Getting Around in Sao Paulo – Infrastructure and Urban Development

Upon arriving in Sao Paulo, two things are immediately obvious during the ride from the airport to the city center.  First, infrastructure investment has greatly lagged behind the city’s economic growth and expansion.  And second, while there are several shiny new towers dotting the skyline, there is an enormous stock of 1970s and 1980s high rise buildings, which extend as far as the eye can see in every direction.  The combination of these two factors has had a direct impact on how Sao Paulo has developed and the challenges that the city faces in its future growth.

Getting from Guarulhos International Airport into the city can be a challenge for several reasons.  As of yet there is no subway or train system that links the airport with central Sao Paulo, and in the absence of such systems the roads can become clogged with traffic.  What would normally be a forty-five minute drive can turn into a two hour ordeal pretty easily.  Congestion in the city center can also be very severe on weekdays.  The subway and connecting train system only serve a limited portion of the city, and the concentration of businesses in several nodes throughout the city creates a traffic gridlock along routes between these nodes.  Our trip organizers and tour guides have been very thoughtful in allowing enough time between meetings to account for the traffic, but the unpredictability in traffic conditions introduces a huge amount of inefficiency into daily life.  On a couple occasions, bus rides where we have allocated forty minutes have turned out to be fifteen minute rides because traffic was not as bad as expected.  On another occasion, we spent twenty-five minutes doing a U-turn because there was no way to make a left turn at a traffic light.  Many of the real estate professionals we have been meeting with have pointed to enhanced infrastructure as a key requirement for the continued growth of the city, development of industry, and attraction of professional talent.

While I often think of Brazil as an emerging country given its association with the BRIC nations, from a pure building stock perspective, Sao Paulo has a staggering amount of older high rise buildings.  The quality of these buildings, though, has not kept up with top international standards, leaving developers to continue moving away from the old city center in search of new development sites.  Through the last decade or two, the city’s commercial center has steadily moved southwards as newer, higher quality buildings have been constructed.  The shifting center of gravity has exacerbated some of the infrastructure shortages, as the new areas are not as well connected by subway.  It may also to some extent create a short term investment mentality whereby building owners desire to cash in their investment quickly before the momentum shifts away from their site.  While it would seem that redevelopment of older parts of town would be a potential opportunity given the stronger transportation connectivity and central location, concerns over safety in these neighborhoods and the ingrained mindset of moving away from these older areas has so far prevented such redevelopment.

Despite only having spent three days in Sao Paulo so far, I am struck by the immense concentration of economic activity within the city, the positive energy among the local population, and the vibrant culture and lifestyle.  An improved infrastructure network and more cohesive long term city planning would provide a tremendous boost in enabling the city to continue developing to its full potential.

James Hoeland ‘13

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