Half three on a Friday afternoon and it’s the same old story in São Paulo. Collective traffic jams measure 87km and are getting worse by the minute. By the end of the afternoon more than 160km of the city’s roads will be head to tail.
Underground it’s a different story. Beneath the notoriously congested Avenida Rebouças, trains are running for the first time, testing the new metro line between the city’s main thoroughfare, Avenue Paulista, and the booming business district of Faria Lima.
When the 3.6km of track formally opens in April it will mark not just the first stage of the new Line 4 but also herald the beginning of a promised revitalisation and expansion of the city’s transport system.
São Paulo, a metropolis of more than 20 million people, currently has around 60km of metro and light railway. If government plans come to fruition, that figure will increase threefold by early next year and rise to 420km by 2014, the year Brazil hosts the World Cup, says José Luiz Portella, the state secretary of metropolitan transport.
“This is the first visible step in building a metro worthy of São Paulo,”says Portella. “By the time the World Cup comes around we will have a network the size of New York’s.”
The expansion is vital to the future of South America’s biggest and most dynamic city. As Brazil’s economy grows, millions more people are eligible for bank loans to buy cars. More than 600 new vehicles hit São Paulo’s roads every day and getting across town at rush hour or in the rain is a nightmare.
The city and state have tried different ways to reduce congestion. Exclusive bus lanes are a success and a pre-payment card system makes it easier and cheaper to hop on buses and trains. Restrictions on larger goods vehicles have reduced the amount of heavier and slower traffic on roads.
Sixty-one kilometres of a new bypass also opens in April, enabling goods vehicles heading for the coast to avoid the city altogether. Work on the remaining 87km is scheduled to begin next year. In addition, 23km of the ring road along the Tietê river has been broadened to take more traffic.
The problem for car-crazy Paulistas is that there are never enough roads. Although much of the middle-class see public transport as beneath them, it is the city’s only salvation.
Officials hope the new metro lines will go some way to resolving that conundrum and get people out from behind the wheel. The Line 4 stations are bright and spacious with air conditioning and long moving walkways. Plastic barriers between the carriage and platform give it a modern air and the time between the driverless trains is among the shortest in the world, Portella says. There is even wi-fi in every carriage.
Much, however, depends on when the planned new lines become operational. Work on many hasn’t even started yet and even Line 4 won’t be completed until 2014 at the earliest.
State governor José Serra defended the delays by saying the proposed dates were “targets”rather than “promises”but there is a definite feeling that it’s perhaps too little too late.
Although what is for sure is a start. These new stops are the first ones on what promises to be a long and eventful journey.