It’s not about twenty cents, but it IS about transport

NOTE: This article has been kindly cross-posted from our buddies up in at The Volcanic in Auckland.  Thanks to Anna and Connor for making the connection. Freerange Volcanos! 

Except where stated, all images are courtesy of Pedro Paulo Ferreira.
Except where stated, all images are courtesy of Pedro Paulo Ferreira.

When protests began in São Paulo about a week ago, over a rise in public transport fare of twenty Brazilian centavos (approximately eleven NZ cents), the majority of participants were university students. The rest of metropolitan São Paulo’s 20 million residents were too busy with their every day lives to take much notice – too busy dealing with long commutes (an average of 2 hours and 40 minutes a day in 2011), too busy trying to fit into packed metro cars and buses (some metro lines reaching up to 12 people per square metre at peak times), too busy trying to negotiate apocalyptic traffic in their cars while avoiding hitting one of the thousands of “ motoboys” – guys on motorbikes who dart between cars in a constant quest to beat delivery deadlines, too busy trying to dodge those cars on their motorbikes and avoid being the one motoboy killed on São Paulo streets every day, too busy trying to work out how to cross the highway on their bicycle, or maybe too busy just trying to walk somewhere with their baby in a pushchair – an obstacle course of potholes, irregular footpath levels, and incessant traffic.


I lived in São Paulo for three years, from 2009 until 2012, and I loved it. I loved the electric vibrancy of the city, loved the warmth of Paulistas, loved their positivity in the face of a city blighted by traffic jams, crime, floods and pollution, loved the orchids flowering on trees, and the street art and the street markets. I could easily write an entire post about how much I enjoyed my time there. But it was an exhausting place to live. A huge reason for that was that every trip outside the door was a battle.  Mainly for the reasons outlined above, trying to get anywhere in São Paulo is extremely stressful, and the stress compounds over time into a general fatigue with the city. The smaller the radius you can live within, the better your life can be. For the majority, however, that’s not an option. São Paulo is a city with massive spatial divisions. Most of the poorest people live around the edges, while jobs are heavily concentrated in the centre and a few wealthy surrounding neighbourhoods, giving people little choice but to accept long commutes in order to make a living. Research by the LSE Urban Age found that Paulistas with a low education level were likely to live twice as far (24km) from their employment, than those with higher education (12km).

When I first noticed the São Paulo protests appearing in the media – both Brazilian and International – I was frustrated by the heavy emphasis the articles placed on the violence that had broken out between protesters and police, although I was not surprised that there was violence. I’d seen police storm a small peaceful protest on the same major avenue, Avenida Paulista, in SP a couple of years before, and was once in a Carnaval street party in Rio de Janeiro, hundreds of thousands of people strong, when police began firing rubber bullets from within the crowd. Police in Brazil aren’t known for keeping calm, especially not the military trained Riot Police, “or Shock Troops” as their title directly translates. Aside from a brief reference to the 20 cent fare increase as the reason for the protest, there seemed little media analysis of why this apparently small amount, “lower than inflation”, as the government kept emphasising, could have triggered such an outburst, especially in a country which has been famed in recent years for its significant economic progress. As is frequently reported, millions of its poorest have been elevated to “middle class”, new family benefits are linked to children attending school, the country avoided the worst impacts of the global economic recession, and major investments in public infrastructure, including transport, are being undertaken in the lead up to Brazil hosting of the Football World Cup in 2014 and Olympics in 2016.


I was frustrated, however, that there was no analysis of what was actually going on with public transport there. There was so much to talk about, and it was being overlooked! Finally one São Paulo newspaper released data showing that public transport in the city was attaining the lowest satisfaction levels in 20 years (more or less since last time there was a massive social movement in Brazil, coincidentally).

Then all of the sudden, the protest became protests – not just in São Paulo, but also in Rio de Janeiro, and other cities across the country – about so much more than transport. In São Paulo members of the media, as well as middle class students, were violently targeted by police, and suddenly mainstream media was on the side of the protesters. People were shocked into action by such public police brutality, which is usually confined to the poor peripheries, and more or less ignored by the media.

“If the fare doesn’t drop, the city will stop”

This brazen suppression of democracy suddenly woke Brazilians up – they have had enough of all the small difficulties, the big corruptions, the way that increased consumption power hasn’t really gone hand in hand with better public health, education, or quality of life, and certainly not transport.  During my years in Brazil I was impressed by the way Brazilians could remain positive in the face of these challenges. Brazilians have an admirable ability to make the best of things – to find their way around excessive bureaucracy with a “little solution”, to make a joke out of outrageous corruption, or to stick to dreaming that one day, maybe far in the future, but certainly not now, things could be different. However, this also frustrated me. How could they accept so many blatant injustices?

And now it seems, they can’t. They are saying that enough is enough. IT’S NOT ABOUT TWENTY CENTS has become one of the catchphrases for a swelling non partisan social movement, raising concerns about corruption, continuing inequality, inadequate public services, and huge amounts of public funds being invested in World Cup stadiums, many in impoverished cities, or linked to evictions of informal settlements.

And it’s not about the twenty cents. And it’s about so much more than just transport. But transport shouldn’t be forgotten, not only because it is my very favourite topic, but because it is a very interesting viewpoint from which to consider Brazil’s social awakening. It is an issue which cross-cuts every single one of the concerns that the wider movement is now raising, and affects every single Brazilian, no matter what their occupation, education, or social class.


Firstly, transport in Brazil is a focal point for class divisions and prejudice. I found this hard to comprehend, coming from an egalitarian country like New Zealand, and living for many years in Wellington, where most of my friends didn’t even know how to drive, let alone own a car, because public transport and walking are such cheap and easy options. It may seem like a novel fact that São Paulo is famous for having the largest private helicopter fleet in the world, patronized by the largest concentration of billionaires in the word. But this is no laughing matter.  In Brazil, using public transport is strongly associated with being poor. Cycling is considered either a leisure activity for the middle classes, or transport only for those who have no other option. Pedestrians killed in traffic accidents are disproportionately low income. Partially as a result of these class prejudices, public transport suffers from massive underinvestment. It’s true that São Paulo has one of the best metros in the world – it’s new, clean, and safe. But it covers a tiny proportion of the city, and many lines reach astronomically cramped levels on a daily basis, and the lack of investment in complementary express buses to ease the pressure is just one example of officials turning a blind eye to a huge problem, with a clear solution. It’s no surprise that people aspire to own a car, when the alternative is a three hour commute standing up in a rickety bus.

Secondly, transport equality advocate and former Mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, has pointed out that mobility is perhaps the only quality of life element that does not improve as GDP increases. It’s hard for people to enjoy their new disposable income while they are stuck in traffic, missing out on time to spend with their families, on leisure, or on further education. Increased cars in cities are also associated with deterioration in public space, and safety for pedestrians. Rapid motorisation in Brazil has been one of the strongest indicators of the increased consumption capabilities of the new middle class. An exponential increase of cars has pushed the number of private vehicles in São Paulo over seven million. The roads are so over capacity that even the slightest disruption somewhere in the system – let alone a typical tropical downpour – can lead to hours trapped in traffic jams. And still, being stuck in your own car is preferable to hours squished in a bus or metro. So people keep buying cars, and the roads keep getting worse.

Image courtesy of Sarah Bryce

Thirdly, the current transport situation in São Paulo actually makes existing inequalities even worse. São Paulo is one of the most unequal cities in the world. Research by the LSE Urban Age showed that the combination of São Paulo’s low quality public transport and peripheral location of poor communities compounds existing economic and social exclusion, even worse than cities with comparable income inequalities. High quality public transport can reduce the impacts of income inequality. But in São Paulo, the lower your level of education, the longer it is likely to take you to reach basic health or education services by public transport – up to 40 minutes. Not only are you receiving a poor service, but you are paying a lot for it. Twenty cents may not seem like much, but this is a city where many of the poorest residents already spend more than a third of their minimum wage on public transport – for the privilege of standing up for hours on buses which are poor quality, unreliable and way overfull. Research by a São Paulo university has found that in Rio and São Paulo, residents earning the average income must work 13 and 14 minutes respectively to gain the value of a public transport fare. This is in comparison to approximately six minutes in Ottawa, Paris or New York.


There is so much more I could say – I haven’t even begun to go into corruption associated with major transport projects throughout the country, or the politicisation of the public service which makes so many promising transport projects near impossible to complete. On the other hand, I would also like to emphasise that a lot of great progress has been made with public transport in Brazil in recent years, particularly in Belo Horizonte and Rio de Janeiro (you can see an article I wrote recently here, on page 8). Meanwhile São Paulo has seen a great reduction in pedestrian fatalities thanks to an ambitious cross-department programme. But for now I’ll leave it at this. It is amazing that Brazilians of all societal levels are finally standing up, and saying “enough is enough”. A broad discussion of the issues of corruption, misdirection of public funds, and poor public services is important. But I hope the issue of transport and mobility doesn’t get lost. Because a more transparent approach to transport, with investment based on the actual needs and priorities of the public, rather than on prejudices or on opportunities for kickbacks, would be a fast and powerful way of addressing many of Brazil’s bigger issues.  In response to this swell of people power, officials in São Paulo and some other cities have already agreed to revoke the fare increase. We eagerly await their next steps.

The LSE Urban Age research on Transport Equity in São Paulo that I referred to in this article was presented by Philipp Rode at the Urban Age conference in Hong Kong in 2011. You can view it here: :