Brazil’s overwhelmed road networks mean that the dream of owning a car no longer features open highways and smooth, stress-free commutes. But new forms of aspiration mean the car still has a central role to play in navigating the urban mobility crisis.
World Cups and Olympic Games are occasions to showcase your country’s achievements. However, for the latest host of these two major sporting events, they could instead spotlight a growing national crisis. Brazil doesn’t have the ability to move people about fluidly and effectively and its people have little hope that things will get better anytime soon.
Mobility sits near the top of every agenda. The government has been spurred into action after a quarter of a century of under-investment. Local administrations have declared some of Brazil’s World Cup match days national holidays and have implemented special traffic rules in order to ease the pressure on road networks. Meanwhile, harassed commuters remain desperately stressed after battling the daily traffic in major cities like Sao Paolo.
For all of them there is one inescapable reality: Brazil’s poorly maintained roads, highly limited public transport and unequal town planning have been overwhelmed by a rapidly urbanising population. Its cities have ground to a halt.
A turning point for mobility – but in which direction?
The two years between the World Cup and the Rio Olympic Games must mark a turning point for mobility in Brazil, but it’s far from certain which solutions will shape the country’s future. Efforts are under way to extend the skinny metro systems that have been dwarfed by Brazilian cities’ growth; there is strong hope that a network of dedicated bike paths could encircle Rio by 2016; and innovative initiatives such as Rio’s Colombia-inspired cable car and Curitiba’s Bus Rapid Transit are already in development. However for the many years while such infrastructure improvements remain work in progress, Brazilians will be left to develop their own means of beating the mobility gridlock (example of the classical ‘carona’ as well as the success of new mobile applications to improve traffic flow or find a taxi, a bus etc.).. And the longer a decent public transportation system takes to emerge, the more embedded these solutions will become as the preferred means of getting around.
Still in the driving seat
At a time when travel by road is increasingly frustrating, it might seem strange that these solutions remain focused on cars and car ownership. However, owning a car remains an aspiration for the vast majority of urban Brazilians. This is in part down to the symbolism of what a car represents; in part due to the lack of viable alternatives; and in part a result of the inherent versatility of automobiles.
A dream of consumption
The car remains a dream of consumption for Brazilians, whether they can afford to fulfil that dream or not. It symbolises status, individuality and freedom. Despite the clogged roads into and out of cities on weekends, the ability to drive into the country provides an important sense of escape from urban living – as shown by the current popularity of compact SUVs.
Yet just as important in Brazil’s current mobility state is the fact that a private vehicle represents sacred personal space among turbulent city streets; it’s a space where climate can be controlled through air conditioning, personal music can be played, phone calls can be made in private and work can be done, even when one’s arrival at the office is delayed. Brazilian streets can be unsafe; crime is a constant worry, and the environment of the car provides a sanctuary from this as well.
Brazilians are encouraged to dream of car ownership because it is all too easy to discount the alternatives. There has been an increase in the number of people cycling to work, and bike rental schemes have launched in the country’s main capitals. However, the number of pedal-powered commuters remains small overall, the roads with their spectacular potholes make cycling undeniably dangerous, and true acceleration in take-up is likely to depend upon improved cycling infrastructure. Metro systems are too limited in reach to provide a viable alternative for many – although there is an increasing trend towards multi-modal transport, with Brazilians driving or cycling to the subway.
Buses offer no real advantage over cars since they must share the same roads – and the same traffic jams, with less comfort. Planes, used frequently for business travel between cities, are simply too expensive to provide a competitive alternative to the car for longer private journeys.
Adapting to a life in traffic
If they are to maintain their position at the heart of mobility in Brazil, car-makers must be as innovative as the app-wielding drivers and ‘Carona’ car sharers driving their vehicles. They must respond to the deep motivations that draw people to cars, whilst acknowledging that the reality of using them will be far from the dream of cruising down open highways. At a time when their cars are as likely to be stationary in traffic as they are to be moving, the in-car experience becomes hugely significant to the decision whether to buy a new vehicle or not. Air-conditioning, sound systems, seamless integration with apps and mobile devices, USB chargers and wi-fi: these are no longer premium features and options; they will be increasingly essential to making the experience of car ownership add up for the vast majority of auto buyers.
In that context, opportunities to innovate and develop new services, applications and products are huge. Government plans for infrastructure developments are key to help Brazil drawing a new Mobility panorama. However, all other mobility players, among which car makers, energy and IT companies, etc. have a role to play and should bring their contribution. The most efficient proposals will no doubt come from joint thinking across all players to put forward holistic and integrated solutions.