The perils of 'car culture' in Brazil

From high costs, to heavy traffic, to lagging safety regulations, cars have become a 'quality-of-life problem in many cities,' writes guest blogger Greg Michener.

Victor R. Caivano/AP/File
A gas station attendant fills a car's tank with ethanol in Sao Paulo, Brazil in this file photo.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

My wife Carolina and I so far managed to avoid buying a car here in Brazil. It’s not that we have a strong aversion to owning a car; it would be great to have a little ride for weekend jaunts, but it’s just impractical. Happily, the cost-benefit does not (yet) make sense.

I walk back and forth to work in 15-20 minutes, and do my grocery shopping within a six block radius. If we’re doing a long-haul trip, we fly. If we’re doing a weekend-scenic trip, we rent or go with friends. To get around town or back and forth from the airport and bus terminals, I spend about $150 dollars on taxis per month.   If I were paying maintenance, depreciation (on cars that cost from a third to a half more than they do in other countries because of taxes and import tariffs), insurance, gas, and parking costs for a car, I calculate that I would be paying about five times what I now spend on transport. Cars are necessary at times, i.e. when you have small children (safety seats), or need to get out of town to some nearby remote location, but we’d all be better off using them less. Especially in Brazil.

I Am 3 Times More Likely to Die in a Traffic Accident in Brazil than in Canada 

 Brazil’s road traffic accident rate is almost three times what it is in Canada, Japan or Sweden, at 24 deaths per 100,000, which according to one source, is the third highest rate in the world. A recent research paper on the subject, by Giancarlo Bacchieri and Aluísio JD Barros, shows that the absolute numbers of accidents and deaths has gone up over the last ten years. Car deaths accounted for 22 percent of total deaths in Brazil during 2008, whereas they were 12 percent in 1998. Much of this increase is attributable to a sudden jump in the number of motorcycles on the road, according to the authors, as well as the persistence of drinking and driving.

Brazil’s figures are nonetheless surprising. If not because I am nearly three times more likely to die in a traffic accident here in Brazil than at home in Canada, than at least because government initiatives to diminish accidents, such as a comprehensive traffic reform enacted in 1998, have so far failed to make significant inroads. Positively, Congress enacted a “zero tolerance” law in 2008 that may help diminish the number of accidents and deaths related to alcohol.

Highways and Drivers in Brazil

Despite the steady advances of GDP and government tax receipts, Brazilian highways remain poor in many parts of the country, even in the rich southeast. Brazil is not an easy place to build highways: the terrain is mountainous, and mountains tend to be covered in thick capes of soil which, especially when deforested, often collapse under the heavy rainfalls of the wet season. Rain also tends to wash out the substrate under asphalt, leading to potholes of ever-larger proportions. Add to this high levels of corruption and contractors that are widely believed to skimp on quality road construction materials, and you have a serious problem.

Here in Minas Gerais, mining trucks are believed to do considerable damage to public highways. Appropriate rail lines should have obviated the need for mining trucks altogether, but the rail lobby has not fared as well as the motor-vehicle lobby – as we who live in the Americas know all too well. I have never seen a weigh-station here in Brazil, a control mechanism that might prevent overweight trucks from wreaking havoc on roads and public safety more generally.

Finally, there are the drivers. As in North America, you have the truck drivers hopped-up on amphetamines for the long trips – always a source of danger. Here, you’ve also got a major problem with alcohol, as previously discussed. But especially prominent in Latin America – if not Latin countries more generally – is the sort of race-to-the-finish mentality on highways and even on city streets. People pass recklessly. They routinely break traffic rules. They want to show you up because they have a more expensive car. Or they want to show you down because they think they’re better, ballsier drivers. A lot of ego, a lot of risk, and a lot of accidents.

These are not just my own observations; renowned Brazilian anthropologist Roberto DaMatta recently released a book on Brazil’s car culture entitled, “Faith in God, and Foot to the Floor” in which he describes a driving culture in which even women act “masculine” to the extreme.

Traffic Jam-borees

If you’re not getting maimed in a traffic accident, you’re probably sitting in traffic. Exaggerations aside, Time magazine did distinguish São Paulo as the traffic-jam capital of the world in a 2008 article. The piece notes that Paulistas do everything in their cars – shave, create powerpoint presentations, apply makeup – not because they love their cars, but because they have to: traffic jams are a fact of life for those who cannot afford or are unwilling to reside close to work.

That Time article was written almost 4 years ago when Brazil’s per capita income was over a thousand reais below where it is now. Higher incomes, more cars. Although I have not been able to find any official numbers, several estimates serve to triangulate the approximate number of new cars entering São Paulo’s road network at somewhere around 1000 per day. And that’s just São Paulo. The number across Brazil has been estimated at 12,000 new cars per day (in Portuguese). Brazil is now the sixth-largest producer of automobiles in the world, and gaining. Growth in public transport has not received the political attention needed to pose any challenge to the car industry. Go figure.

Current public transport infrastructure and efforts to diminish mounting traffic remain woefully inadequate in Brazil. São Paulo has just under 80 kilometers of rail metro. Mexico City, a megalopolis of about the same size, has nearly 180 kilometers, which is closer to other megalopolises such as Tokyo (195 km), Delhi (190 km), or Hong Kong (174 km). Heck, even Santiago – with less than half of São Paulo’s population – has a far more extensive metro system.

Metro expansions in Rio de Janeiro and other cities are currently making progress and more are planned, but the pace of expansion is simply not keeping up with population growth. Nor is it keeping up with the demands of the newly affluent. People will always want cars to show people they have a car. Conspicuous consumption is a fact of life all over the world, yet, as suggested by the region’s historically low savings rates, Latin Americans have a reputation for flaunting their wealth.


Just as reverence for the motor vehicle continues unabated, a peculiar disdain for bicyclists still abides among many Brazilians. Almost all of the regular bicycle commuters I know in Brazil have had bad accidents and unerringly curse motorists. Cyclists are given low priority, particularly commuting cyclists. An article (in Portuguese) in today’s Estado de São Paulo reported that 80 percent of São Paulo’s bicycle lanes are for leisure as opposed to commuting.

As my brother pointed out in a recent conversation about Latin American bicycle-disdain, the Americas have never really taken to the bicycle. Whereas bicycles have historically been a first-order means of transport in Europe and Asia, they are well-regarded in the Americas only among the most urbane, progressive cities and citizens. Whether bicycle-disdain is classist or stems from a contempt for physical activity is not altogether clear. What is clear is that bicycles are real equalizers: no matter how fancy your bicycle, it is physical condition and skill that dictate your biking prowess, not horsepower and handling.

This video, sent to me by my brother, is an extreme example of bicycle-disdain. Warning: these are disturbing images of a driver who knowingly and wantonly ran down dozens of bicyclists during a peaceful community evening-ride held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, during the summer of 2011. The driver was later charged with attempted murder.


The inspiration for this blog post was a late-morning Saturday stroll through Savassi, a sort of upscale downtown in Belo Horizonte. Every medium to large street I came to was packed with cars, even though it was a beautiful sunny day, dry and 25C. As I observed couples and families sitting in their cars, surrounded by noxious exhaust fumes, waiting to inch forward a few more meters on their Saturday outings, I could not choke back my own disdain for our backwards mentalities: “okay honey, it’s Saturday morning. Let’s jump in the car so we can log jam in downtown with everyone else.” Isn’t a rat-race work-week enough?

Cars have long been considered a symbol of ‘quality of life.’ Ironically, however, they’ve become a quality-of-life problem in many cities. According to recent studies, 2010 was the year that the number of cars around the world surpassed one billion, and cars now account for nearly a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. I plainly refuse to live in São Paulo because of thick pollution, poor public transport, and gridlocked streets. As I’ve written before, I’m convinced that tolerance for São Paulo-type traffic is a collective pathology. But Belo Horizonte is also getting bad.

Next stop in my dreams: a small quiet town where many streets are off-bounds to cars, and I can enjoy the best that Brazil and Minas Gerais has to offer: clear, tropical-scented air, a good cafezinho, pão de queijo, a little cachazinha, and a lot of joyful conversation with family and friends.

– Greg Michener, based in Rio de Janeiro, writes the blog, Observing Brazil.  He is currently writing a book on Freedom of Information in Latin America for Cambridge University Press.

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