Sick Of Traffic? Try To Rise Above It All
By Nick OlleAugust 7, 2012
You think you know traffic? South America’s largest city, São Paulo, recently set a congestion record — with nearly 300 km of roadway blocked at once. No wonder some Paulistas choose to chopper in to work.
São Paulo. Megacity. 3am.
I've just done the impossible — well actually, my taxi driver has. Thanks to the early hour and the fact it's a public holiday, we've just travelled the 30km from Guarulhos airport to my hotel in the heart of the city in a mere 30 minutes. That's an average speed of 60kmh — unheard of in São Paulo.
High in São Paulo
Another time, on another day, and you're looking at upwards of two hours for the same journey — if you're lucky. Indeed a few days later, I allocate an extra hour for the return trip to the airport. Had I made it two, I might not have missed my flight. Such is the traffic gridlock in Brazil's — and South America's — biggest city. Cruelly, the main freeway to the airport is named after Brazil's great Formula One driver Ayrton Senna.
On June 1, 2012, São Paulo broke its congestion record when a staggering 295km of roadways were simultaneously backed up. With hours of commute time ahead of them every day, many Paulistas reach for their car keys in the morning and also grab a novel, or even a DVD, as a matter of course.
"Make sure you take a book or a movie," the concierge at the hotel tells me when I ask how long it'll take to get across town to an interview later that morning. "It will probably just take an hour, but it's better to be prepared."
Later, my translator explains, "like the English talk about the weather, here it's all about the traffic".
Dreadful as the congestion is, it's hardly surprising that the streets are choked; nearly 11 and a half million people live in the municipality of São Paulo, 20 million in the broader metropolitan area, and more than 40 million in São Paulo state. As the country's industrial heartland — and the focal point of Brazil's economic boom — São Paulo's population ebbs and flows daily with millions of commuters converging to work in the capital and its surrounds, and later returning to their homes. We're talking about a city whose GDP dwarfs that of Croatia and a state whose GDP outstrips Poland's.
There are more than 7.27 million vehicles on the streets of the capital, and every month there are 15,000 more, according to the state department of transport. Take a wider view, embracing São Paulo state, and it's more than 23.5 million, with 100,000 new vehicles hitting the streets each month. Transport infrastructure has simply failed to keep up.
Rationing road space with a system that limits the number of cars allowed in the city each day, has done little to ease the congestion. The public transport system is too narrow in scope, and bursting at the seams. So some businesses and wealthier individuals choose to — literally — rise above the crush and buy back lost hours of productivity by choppering to and from work.
Urban air travel has grown as São Paulo's economic fortunes and its traffic have burgeoned. It is now considered the helicopter capital of the world, surpassing New York and Tokyo.
The concierge was right. My second encounter with São Paulo traffic is rather more in line with what Paulistas experience daily: lots of inching forward, pointless lane changes, and plenty of opportunity for "motorist-watching". I see women applying make-up and passenger-seat readers, but the excitement comes in the form of daredevil motorcyclists who weave dangerously in between the traffic. It "only" takes an hour to cover the 10 kilometres to the Campo de Marte city airport, where I've come to meet Rafael Dylis, commercial manager at Helimarte, one of São Paulo's leading air-taxi providers.
"Most of our business comes from executives," Dylis tells me, standing outside Helimarte's hangar. "This is a city with an airport at one end and a commercial centre at the other. In peak hour traffic it can take two hours [to travel between them], but the helicopter can get you there in 10 minutes."
Helimarte's is one of maybe 20 hangars in this section of the airport, and the constant coming and going of helicopters makes it difficult to hear. According to Brazil's helicopter pilots' association, there are about 1,200 pilots operating the city's 400 registered helicopters. They make an average of 300 flights a day. National figures — which are dominated by São Paulo — show the helicopter industry growing by 20 per cent each year.
Helimarte was formed in 1999 with one helicopter, which mainly provided traffic monitory for radio stations. If ever there was a bird's eye view of a business opportunity, this was it. Sure enough, as the traffic became worse, Helimarte's fleet grew and the company began to offer corporate taxi services, emergency courier flights and tourism packages. "Our business has grown thanks to the São Paulo traffic, which is more intense every day," Dylis smiles. The company now boasts 12 helicopters and four planes, which together have logged more than 35,000 flights.
Dylis summons one of Helimarte's pilots, Thiago, who takes The Global Mail on a 10-minute flight in one of the company's smaller helicopters. The traffic below is unusually fluid, owing to the public holiday, but the potential for gridlock is more than clear as we hover above the dense network of roads and buildings [see accompanying video]. Below, according to the industry data, there are 193 registered heliports. Many of them are obvious from above, looking like miniature basketball courts, on top of the city's office blocks.
When we touch down I ask Dylis how much such flights normally cost. "We charge by the hour," he explains, "A small helicopter that takes up to three passengers costs 1,800 Reais (AUD840) an hour. A bigger helicopter for five passengers costs BRL3,200 (AUD1,494) an hour."
It's not cheap, but for many — even in economic terms — it's worth it. It generally only takes one flight to convert a first-time passenger into a loyal customer, Dylis says. The biggest challenge Helimarte and other air taxi services face is competition from "pirate" operators who fly without official authorisation, at a fraction of the price charged by accredited companies. Helimarte has a perfect safety record but statistics from Brazil's Centre of Investigation and Prevention of Aeronautical Accidents show 148 helicopter accidents (42 of them fatal) between 2001 and 2010.
The time-is-money motive has seen some businesses buy their own helicopters, to claw back executives' productive hours. The CEO of pharmaceutical company Blausiegel, Marcelo Hahn has been flying to work in the company chopper since 2004. "It is ideal," he says, "faster and more efficient. It takes me about nine minutes to get to work, including the drive to the helipad and the flight."
Hahn says the traffic nightmare on São Paulo's streets will only get worse unless the public transport network undergoes serious overhaul and expansion. Most Paulistas agree, and the vast majority of them don't have the luxury of taking the aerial route about town.
Teacher Lezi De Oliveira Leite describes driving in São Paulo as "horrible". This year she took a job close to her home, saving herself almost three hours in traveling time each day. "It used to take me about one and a half hours to get to my lessons on time if I left home after 6am, so I would always leave at least 15 minutes before 6am.
"My opinion is that we need more underground," she says, "that would help a lot.
"And maybe some birth control!"