The Most Beautiful Traffic Jam

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I have been sitting on an air conditioned bus over an hour, enjoying ocean vistas on my left and thickly forested mountain jungles on my right.  Huge black rock cliffs soar out of thick green vegetation into low-roaming misty clouds. Bikini-clad, Brazilian-waxed Brazilians sun or jog along the beach.  It’s the most beautiful traffic jam ever.  I barely notice that I am going nowhere.  I am also not getting any work done.

As I sit enjoying the view, occasionally clicking away at my laptop, thousands of frustrated Cariocas sit idling.  Like many others, they also want to commute quickly and comfortably. But surprisingly these two features are often perceived here in a distorted way. People simply buy more cars, thinking it will make them more independent and make their day-to-day life more flexible.  However, in big metropolitan areas, the opposite actually happens. Inhabitants waste hours every day sitting in traffic, as we did today traveling on the  shuttle bus from Ipanema to the Rio+20 conference center.  We have spent twice as much time as it would ordinarily take with moderate traffic. Why? Because of Rio’s strategy of turning multi-lane streets into one way streets to speed the flow of traffic downtown, during the morning rush hours.

In general, to relieve busy streets, local authorities usually build more and wider roads. As a result, people tend to drive more often, being somehow encouraged to do so.  And that is how this vicious circle goes round. Is it possible to stop it somehow? Yes, but it takes time.

A laudable model of the road from gridlock to open highways comes from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. Local society realized there that they had to do something about the uncontrolled permanent increase of traffic. There was simply no more space for all the cars. Due to their lobbying, the government started to develop urban transport networks with loans from some Japanese development banks. New bus lines were created and a railway connection between city center and the airport built from scratch. The plan would not work, however, without subsidies that make public transport affordable for an average Jakartan. Tickets are now subsidized and widely available. This plan costs a lot, but it pays dividends. Economists estimate that inefficiencies in transportation shaved 4% annually from the city’s GDP. Some Brazilian cities (e.g. São Paulo) lose as much as 10% of their GDP while commuters sit in traffic.

Were subsidies indispensable? Yes. Private investors were skeptical of returns on public transportation. They preferred investing in public-private development of toll highways instead. And this is probably one of the biggest challenges for sustainable development supporters — the private sector is not interested in investing in infrastructure that will make cities more efficient.

7 thoughts on “The Most Beautiful Traffic Jam

  1. this is a fascinating post. Is there a way that governments can induce public private partnerships to induce private investment into this space?

  2. great piece, I was sitting in the same bus and I have to confess I did only look into my laptop:-). Maciej, I have heard about the exemplary work done by the city of Coritiba in Brazil, I would love to get your thoughts on the their model with regard to PPP and private investment?

  3. It’s so ironic that we buy more cars and traffic just increases.. so much time and money is wasted, while copious amounts of pollution is generated. I really would love more public transit, especially in America, but it’s so expensive to build… I wonder if there could be a model of private-public partnerships, however, so many projects are incredibly cost-prohibitive. The water sector has private-public partnerships, but their costs are much lower usually.

  4. Hi Maciej,

    Thanks for your post! I must confess that one of the things I enjoy the most of living in Zurich, Switzerland, is that I can bike anywhere I need to go. I understand this is not so easy to do in big cities, but it would for sure be very positive to invest more in public transport and better infrastructure to make citizens less dependent on cars and motorized vehicles.

    Biking is not only a cheap and environmentally friendly way of transportation, it is also healthy! Could it get any better?


  5. I read today two quotes of Enrique Peñalosa, (he is a Colombian urbanist) that matches very much with this topic.

    First he said, “Trying to solve traffic jams building more road infrastructure is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline”. Unfortunately this is the reality of several developed countries of all over the world. Instead of long term vision of good public transportation, the government only invests in road infrastructure. In Brazil, right now, the government has reduced the interest rates, and facilitated credits for citizens to buy new cars. Consequently, traffic get worse and worse everyday. I lived in Sao Paulo, the number of cars in Sao Paulo is more than 7 million, this means 631 cars per 1000 people. That’s a lot of cars! To reduce the numbers of cars during peak hours, the government implemented what is called “rodizio”, certain day and time of the week you are not allowed to drive with your car in the city. Well, what normally people do, they buy another car with another plaque number, and they still drive on that day.

    We should reflect in another quote of Peñalosa “a good city is not that one that even poor people drive cars, but those that even rich people use public transportation”.

    I live now in Switzerland and I see a reality that I don’t really know when I will see it in my country, Brazil. Here is common to see CEOs, President of the country and other VIP people using public transportation. Of course, here the public transportation is reliable, comfortable and secure. I hope one day Brazil and other several countries can start investing heavily in a long term sustainable public transportation system.

  6. I think Adriana mentioned one of crucial aspects of the problem, I am referring to “CEOs, President of the country and other VIP people using public transportation”. I reckon that it is not only matter of secure transportation as may be also the historic material situation of a nation. I remember when Poland turned into capitalist economy and Poles began to earn more in the beginning of 90s, a car was simply a status symbol and no one would leave it in garage for a public transportation, even if it meant loosing much time daily in traffic jams.

    Today rush hours in Warsaw are just unbearable and new, foreign cars are not anything exceptional anymore, people of all income type travel together in public transportation, although it is a mystery why so many white collars still drive daily to their offices their company limousines instead of switching for a shorter travel by the underground/tram/bus. I am really wondering about the role of car being a material symbol in the traffic-jam problem, maybe you know something on it, Maciej?

  7. Pingback: Curitiba, Where the Rubber Hits the Road in Urban Transportation Planning | Studentreporter

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