With a population of over 11 million people, São Paulo, Brazil, is known to have some of the worst traffic in the world. However, during the last four years the city has seen some important improvements under Mayor Fernando Haddad, who has made mobility a central theme of his tenure. Now, with the mayoral election starting Sunday, that issue is under a spotlight, and candidates favored to win are promising to steer away from Haddad’s policies.
Under Haddad, who took office in January 2013, more than 200 miles of new bike lanes have been constructed. The speed limit for some main roads was cut to 50 km/h (30 mph), and the traffic death toll in 2015 was the lowest since 1979. In the last two years, São Paulo also plunged (in a good way) in the famous TomTom world traffic congestion ranking, going from 7th to 58th. The city also rolled out exclusive bus lanes and closed several streets to motor traffic on Sundays, including the Avenida Paulista thoroughfare. While these policies have been criticized by local newspapers and some residents, Haddad’s commitment to urban mobility has been widely recognized abroad, with laudatory articles in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. But whatever his international reputation, Haddad’s popularity is currently low among Paulistanos. According to a recent survey, only 18 percent of voters rated his first term as “good,” while 40 percent rated it as “bad.” And 47 percent of the voters said they will not vote for him under any circumstances in the upcoming election.
Daniel Caetano, a transport engineer at the University of São Paulo, says over email that the problem is that while Haddad’s mobility policies pointed in the right direction, they were enacted without public engagement.
“Every intervention that implies a change in habits has to be preceded by informative campaigns. Not just to explain what is going to be done, but also why it’s being done, what are the expected benefits and how long will it take to see the results,” Caetano writes.
Haddad himself has blamed his low popularity on miscommunication. This, together with the fact that his Workers’ Party is immersed in a deep political crisis due to Brazil President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment and investigations over corruption scandals, makes re-election difficult. But just as national politics are impacting the mayoral race, a change in local leadership and policy may ripple out beyond São Paulo’s borders. The city is responsible for almost 11 percent of the GDP of Brazil and holds an important place in the collective imagination of the country and the region.
With the first round of voting set for Oct. 2, the mayor currently ranks fourth in the polls, with 10 percent voter support. Three candidates top the list: João Dória (25 percent), Celso Russomano (22 percent) and Marta Suplicy (20 percent). All have expressed their intention of revisiting the lowered speed limits. Caetano believes that there is room to re-evaluate specific situations based on technical criteria, but he warns: “If by revisit they mean simply going back to the previous speed limit, it will be a backward step. It would go against safety, fluidity and a model that has proven successful in other cities.”
Bike lanes, which were one of the most visible interventions of the current administration, have also been discussed during the campaign. The three leading candidates say they support bike lanes and will maintain them, but argue that the expansion of the network was done without adequate planning and denounce the low quality of some lanes. They also open the door to re-evaluating specific bike lanes, either to remove them or relocate them. Suplicy has said she considers bike lanes “a ridiculous legacy” and that she will not make them a priority if she is elected.
“It will be positive if none of the candidates undoes what has already been implemented. This is a long-term process and its success depends not only in maintaining the infrastructures, but also in improving them,” Caetano writes, referring to bike lanes and other interventions.
Mobility advocacy groups have taken action to defend Haddad’s changes. More than 20 associations circulated a petition calling on Dória, Russomano and Suplicy to reconsider the decision of increasing the speed limits. It has been signed by over 18,000 people to date. Two of the associations, Ciclocidade and Cidadeapé, created an online platform to rank the candidates’ statements on mobility on a weekly basis. The current status shows that the three leading candidates in the polls are also those with the least ambitious mobility plans.
Daniel Guth, director of Ciclocidade, thinks what he considers to be achievements in mobility might be at risk, but he’s also optimistic. “Our society is more mature now. There has been a great advance in the last years in terms of social organization and development of legal tools,” he says. Indeed, the National Urban Mobility Plan, signed in 2012, enforces the ability for cities to prioritize public transit and non-motorized modes of transport. Also, São Paulo’s directive plan, approved in 2014, sets the guidelines for urban development until 2030 and specifies that bike lanes and public transport and pedestrian infrastructures should prevail. Thus, Guth is confident: “Even in the presence of a more reactionary administration we now have conditions to keep these mobility policies going.”
In the likely event that none of the candidates obtains more than 50 percent of the vote on Oct. 2, the two top vote-getters will move on to an Oct. 30 runoff.
Ignacio Amigo is a freelance writer based in São Paulo. A former scientist, he now writes about science, technology and sustainability.