For a look at the unintended consequences of Brazil's emergence as an economic superpower, take a drive on Sao Paulo's ring road at rush hour, or really any time of day. You'll have a while to ponder.
With about 18 million people in the greater metro area, the world's eighth-largest city by population is often described as having the world's worst traffic jams, but that really doesn't do it justice. On a bad day, the traffic on the roads in and out of the city can stretch for nearly 200 miles. Unless you're one of the lucky few who can afford to commute by helicopter, getting in and out of the city center can be a two- or three-hour proposition.
I decided to take a crack at fixing the problem. But as I'm a video-game blogger living 6,000 miles away in Manchester, England, it seemed unlikely that Sao Paulo's authorities would hand me the key to the city planner's office anytime soon. So I decided to try out some ideas first on SimCity.
For the uninitiated, SimCity is an ongoing series of urban design games from the California-based studio Maxis. The game allows users to play mayor -- or rather a mayor with nearly godlike powers to build and demolish structures on a whim -- to manage a virtual city and be tasked with providing for the housing, health, energy needs, transportation, and entertainment of its inhabitants. Mismanage your resources and the city will eventually fall into ruin or explode into violent anarchy. Normally, there's a limit on time and resources, but you can also turn on "sandbox mode" for experiments like my virtual Sao Paulo.
This latest edition takes a far more casual approach to the genre, somewhat limiting the options that players have available in favor of focusing on making the experience as accessible and entertaining to as many people as possible. However, concealed underneath the new game is a system capable of re-creating real-life traffic layouts as well as plenty of other real-world city infrastructure services. Traffic, for example, will follow the sort of behavior you would expect to see on your own commute to work, building up at peak times in both the morning and afternoon and routing itself through alternative avenues if there's a particularly nasty buildup along the way.
By re-creating part of Sao Paulo in SimCity, I hoped to get to the heart of the traffic issues and perhaps attempt to provide a feasible solution that could bring traffic numbers down -- or at least redirect them away from the awful jams.
First, it was necessary to understand how things got so bad. Sao Paulo is Brazil's largest metropolis by land area and for decades was one of the world's fastest-growing cities. In the last 10 years, the suburbs have grown from 6.7 million to 8.4 million people, accounting for more than two-thirds of the area's population growth. And with around 6.8 million cars, the city has one of the largest vehicle fleets. But the single ring road around Sao Paulo provides the only real route into the city and is simultaneously used by all those millions of people trying to get into the center, plus those hoping to avoid going through it at all costs.