(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Latin America is a motorist’s nightmare. The region is home to seven of the 25 worst cities for driving, including three Brazilian behemoths Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte.
Fortunately it’s also a region where technological innovation can spread even faster than padded public-works contracts. Brazilians are some of the most enthusiastic users of smart phones and the chattering WhatsApp. President Jair Bolsonaro won’t get off Facebook. The country is Uber’s second largest market. So it’s no surprise that electronic scooter giants Bird, Grow (the newly merged Grin and Yellow), and now Lime are vying for riders.
Environmentalists and urban wonks rightly cheer the arrival of the e-scooter. What better than a small, quiet, clean-running two-wheel vehicle to lighten Latin America’s deepening carbon footprint and ease world-class gridlock? YPF Ventures, a venture capital fund founded by the eponymous Argentine oil company, recently invested in Bird, becoming the first oil and gas major to bet on micro mobility. Yet in Brazil, thanks to backward-gazing policymakers and academics, and state regulatory agencies captured by lobbies and political incontinence, nifty additions to the urban planning oeuvre are instead mostly a pricey plaything for the well-heeled.
That’s a shame. Travelers in big cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo spend 75% more time than necessary commuting, according to Marta Gonzalez of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s department of environmental engineering. In her comparison of five major world cities (Boston, San Francisco, Rio, Lisbon and Porto), Rio clocked the slowest travel time.
Those who rely on mass transit fare the worst. While Latin American metro systems are relatively fast and efficient, they carry just 10% of the region’s 200 million public transportation passengers. That leaves the heavy lifting of public transit to the ignoble bus—“big-cans” in Brazilian street argot—and the burden grows more onerous by the year.
Metropolitan Sao Paulo saw its bus fleet swell by nearly 28% in the decade since 2006, accounting for 12 million daily trips. Although the bus fleet pales before the city’s 7 million private vehicles, these diesel-guzzling clunkers kicked in almost half of metropolitan Sao Paulo’s nitrogen oxide emissions.
Researchers concluded that by swapping the outdated diesel fleet for more fuel efficient vehicles or electric buses, metropolitan authorities could slash noxious black carbon and other tailpipe emissions. Yet by 2018, only 2% of Sao Paulo buses were electric.
Brazilians have taken note. In 2012, congress passed the National Urban Mobility Policy, mandating local governments to draw up urban transit strategies. Yet by 2018, only 10% of big cities had complied. So it’s little wonder that only around a quarter of greater Sao Paulo’s nearly 20 million residents are effectively served by rapid public transportation.
That’s a failure of vision at the top. In Rio, where bus companies have faced few regulatory fetters, researchers found that 80% of buses run on redundant routes. Another reason is a blackout in investment. A study by the National Association of Urban Transportation Companies showed that the vast majority of mass transit investments in the last decade were gobbled up by expanding two metro lines and creating express bus lanes. “This is more organizing traffic than building new infrastructure,” said Pablo Cerdeira, director of the Center for Technology and Society at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.
Analysts say a competitive private sector could help reset public transit. Brazil should be so lucky. Consider Operation Last Stop, a spin-off of the sprawling Carwash corruption probe. In 2017, it discovered how a handful of bus company moguls in league with shady contractors bribed authorities in exchange for tax breaks, privileges and transit concessions.
Scooters won’t rescue Rio or its gridlocked neighbors from pirates and failed planning. But they could help. According to figures from Grow, which operates Rio’s scooters, the number of scooters and users has risen tenfold so far this year. More than the latest leisure fetish, cheap two-wheeled alternatives could ferry commuters along that crucial “last mile” on the journey from the final bus or metro stop and the workplace or home. And scooters fetch a fraction of the price of electric bikes, the upscale ride for Brazil’s green commuters.
Rio had micro mobility in mind earlier this decade when it launched a network of municipal bike paths. However, city administrators and the sponsoring bank settled on a solution for leisure and sports, not getting people to and from work, and so shepherded cyclists to beaches, parks and plazas. Now policymakers apparently want to confine scooters to the same routes, leaving would-be business commuters to stray into the city at their own peril.
Brazilian cities could do better by easing regulations for scooters and other traffic-optimizing technologies. Using Waze to better distribute buses, for example, could reduce traffic in cities like Rio and Sao Paulo by 15 to 30%, Gonzalez’s team found. Getting the powerful bus lobby on board with tools that reduce demand for their services is another matter.
“Our regulatory laws and policy making are conservative and biased toward cars and buses,” said Cerdeira. “We need innovation and disruption but have a bureaucratic tradition weighted to the current players, not newcomers.”
Under-served passengers may have the last word. Though the motives for Brazilian discontent run deep, recall that a modest rise in bus fares sparked mass demonstrations in 2013 and fueled the revolt that eventually toppled an elected president. The ride since then has been anything but smooth.
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Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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