Opinion, by Alfonso Stefanini

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Having a car in Rio de Janeiro is like a box of chocolates: you never know what kind of traffic you’re going to get yourself stuck in unless you try it. The freedom of having a car in a city, particularly in Rio, is not as rosy as the petroleum and car industries make it seem in their advertisements all over the city.

Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.

First off, if you plan to use your car in the city, you need luck to find parking spots and cash to pay off both the legal and illegal parking scouts. Also construction, accidents, and rain can delay your commute time significantly. In my experience, a trajectory that would normally take you fifteen to twenty minutes by car can take as long as 45 minutes in one of these situations.

In general, as a good rule of thumb, you have to give yourself at least one hour to get anywhere inside the metropolitan area. The same geography that gives the city its title of Cidade Maravilhosa the shortcuts available to drivers who are trying to escape traffic jams. Furthermore, traffic lights are not properly synchronized, which literally fuels the waste of gas.

A small and efficient car is still expensive when you consider the fact that Brazil is one of the most expensive places to fill your gas tank. Ethanol, a biofuel, is typically mixed with gasoline and has been part of the mixed-energy policy since the mid-seventies.

But this year Brazil has not been able to satisfy its domestic ethanol demands and became a net importer, losing its prestigious long-term net exporting tradition of at least ten years.

In little less than ten years the car fleet in the metropolitan area doubled, and it is estimated that Rio de Janeiro state will double its car fleet again by 2020.

According to a study by São Paulo University (USP), two million people in the world die every year from illnesses attributed to polluted city air, and this number is estimated to jump to nine million by the year 2050.

This will mean that air pollution will cause more deaths than both malaria and lack of sanitation. These numbers are sobering, considering that people living in cities like Rio de Janeiro are sixteen percent more likely to die from lung cancer and eight percent more likely to die from myocardial infarction.

About ninety percent of the anthropogenic aerosols we inhale in Rio de Janeiro are derived from car exhaust, according to USP. If you have to commute, and especially if you live or work on the outer limits of the city, you are likely to have a much higher exposure to dirty air than those traveling for less time.

Cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo typically “tax” one year from a typical human life span. Breathing city air has been compared to smoking three to six cigarettes a day.

Another thing is people psychologically change when they are behind a wheel of a car in Rio de Janeiro, it seems, and it feels like they all want to be Ayrton Senna. In addition to this “fast and furious” mentality, you’ll realize that, in Rio, drivers have a predatory instinct where the biggest car always wins the race.

Urban development has to incorporate more efficient and less pollutant sources of transportation, such as bikes. The bicycle is the most energy efficient form of human transportation and some may argue that it might even be the most efficient form of physical movement executed by anyone, animal or machine.

The future is now and this is why the city needs to incorporate car-pooling, ride-sharing, and more bike lanes. Close to three percent of the surface of the earth is city-bound. This percentage accommodates a little more than half of the human population and emits the majority of the anthropogenic gases attributed to climate change and air pollution.

Brazil has one of the biggest and most active user-base networks in the world. The use of social networks could enhance the Cariocas experience by mobilizing the concept of carpooling and car safety. Carpooling, know as “carona” in Brazil, should be incorporated throughout the city to make the city safer and more transportation efficient.

The mayor of Rio, Eduardo Paes, said in an interview that he plans to integrate a carpool lane for the sports delegation coming to the 2016 Olympics. While this sounds like a good idea in principal, why is this not the rule today?

Alfonso Stefanini has an MA in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California and a BA from Hampshire College. Alfonso lives in Rio de Janeiro, and he can be reached at: Ecobrasilis@gmail.com.


  1. The problem with bicycling to work in Rio is the climate–it’s just too hot most of the year. If you cycle in, you will arrive completely soaked in sweat, so unless where you work has a shower facility, you and people around you will be uncomfortable.
    The problems with carpooling are several, starting with the car as a status symbol, which it is in Brazil. A better solution than carpooling would be to institute the tax on driving in the center of town, as London did. An even better solution would be to prohibit private vehicles from driving in the center of town, forcing those who work there to use public transportation.

  2. For the most part this article reflects my daily driving experience in Rio. I appreciate Mr. Stefanini’s observation that drivers here adopt a ‘fast and furious’ mentality. It’s true they do, but they rarely get to act on it as they are reduced to moving at a snail’s pace, if moving at all, furiously (and senselessly) pounding on their horns instead! Air pollution and noise pollution.


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