São Paulo: Diversifying Mobility in the City of the Car

by Dylan Gunn

São Paulo’s gargantuan size is as challenging to miss as it is to comprehend. The city’s metropolitan area is the biggest in the Americas, largest in the Southern Hemisphere, and claims some twenty million inhabitants as well as an economy of over half a trillion dollars. These facts grant the city significant political and economic power, a cosmopolitan culture, and an incredibly diverse array of problem-solvers and creative minds. As the city ascends to global prominence, its size is its core strength and one of its most acute weaknesses. 

For the international observer, this paradox is best demonstrated by the city’s skyline of extremes: 50,000 high-rises and the snaking highways that string them together over the region’s 3,000 square miles. Ironically, on these massive roads, the city’s size becomes more human scale and translates into hours-long commutes, ambulances unable to move through traffic, and a seemingly endless number of motorcycles anxious to squeeze through any opening they can find. The city’s sprawl is suffocating and ignites jealousy for a seat on one of the city’s fleet of over four hundred private helicopters—the largest in the world—that bypass the roads entirely as they bounce back and forth between flat-topped towers. Many Paulistans increasingly look past personal vehicles—cars and helicopters alike—for a more mobile, livable São Paulo.

Historical Context

Like other cities throughout the Americas, modern São Paulo still reels from ill-conceived urban planning of the mid-twentieth century. While the city’s old urban core is reminiscent of a dense European capital, the vast majority of the city’s land—and accompanying population—is the product of recent growth and sprawl. Ricardo Pradas is a former deputy mayor of Lapa—one of São Paulo’s 32 subprefectures and a planner in the city’s Companhia de Engenharia de Tráfego (Traffic and Transit Management Company). Mr. Pradas’s decades of experience have exposed him to the complications of both bureaucratic work and political office. He told the Globalist that long-standing disconnects between the city’s bureaucrats and politicians have historically come at the expense of conscientious planning. While such complications between planning and politics seem endemic to large cities everywhere, São Paulo must also deal with the city’s unique structure of local government.

Paulistans elect a single city-wide mayor, who in turn appoints deputy-mayors, which Mr. Pradas calls “mini-mayors,” to govern the city’s 32 subprefectures. By dividing the city, the system allows for more intimate governance and fosters local solutions but disrupts centralized planning. The city is divided into nine planning zones—which do not correspond to the borders of the subprefectures. Mr. Pradas observes that these bureaucratic complexities create a perverse incentive to envision traffic and transit policies as primarily local and to deprioritize working across the messy administrative borders. Coupled with the city’s rapid growth over the last 70 years, short-sighted local governments envisioned development through car-based infrastructures as they preferred its cheaper initial cost and flexibility for expansion. 

While São Paulo experimented with long-term regional planning throughout the 1960s and 70s, the rise of the military government and its persecution of academics and intellectuals frustrated these efforts. It took until the early 2000s for the nation to create and define the legal frameworks and mechanisms for planning its cities. Over the next 10 years, Paulistan planners set about crafting an extensive framework for the city’s future development. In 2014, the city launched the City of São Paulo Strategic Master Plan to guide planning through 2030. In 2015, the subsequent Integrated Urban Development Plan for the Metropolitan Region of São Paulo aimed to break down administrative barriers for planning within the city and across the region.

Pradas reflects that recent years have inaugurated a significant reconsideration of the role of transit and mobility within the city. Within the 2010s, the city completed its sixth metro line (titled Line 15, and distinct from the still incomplete seventh line, itself titled Line 6) and finally connected its fifth line to the rest of the system, a project nearly twenty years in the making. The city has also invested heavily in modernizing its existing transit lines by introducing automation and increasing frequency. On the street level, many miles of bus, bicycle, and even motorcycle lanes have carved out more accessible space on the city’s roads. By Mr. Pradas’s estimation, the city’s bus service now boasts “the most units in the world.”

Alley near Beco de Batman, São Paulo’s Hippest Art District | Photo by Dylan Gunn

In 1974, the government of the State of São Paulo—which includes the city and its environs—inaugurated the city’s metro system. The state aimed to afford the metropolis a regional consideration to infrastructural development. However, introducing another governmental entity also added another level of bureaucracy to São Paulo’s fragile infrastructure ecosystem. The system’s fifty years of growth has only created further complexities as multiple messy public-private partnerships now govern the region’s metro lines: the state-run Companhia do Metropolitano de São Paulo (São Paulo Metropolitan Company) operates three subway lines and a monorail; the private Companhia de Concessões Rodoviárias (Road Provision Company) operates another two lines through separate subsidiaries; another private company, Linha Uni, runs the final line. This complex web of public-private ownership and operation and potential conflicts of interest—the CCR is also the largest private road operator in Latin America—contrasts sharply with the more streamlined structures of other world-class metro systems. 

Some Paulistan lawmakers have proposed reducing the government’s culpability in these complications by privatizing the entire system. However, such proposals have elicited vocal opposition from the system’s workers. In August, the government narrowly avoided a system-wide strike by the Sindicato dos Metroviários (Subway Workers’ Union) only after agreeing to postpone discussions of further privatization. The union previously went on strike to protest the privatization of two subway lines and has continuously criticized the CCR for sabotaging labor advocacy. 


Tremendous income inequality is one of São Paulo’s most striking qualities. Like other unequal cities, most of its poorest neighborhoods have limited connections to the city’s public transit system. The city’s sprawl exacerbates this problem, as the continuous redevelopment of the central districts increases housing costs and pushes less affluent residents out to the city’s more remote outskirts—where highways are the only feasible connection to the center. Paraisópolis, the city’s most famous favela, exemplifies this history. The area is now well-known for its dense and informal buildings—a product of its complex relationship with the city’s official levers of power—but it was mere farmland seventy years ago, quickly swallowed up by the city’s tremendous growth. Despite being surrounded by dense developments, Paraisópolis’s contentious relationship with the city government and its dangerous reputation pose issues for residents wishing to utilize public or private transit to interface with the rest of the city. The city’s center lies only a few miles away, but even on a day of unexceptional traffic it could still take nearly an hour and a half for a resident to complete this journey by public transit. While Paraisópolis attracts the most attention, the true story of poverty and disconnect in São Paulo increasingly comes from more obscure neighborhoods many more miles out. Citizens caught up in the sprawl and pushed out from the center pay the price in their commute, resulting in thousands of lost hours and reais. 

During the lead-up to the 2014 Olympics, planners in Rio de Janeiro came under international scrutiny for creating large walls around favelas to physically cover them up for international tourists. While the government of São Paulo can be just as hostile towards its own informal communities, images of Paraisópolis have become staples of the commercial street art scene—sold in nearly every stall along the city’s newly hip art district “Beco de Batman.” A particular image of this view—taken in 2004 by Brazilian photographer Tuca Vieira—is especially popular with tourists, vendors, and international observers, as it showcases the favela’s intimate proximity to one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Satellite imagery provides another perspective to understand this division. From above, Paraisópolis stands out as a patchwork of dense gray blocks—sharply contrasting against the lush green acres of surrounding upscale neighborhoods. While these visuals demonstrate the city’s capacity for inequality, the neighborhoods are also alike in one key respect: even the wealthy area does not connect to the metro system. 

In a notable departure from other global cities, São Paulo’s wealthiest neighborhoods—Itaim Bibi, Jardim Paulista, Morumbi—sit slightly beyond the reach of the city’s public transit lines. Indeed, these neighborhoods’ rejection of public transit expands into a complete rejection of the public sphere. São Paulo’s most affluent areas vary in scale: some are home to palatial penthouses and others to massive mansions. But on the street level, all these retreats present the same fortress-like image: massive walls topped by barbed wire, security cameras surveilling every inch of the street, and armed guards remotely operating cold steel gates. The wealthy neighborhood that the Globalist stayed in during its trip, Jardim Paulista, especially exemplifies this axiom of exclusion. Its name translates to the Paulista Gardens, but non-residents may note the lack of public parks within the neighborhood: all the green space is private and locked behind walls. In Jardim Paulista, the gardens are reserved for the wealthy. 

These compounds remain distanced from the city’s public transit while they boast their own private infrastructural amenities. Every building sits atop extensive underground parking facilities, hosting its residents’ fleets of cars, and the most exclusive addresses trade fancy pinnacles for rooftop helicopter pads to accommodate residents who prefer to ride above the streets. The wealthy residents of these neighborhoods also cite safety as the justification for these amenities. Many willingly brave the city’s traffic to avoid public transit, fearing robberies and violent crime. In addition to their own unwillingness to patronize the system, some fear that increased connectivity will allow crime to spread to their neighborhoods. One resident of Jardim Paulista claimed that without a fortress-like veneer, apartment buildings are vulnerable to coordinated burglaries. 

Concerns with traffic, connectivity, and safety intersect with broader concerns about who controls life in São Paulo. Regina Cláudia Fogo works for Estadão, Brazil’s fourth largest newspaper, and coordinates the paper’s series of professional summits. These annual conferences host presentations and discussions on the great issues facing São Paulo and Brazil at large: climate change, construction, food-security, and mobility. While she considers diversifying mobility to be one of the most “democratic” solutions to the city’s issues, she observes that attempts to repurpose street space have faced consistent opposition from the city’s car users, whose ranks include the financial and political power brokers São Paulo’s government. Ms. Fogo compared dealing with these risks to “changing the wheels of a car while it’s still running.” 

Reverberation of Conflict

In 2003, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva created the Ministry das Cidades (Ministry of Cities). This new agency sought to deal with the issues plaguing Brazilian cities: transportation, gang violence, and the prevalence of informal housing. The Ministry heralded many successful developments. It distributed money for new bus and metro lines, helped transform informal housing into permanent and safe homes, and built millions of new housing units. Mr. Pradas argues that academics, bureaucrats, and residents have always broadly understood how to improve their cities but simply never had the money to act on it. The Ministry served as a middleman and filled this void by pumping money into the communities and projects that needed it. However, as its budget and coverage grew by billions, it increasingly turned to private developers for cheap returns on investment. These private ventures dragged funds away from more holistic projects and funneled them toward mass-producing lower-quality housing. 

Traffic and transit along the Avenida Dr. Arnaldo | Photo by Dylan Gunn

While the Ministry had many successes, 15 years after its creation, it appeared to many as yet another bloated bureaucracy complicating life in São Paulo and other Brazilian cities. For these reasons, in addition to Jair Bolsanaro’s general disregard for all of Lula’s previous work, Bolsanaro abolished the Ministry in 2019 and merged its functions into the Ministry of Integration and Regional Development. Reflecting this broader mandate, the new Ministry focused on the relationships between cities instead of the situations inside them. In 2020, Bolsonaro continued his deprioritization of the issues facing cities by vetoing a 4 billion R$ (794.6 million USD) relief bill for the nation’s public transit companies. Throughout his term, his divisive rhetoric also posed broader issues for environmentally and socially conscientious planners and academics. Brazil has always benefited from international cooperation on transit projects. Mr. Pradas spoke of traveling to Malaysia to study Kuala Lumpur’s motorcycle only lanes and the exciting process of bringing such ideas back to São Paulo. Under Bolsonaro’s presidency, however, many Brazilians felt that his controversial international presence and climate change denial damaged such crucial relationships—risking a frightening retread of the isolated urban planning ecosystem that stifled development under the country’s dictatorship. After Lula’s reelection in 2022, he reestablished the Ministry das Cidades at the start of 2023. While the rebirthed Ministry is still young, there are reasons to be hopeful it can return to its mission. 

Since 2019, more people worldwide—from politicians to students—have expressed concerns about the issues ailing cities like São Paulo: urban mobility, safety, and housing. Ms. Fogo relayed that Estadão decided to broadcast its summits online from 2020 onward, citing Covid-related concerns. Inadvertently, however, the decision now allows the program to reach over 50,000 attendees, Brazilian and international. Academically, Brazilian cities have also attracted more attention in recent years. C40 is an organization of over ninety mayors and city governments worldwide dedicated to cooperating on sustainable development. They organize the annual Reinventing Cities Competition, which connects global teams of “architects, planners, developers, investors, environmentalists, creative project holders, start-ups, academics, and community associations” to develop and share their visions for development in highlighted cities. This year, the competition included twenty global cities—including Chicago, Milan, Paris, and São Paulo—with over fifty students applying to work with São Paulo. 

Domestically, the city is also overcoming one of the most critical barriers to support for public services. While Ms. Fogo jokingly compared planning reforms to changing the wheels of a moving car, thanks to São Paulo’s traffic, these cars are only so rarely moving. The ever-worsening traffic is finally inspiring an influential shift towards transit usage. In an analysis of the São Paulo Metro’s 2017 Origins and Destinations Survey, The Willson Center observed a significant increase in public transportation and bike usage among the city’s wealthier residents, citing a 275% increase in bike trips by the city’s higher earners. While the pandemic likely stunted this growth, the city intends to complete the next survey—announced in August—multiple years ahead of schedule by October 2024. Residents hope this prioritization is a sign of the transformative effects that wider, wealthier usage of the city’s public transit and bike lanes could have on the city’s future—which has long attracted criticism for deferring to the needs of its wealthier citizens. 

Despite São Paulo’s troubled urban history, it now aspires to be a global city on the leading edge of sustainability and mobility. The city’s growing coalition of urbanism-minded Paulistans—composed of students, journalists, politicians, laborers, and wealthy citizens—encouraged by increased funding, scholarship, and concern with the role of public space aims to gradually reorient the city’s urban fabric away from the car and towards its citizens.

Dylan Gunn is a junior in Branford. He can be contacted at dylan.gunn@yale.