It’s no coincidence São Paulo was the city in which Zoom, described as “Uber for helicopters”, made its worldwide debut late last year.
The biggest city in South America (population: 21.2 million) is infamous for its traffic; a recent study found that Paulistanos spent 86 hours each on average in 2017 stuck in traffic (or 22 per cent of total drive time), putting it in the top five cities for traffic congestion.
In this city, cars are both a status symbol and, for the poor living on the city’s periphery and working in the centre, a much-desired escape from long, arduous commutes on public transport.
But the helicopter fleet isn’t the only thing that is growing. Change is taking place at ground-level, where 100,000 new bicycles are likely to pepper the megacity in the next few years— in the last few months, SP’s City Hall has accredited five new companies to provide bike-sharing services, joining the most known service Bike Sampa.
The expanding shared bike system, which is in the Strategic Master Plan, reflects a growing trend in the city.
“We’ve gone from 100,000 bike trips a day in 2007 to 300,000 trips a day in 2012, and a recent interview with the Secretary of Transport estimated over 1 million bike trips a day in São Paulo,” said Global Call for Climate Action’s Veronica Barbosa.
GCCA worked with Bike Anjo (Portuguese for “bike angels”) this May to organize the 2018 São Paulo Bike To Work Day, a five-year-old annual event that has gained much traction among the public, companies and organizations.
It received near-blanket news coverage in the Brazilian media this year, and a video about the bike to work challenge, featuring two corporate employees who volunteered to cycle to work for a month while having their health monitored, reached over 78,000 people.
Volunteers Giuliana and Jamile biked to work for a month, with doctors measuring their health before and after, experiencing so many physical and mental health benefits that both decided to continue their daily bicycling commutes.
“In the context of the current truckers strike, which led to fuel shortages, the number of people riding bicycles in São Paulo has grown considerably in some parts of of the city— on Faria Lima avenue, one of the busiest in the city centre, 29,182 cyclists were registered in the week of 22 May, 6,770 on 28 May alone,” Barbosa said, citing CET SP.
The strike also trained the headlights on the public health cost of traffic pollution: the decrease in vehicular traffic in the city caused air pollution to drop by half, according to a survey conducted by the Institute of Advanced Studies of the University of São Paulo (IEA-USP).
In the first seven days of the strike, air quality improved by 50 per cent in the south and centre of the city, compared to that in the previous week.
“This is evidence that we will continue to study, but the fact is that this week the city managed to record days with air quality within the safe levels established by the World Health Organization (WHO), which is an exception,” said pathologist Dr. Paulo Saldiva, Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies at São Paulo University, which conducted the study.
Given that air pollution kills 7 million people around the world each year— about the equivalent of the entire population of Houston or Hong Kong— and gives many more people, from adults to babies, diseases and developmental issues, it points to a much bigger issue.
By 2050, the vast majority of the world’s growing population will live in cities, which will need to find ways to deal with air pollution (largely from transport), traffic congestion, and an upward trend of non-communicable disease from both bad air quality and a lack of physical exercise.
Cycling (and walking) ticks all the right boxes, a fact not lost on many cities: car-free days are increasing in popularity while some are considering free public transport to encourage people to commute car-less. For example, Paris saw emissions drop 40 per cent when it experimented with car-free days, Seoul saw emissions fall 10 per cent, and London is considering them.
Health-wise, according to a recent survey by CEBRAP (Centro Brasileiro de Análise e Planejamento), São Paulo inhabitants who cycle daily are less stressed (14 per cent) than those who don’t (36 per cent); they experience less discomfort as they commute (14 per cent) than those who don’t cycle (35 per cent) and feel more pleasure as they move around the city (45 per cent of cyclists; 18 per cent of non-cyclists).
But cities are not always designed to favour cyclists and pedestrians, something 44-year-old logistics analyst Jamile de Moraes, one of the two Bike To Work volunteers had to overcome.
Her eight-kilometre journey featured just a short cycle path, making her biggest challenge a psychological one.
“When you hear the car coming very close, it’s a huge fear,” she said.
It’s a fear that many people are likely to understand well. According to a recent survey by Cidade dos Sonhos, fear of cycling in heavy traffic alongside cars and vulnerability to accidents is one of the biggest barriers to making the switch. Others include vulnerability to assaults (being mugged, theft with violence) and poor or limited cycling infrastructure.
But, as the number of bicycles in the city increase in tandem with awareness of the multiple benefits of non-motorised transport, Dr Salvida, who is also a professor at the university’s School of Medicine and founder of the Instituto Saúde e Sustentabilidade (Health and Sustainability Institute), thinks the growing trend is inevitable.
“This cultural change will take time, but it has already started to happen. I don’t know how long it will take, but it is irreversible and we are going in the right direction,” he says.
The weekend saw the celebration of the first World Bicycle Day on 3 June, which was approved by the UN General Assembly in April this year.