In the second part of the Brazil Challenges series, I'm going to discuss the transportation situation in Rio de Janeiro. While São Paulo gets a bad rap for traffic, Rio is becoming just as bad. Over the past few months, it's become a favorite Carioca complaint on social networks. People post photos of gridlock traffic (particularly in Barra and Lagoa) on Facebook and Twitter and complain about how many hours they've been on the road. (I can also attest to the growing traffic - a few months ago, I got stuck in a traffic jam on one of the city's largest highways--at 5am). Several Twitter channels, like radio station Band News, narrate traffic jams in real time.
Fellow blogger Quintino Gomes of Diário do Rio has been writing about the traffic problem on his blog and Facebook. In a recent post, he described a two-hour car ride to go 30 kilometers, and commented: "While before, traffic jams were something that happened once in awhile, now it's an everyday occurence in Rio." On December, a bus caught on fire in a tunnel on the Yellow Line, causing a mega traffic jam in the whole city, the second in the past few months. On the Caos Carioca blog, the writer lamented that when an incident happens like the fire in the tunnel, "the whole city turns into a knot." He pointed out that a single incident has a domino effect, turning into a "catastrophic chain."
Given that work has started on improving the city's infrastructure - namely, expanding the metro, which has been slowly growing over the past few years - why is the traffic getting worse?
First, there are more cars on the road. With unemployment down, rising salaries, and increased access to credit, more and more people are able to buy and lease cars. In June, there were 67.5 million registered vehicles in Brazil, and as of early November, over 3 million vehicles were sold in Brazil this year.
Second, the roads are an issue. Because of Rio's mountainous landscape, the city's highways are connected by a series of tunnels, and when there's an accident in or near the tunnels, there is in fact a domino effect. Also, one of the biggest problems is how the city connects to Barra and Recreio, in the city's West Zone. There are only two main points access from the South Zone: one, through a tunnel passing Rocinha, and another on a two-lane road on the waterfront (it makes traffic jams easier to bear, given the spectacular views). There's always been bad traffic going to and from Barra (which is why I eventually tried to avoid going to Barra as much as possible), but it's gotten even worse. For those who live or work in Barra, it makes the day to day a nightmare.
Finally, there's the issue of public transportation. The metro, arguably one of the best forms of getting around the city, is relatively limited in its trajectory with only two lines, and is more expensive than some buses, at R$3.10 per ride. (It also doesn't run all night.) While expanding the line to Barra could really help alleviate traffic, it's going to cause more traffic in the meantime as they build the line from Leblon and shut down parts of roads. While there are plenty of buses to choose from, the proliferation of lines and the number of companies operating them has also contributed to more traffic. (The bus companies are also, unsurprisingly, opposed to extending the metro). While buses are one of the cheapest ways to get around, starting at R$2.35 per ride, with a farther reach than the metro, there are also vans and kombis. They originally came about as a cheaper alternative to buses, and functioned outside of the officially sanctioned forms of transportation. Now, the city is trying to legalize vans, by making them apply for the right documentation and also allowing passengers to pay with the bilhete único, which will also work on buses, trains, ferries, and the metro. The ferry is also an efficient way to get from Rio to Niterói, though it's come under criticism after a recent accident and a proposed fare hike.
And then, there are the trains. These commuter trains connect parts of Rio's North and West Zones, as well as suburban outskirts, with the rest of the city. Despite purchasing some gleaming new cars for the Pan American Games in 2007, the trains are possibly the worst way to get around Rio. It's always overcrowded, with far too many people squeezed into each car. The trains are not reliable; they sometimes are delayed by shootouts, or break down on the tracks. In fact, in the past two weeks there were two break downs, one near Belford Roxo and another near Oswaldo Cruz, and passengers got out of the train to "occupy" the tracks in protest. One passenger was spotted posting a sign on the train that read: "We want improvements. We're not clowns."
A Liga, a Brazilian TV show, did an excellent report on public transportation in Rio a few months ago, showing how using buses and trains often take hours for commuters -- one man took four hours to get from Leblon to the suburbs on a Friday evening, for example. It also shows ingenious solutions where transportation is lacking. In one area, people began using horse-drawn carts to get to and from the train station, since there are no buses, and an enterprising businessman bought a tiny boat to get across the bay each day for work.
Amid the hype, particularly in the American media, about Rio's World Cup and Olympics preparations, local transportation often gets lost in the mix. Much more so than crime, violence, hotel capacity, or airport infrastructure, I think this is going to be one of the biggest challenges for the mega events. But more importantly, it's become a serious daily struggle for millions of Rio commuters, and will likely be a key issue in the 2012 municipal elections as residents demand change.