“A brutal city,” answers the man in the seat next to me during the flight back from São Paulo to Europe when I ask him what he thinks of this megalopolis. “But I love it all the same,” he adds with a grin. It was his fifth visit. – By contrast I have mixed feelings, because for me São Paulo is fascinating and terrifying at one and the same time. A city caught between fantastic visions and an extremely tough reality. It was my third time.
An infinite sea of lights
The first time I saw São Paulo, the city showed me one of its most beautiful faces. As the plane came in to land by night, it presented an infinite sea of lights of incomprehensibly huge extent, bigger than anything I had ever seen. “So that’s what a metropolis of 20 million people looks like,” is what went through my head. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
In the city center on the next day, São Paulo transformed itself in my view into an oppressive concrete wilderness. I had never seen such architectural chaos before. Terrain that seemed to have been built on completely at random. Bridges, underpasses, streets, highways, offices and residences crowded together so densely that there was hardly any air to breathe. It is not only strangers who feel they are lost in and positively devoured by this megacity. It is noisy, it is hectic. Pedestrians are pushed around, hooted at, driven from the road. Might is right – that is the rule here.
A city full of contrasts
Contrasts are great here, and Paulistas are skillful masters of the art of living in chaos. While some survive on the street below, begging ceaselessly for money, above them others take joyrides by helicopter from one skyscraper to another. São Paulo is the city with the world’s highest density of helicopters, ahead of Tokyo and New York. No wonder: driving a car is not much fun in São Paulo. Traffic lanes are more of a recommendation than a strict regulation. Drivers here like to take a serpentine course that is often as rhythmic as a Brazilian swing of the hips. This feels lively, dynamic, restless, a mirror of the hectic city and its people.
Life in chaos
For newcomers to São Paulo, the traffic is extremely confusing. Passengers get thoroughly shaken up in the buses, get warned by shrill beeps in the Metro, and get shooed around the city by taxis. Whether on foot or in a vehicle, I have never really felt safe here, so high is the crime rate and so ubiquitous the threat. The authorities advise against walking any considerable distance after dark, especially in the Centro, the heart of the city. But not even a taxi is a place of safety. Attacks have often been made at red traffic lights. Therefore in São Paulo drivers are permitted to cross red lights slowly at night.
Vision of a better tomorrow
Brazil seems to have rosy prospects for the future. Alongside China, India and Russia it is hailed as one of the world’s four most important growth markets. The football World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016 will certainly fuel this boom even more. But is São Paulo ready for it? How will the city cope with the inundation of visitors? How will people get from A to B? These are questions that require urgent answers in view of the present traffic situation.
According to the vision that Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner (Urban Think Tank) drew up for the Audi Urban Future Award 2012, means of urban transport in the future will be instruments of interaction that bring people together. Existing public spaces such as sidewalks and squares will be capable of conversion to a different function in an extremely short time, and will thus adapt to people’s varying needs. The city will become a communicative and flexible space in which the spotlight is not on moving around but on social interchange.
This vision is a stark contrast to the present reality: in the city that is Latin America’s biggest economic hub, everything revolves around transport. In the course of the economic boom, the population of cars has increased by a factor of seven in the last 30 years to more than 7 million. However, the road network has grown by only 18 percent over the same period. In consequence the average commuting time of employees in the greater São Paulo region amounts to about 2.5 hours per day.
The story told by figures like this suggests anything but an oasis of social well-being. What the city really needs are quick solutions that will help it to achieve greater efficiency and therefore a higher quality of life.
There are undoubtedly some positive signs, as a look at the main bus station, Estação Portuguesa-Tietê, shows. Passengers who arrive here and want to continue their journey via Metro have to wait up to half an hour to buy a ticket at the desk, because there are no ticket machines anywhere in São Paulo.
A solution for this is shortly to go into operation. From November 2013 Paulistas will be able to use their fingerprints as a monthly season ticket. The name of the system translates as “the finger of God”. Thanks to the use of scanners, it enables passengers to travel by bus or Metro, provided they have already bought a monthly ticket and their fingerprint was registered when doing so. One step on the path to the future for São Paulo.
Extend, connect and prohibit
The Metro system in São Paulo is one of the most modern in the world, but with only five lines and a network of 74.3 kilometers it is much too small. By way of comparison: the subway network in Berlin consists of ten lines with a length of 146 kilometers. Although it is only half as big as the Berlin subway system, São Paulo’s Metro carries three times as many people – 3.5 million daily. It is not difficult to imagine the crush during peak hours.
Logically, work is being done to extend the network in São Paulo. This is complemented by the overground rail system. In the coming years 160 kilometers of rail routes which were previously used only for freight will be made available for public passenger transport.
Finally, pressure on the road network will be relieved by a new ring road, the Rondoanel, which will be some 30 kilometers outside the city center and is intended to draw heavy trucks away from the inner ring roads through its connections to all long-distance routes.
Since 1997 a special strategy has been in operation to reduce the amount of traffic in the city center. On working days during the peak traffic periods, from 7am to 10am and from 5pm to 8pm, vehicles whose license plates have two specific final digits are not permitted to enter the city center. To make things fair, the “prohibited” numbers are changed daily.
All of this can be no more than a start. When football fans invade the megacity next year, São Paulo will have to come up with further solutions. Even more visions, like those of Urban Think Tank, are required to provide a better quality of life for this restless city of workers. Otherwise the future will be even more “brutal” for its residents and visitors.