloaded from http://www.mooove.com/sao-paulo-2771