Rivers, Rail, Roads and Regions
A Chronology of São Paulo’s Transportation Systems
A couple of years ago I found myself stuck in a bus terminal on a rainy Friday afternoon in São Paulo, Brazil. Predicted mild showers turned out to be a summer storm— an all-too-familiar experience of those who are lucky enough to live in this sprawling metropolis. The problem with the rain is that it often affects the traffic, and with the downpour I was seeing, congested roads were a given. As I sat there, stuck in the bus looking outside the window seeing what seemed like an endless barricade made of cars, I couldn’t help but wonder: when did moving around São Paulo get this bad? Has this always been this way? Could this ever improve? For the first two questions I’ve been able to find some answers, but the third is still to be determined. The short answer is that São Paulo’s transportation had, in fact, not always been like this.
São Paulo’s history of transportation can be seen as a window to understand the processes of urbanization and the economic development of the city and the state, both in terms of urban transportation and regional transportation. We can think of these developments in three main phases: rivers, rail and roads. Centuries using rivers and trails, leading to railways and streetcars which would later make way for highways and cars. “São Paulo has transformed time and again, and with it, the urban experience of those who live there.
A String of Villages along the Rivers
Way back in the 1500s to the mid-1800s, the first large-scale network of transportation explored in this region was none other than its rivers. As a hydrologically advantaged area, São Paulo’s geological formation granted it a peculiar characteristic: the Tietê basin. Contrary to the vast majority of Brazilian rivers, the Tietê river and its tributaries flow inland, cutting across the entirety of the state of São Paulo from east to west, connecting to the Paraná River. This allowed it to become a main instrument in the colonization of Brazil, establishing settlements along its margins across the state. Rivers played a role that was both regional and local, effectively shaping how and where the city would grow and were a part of everyday life.
Needless to say, São Paulo’s urban development shares an intricate history with its rivers, and with the ways in which they have been perceived. Portuguese priests first settled on the banks of the Tamanduateí and Anhangabaú rivers where the center of the city of São Paulo has developed since 1554. For more than 300 years, the rivers were a main economic asset of the city, providing fresh water, fishing and transportation. They were also the main connection from outer regions of the city to trading centers located near the ports, where trade would prosper.
Throughout the 18th century, networks of waterways expanded extensively. New connections were made across the country, from São Paulo to the west, reaching Mato Grosso and Goiás, then later expanding to the north connecting the Tocantins, Tapajós, Araguaia and Madeira rivers. During this period, thousands of miles of waterways were developed at great expense, deploying resources to ensure seamless navigation whenever that was feasible. Rivers continued to structure regional relationships between cities, but during the 1800s their role as a main transportation infrastructure would slowly be replaced.
A Network of Cities Linked by Rail
The second phase we’ll explore dates from the mid 1800s to roughly the mid 1900s, when railways dominated São Paulo’s landscape. The development of rail infrastructure followed the rise of São Paulo’s coffee economy. That moment required transportation to keep up with the pace of economic growth, and soon enough railways began to span across the state. The geography of the coffee economy would also determine the economic roles of regions and cities. During this period, São Paulo would evolve to become the financial and trade center of that economy, later boosting its potential as an industrial and service hub.
The first coffee plantations emerged in the Paraíba Valley, east of São Paulo, and from there it would develop towards the west of the state. The blueprint for coffee plantations followed along the state’s main rivers, occupying the higher grounds of the basins. The production of coffee happened to be very successful in western region of the state due to its favorable soil composition and climate, resulting in the regions’ increasing prosperity. The development of railways led the way to reach these areas and would connect them back to São Paulo and further south towards the port of Santos.
As the cities grew, accelerated by trade that was enabled by rail infrastructure, their economies became more diverse and attracted new waves of migration. Access to rail transformed urban life across the state, allowing smaller forms of business to emerge in multiple locations, creating smaller local markets. Excess capital from the coffee economy would find its way into industrialization, forever changing the cities across the state of São Paulo. This was the beginning of São Paulo’s rapid and regional urbanization process, in which the state population increased fivefold from 1872 to 1920 with 4.5 million people across the state.
With growing populations in city centers, rail would also come to transform the nature of urban transportation, and with it the life on the city’s streets. Not only were the cities of São Paulo regionally connected by rail, but also internally with the expansion of streetcars in cities like São Carlos, Campinas, São Paulo and Santos. As cities grew and industrialized São Paulo unfolded, the rivers were superseded as main transportation infrastructure and became seen as health hazards due to their use as sanitation infrastructure. This would lead to the canalization of rivers and the urge to tame them within cities.
A Constellation of Metropoli Intersected by Highways
The third and most recent of the phases is perhaps most familiar to us. The narrative for the future of infrastructure was seeking to elect a new beacon of hope: roads, highways and cars. This new shaping of the city began slowly over the course of the 1900s and would only intensify after the 1950s, as rivers continued to be tamed in to make way for the growing industrial city. This ideological shift is perhaps best exemplified by the Plano de Avenidas— the Avenues Plan.
Led by Francisco Prestes Maia, an engineer who served as a two-term mayor of São Paulo who also played a role in the urban planning of many of the state’s major cities, the Avenues Plan would entail a larger agenda that privileged motorized transportation. Prestes Maia and his associate Ulhoa Cintra would develop a plan that promised hygiene, circulation and the embellishment of the city in a fashionable “city beautiful” aesthetic.
The Avenues plan marks a new moment for the city, one guided by the logic of “functionality,” “beauty” and “modernity.” Drawing inspiration from U.S. architect Daniel Burnham’s approach to Chicago, Prestes Maia sought to “make no small plans” (a quote often attributed to Burnham’s philosophy) and transformed the city by canalizing rivers and drawing avenues over the resulting “empty” land. The rivers were a problem, but they became a “tamed” problem, and they continued to be seen solely as a destination for waste and an inconvenience for development. Soon, rail would also become an inconvenience. What began as an urban project and vision for the city of São Paulo would become a state-wide ethos.
The decades that followed witnessed a dramatic shift towards developing more and more roads, and São Paulo sought to benefit tremendously from this. In the 1950s and 1960s, not only was the auto industry expanding in São Paulo, but the construction and civil engineering industries were also booming. They began to ride the same wave seen in the construction of Brasília: the promise of a modern Brazil. In 1956, the first car manufacturer (ROMI) set up shop in Santa Barbara do Oeste, and three years later, in 1959, Volkswagen would install itself in São Bernardo do Campo, right outside of São Paulo.
The city and the state’s major metropolitan regions witnessed immense sprawl and population growth was unprecedented. From 1920 to 2020 the state population of São Paulo increased tenfold and the population in the city of São Paulo would increase twice as much.
The result of these multiple shifts — the dramatic population increase, the prioritization of car-based infrastructural investments and the intense urban sprawl — has been an expanding congested city and region, in which many areas are only accessible by car, large groups of the population are spatially disconnected and the air quality is deteriorating. This account is not limited to the city of São Paulo. It is a story many other cities in Brazil and beyond have also witnessed to varying degrees. The state of São Paulo today is home to 45 million people and 30 million registered vehicles, while the city of São Paulo is home to 12 million people and 8.7 million registered vehicles.
The Road Ahead?
Thinking through these different phases that have shaped the São Paulo I know today, the question that still needs answering is: could this ever improve? Could there be a way forward that embraces yet a new phase? The same way the city we see today was unimaginable 50 years ago, I believe that the city 50 years from now can also be something radically different. São Paulo, both as a city and a region, needs to reinvent itself dramatically if it is to face the challenges of the 21st century and become a more sustainable and healthy place.
There are several ideas on how São Paulo could yet again radically transform its transportation and with it the experience of its urban life, two of which merit a closer look. Ironically, they revisit solutions from the phases prior to our current moment, with a vision for rail and rivers.
Whether the future of the São Paulo will see ferries floating through canals and urban waterways, or trams sliding through the streets on rail, I would like to present these two visions that can hopefully inspire us to be bold and optimistic to what could perhaps be a “phase four” in São Paulo’s history of transportation.
The Inter-city Train (Trem Intercidades)
Over the past few decades, it became clearer to government authorities that the public policy efforts directed to road-based transportation were failing to improve mobility. As a response to these trends the state government of São Paulo proposed a shift in regional development: a regional rail system connecting the state’s largest urban areas, quite similar to the system that existed in the 1900s.
The project is known as the “Trem Intercidades” (TIC, or Intercity Train), and it would comprise 296 miles of rail east, west, north and south of São Paulo. It would make use of previous rail routes that had been phased out and abandoned for passenger transportation, making it easier to claim the right of way and station infrastructure required to make this vision a reality.
The train would cut across almost 20 cities, reaching a total population of 30 million people that would have access to rail transportation for the first time in more than two decades. This project is visionary in its use of existing resources and its breadth — proposing that the main cities of an entire region would become seamlessly connected over the course of a one-hour trip in a high performing, collective, clean transportation mode.
The Fluvial Metropolis
The last vision I would like to leave you with is one of my favorites. It is one that seeks to restructure how rivers and waterways could be once again transformational in the city and metropolitan area of São Paulo, and is known as the Hidroanel Metropolitano (Metropolitan Waterway Ring). It is a project advocated by Professor Alexandre Delijaicov of the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of the University of São Paulo, and has been crafted over the course of the last three decades, beginning primarily in 1998 through his Master’s dissertation. It is also referred to as the “Fluvial Metropolis.”
In this vision, São Paulo’s rivers are reclaimed as the main transportation axis for urban ferries. The canals become far more than transportation corridors and are the starting point for a network of urban fluvial beaches and public spaces. The edges of the river are also restructured, approximating the urban fabric to the river, contrasting with current conditions, in which most of São Paulo’s fluvial rims are populated by four-lane high speed highways. The city gets closer to the rivers, bike lanes and parks are reclaimed along the banks, and cars are redirected and limited to other locations.
This Fluvial Metropolis proposes São Paulo’s reconciliation with its rivers and an urban life around them. Instead of continuing the neglect, it embraces the rivers once again as a means of connection — connection to leisure, to cleaner transportation, to a city that values and protects its natural resources. It tackles big issues in the city and sets a higher standard for implementing greener infrastructure in dense urban areas. I like to imagine that someday, someone will be on one of those ferries cruising down the Pinheiros River looking through the window and thinking: “How could we have ever lived without this?”
Rafael Marengoni is an urban designer with degrees from the University of Campinas and Harvard University. He was a recipient of the DRCLAS Brazilian Cities Grant, and was formerly a research associate at the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. Currently, he is part of Sasaki’s Planning and Urban Design practice in Boston, MA.
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