Living without a car in Sao Paulo

Sao Paulo from my window

Sao Paulo from my window

Let’s face it. Life isn’t always easy, and in Sao Paulo, I have found that life can sometimes be rather difficult and stressful. Personally, transportation has been one of the hardest things about living here, and one of the most difficult things to adjust to. After living in Madrid,  I was spoiled when it came to public transportation.  Of all of the places I’ve been, the metro of Madrid is the fastest, cleanest, cheapest, and most well connected public transportation network that I have ever seen. Brasil, on the other hand, is similar to the USA, in that owning a car is practically a necessity. In Sao Paulo, unless you reside in the heart of the city, living without a car is complicated and stressful, as I, a non-car-owner have discovered.  That’s not to say that car owners aren’t stressed either, on the contrary. This city is sprawling, and with traffic it can take hours to get from one side to the other.  It’s not uncommon to know people who have missed flights because they took five hours to get across town to the airport, or people who routinely spend two hours in order to arrive to their workplace that is only 10 kilometers away from their home. In all of my travels I have never witnessed a city as congested and chaotic as Sao Paulo.

Granted, it is a major challenge to daily move 20 million people around to work, school, shopping, and back home in one day. Those who can afford it travel in cars, and the richest of all opt for helicopters. It’s true–the hum of a helicopter is an ever present noise in this city.  Brazilians are also not allowed to drive  when they have their rodizio. The rodizio is the one day a week when people are prohibited from using their car, according to the number on their license plates. Cities like Sao Paulo and Mexico City implement this policy in order to reduce congestion and pollution, but even so, traffic is inevitable, and thus, the need to improve public transportation becomes all the more imperative.

The city does have a fairly advanced public transportation system in comparison with other cities, offering train, metro, as well as buses, which I am certainly thankful for, because I would not be able to go anywhere without them. Yes, Sao Paulo tries to do its part, but it’s not enough to sustain its large and ever-increasing population. Rush hour here is sheer madness, and yes, I’ve been in major cities during rush hour, including New York, Madrid, Buenos Aires, Washington DC, and London. However, I have never, and I repeat never, been involved in a pesadilla (nightmare) of a commute situation like this.

Between 5-8 in the evening you are lucky to get on a bus or train on the first try, and usually you end up waiting for anywhere between two to five trains or buses to pass by the stop before you can get on. By the time you do manage to get on, it is almost unbearable, and I would dare say a health hazard. The other day in 90 degree, sweltering heat, I was crammed into a bus with nowhere to move, everyone standing, no air conditioning and moisture on the windows. I’m pretty sure I had the sweat of at least 6 people dripping on me the entire time. One of the Brazilian ladies to my side kept repeating Ninguem merece, which means, “no one deserves this.” She’s right. No one deserves that, and I have extreme respect for the people who have lived this way for so long. Lately I leave the buses either on the verge of tears or in a complete rage because of the past hour being crammed like sardines in a horribly smelling bus unable to breathe, drenched in other peoples’ sweat. Then, I usually reevaluate the situation and realize that it may be uncomfortable and inconvenient, but when looking at the whole picture, not everything is as bad as it seems. At least I get to where I need to go, even if it is a long, sweaty ride. Needless to say, the first thing I do when I get home is take a shower.

Sao Paulo is attempting to add more metro lines, and the city claims that it will be adding more buses soon. All I can say is, this needs to happen, and fast, before the World Cup in 2014.


15 thoughts on “Living without a car in Sao Paulo

  1. I can relate to this! 🙂 I was living in Rio de Janeiro for 6 months taking public transport (bus, metro, van) all day long to get to my English classes around the city. It was exhausting, sweaty, and unbelievable how many people can be crammed onto a metro train. I’ve heard that São Paulo is much worse, so I can’t even imagine what that must be like for you! Ninguem merece.

  2. it’s tough indeed…Unfortunetly Sao Paulo is not the place if you’re looking for good life quality. Even though it is pretty much the main Financial Center in Latin America and a lot of job opportunities are within the city, when u add all together (cost of living,outdoor life,etc) don’t know if it’s worthy….

  3. Well… my story in São Paulo… For some years I had a car… I live near São Caetano do Sul city and I studied and now I’m working on the University of São Paulo (USP), which is in the place of the city called Butantã. 25 quilometers are between me and my work (15.5 miles). With a car I could do this between one hour and 1.5 hour in the morning. To come back in the afternoon it was easier to reach more than 2 hours, because the traffic is full alllllll the way. Then, no car anymore. Time to walk to the train station… Take a train… than some stations ahead, change to the subway…. and then finally take a bus. 2.5 hours was the normal time of each leg. Now I’m living a new adventure… In april, I bought a motorcycle! It’s a new craziness, I could talk hours about this topic, so let’s leave it for another time. The thing is: even being maybe the slowest motorcycle in the city, it takes me 40 minutes to go to work and come back, and I let EVERY motorcycle go faster than me… About the transportation system in Madrid, I had the pleasure to visit the city… The only similar experience I had was in Tokyo area, but even there there was no train to the airport as you have in Madrid (and you have nearly 1000 connected train-subway stations in the Tokyo area! the problem is that the airports are just too far away…), so Madrid is really amazing…. Congratulations for your blog! If you need any help around São Paulo, let me know! 🙂

    • Ahh yes, the motorcycles. I realized after writing my post that I completely left out the motorcycles. When I first arrived to Sao Paulo I could not believe all of the motorcycles here, and how they drive and zig zag between cars! I think I would be too scared to drive a motorcycle here, but I have heard that it is definitely the fastest way to get around here. I am glad you are the slowest one driving safe! haha. Thanks for checking out the blog, yours is really interesting too!

      • Haha. The motorcycles! Yes. I was so shocked by how they just weave right through the traffic in seemingly too small of spaces. The adventure began when my boyfriend got a scooter and started taking me to work. Then I too was weaving through traffic. It’s terrifying, but a huge time saver. It made me appreciate being alive. 🙂

  4. As for me, I do want to stay alive! hahahaha…. yes, it’s very dangerous and I cannot believe the way most people ride their motorcycles here, but I confess I’m in love with this machine… Now I can travel 100 km away from São Paulo, and when I come back I spent in total less than R$20,00 in gas… and usually motorcycles don’t pay the “Pedágios”, or else they pay R$1,25, R$2,00 at most, where cars usually pay around R$10,00 or more… I became an enthusiast! 🙂

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