São Paulo: Public Transportation Climate Risk Assessment

By Meredith Danberg-Ficarelli


Central Policy Issue

How can the city of São Paulo adapt its public transit system to changing climate conditions, while reducing the vulnerability of underserved low-income populations in the urban periphery?

General Information

The public transit-dependent poor live in peripheral hillsides, and the number of commuters to the city center increases with sprawl (World Bank, 2011 [b]). Dedicated bus lanes extend farther from the city center than rail and metro lines but make up only 112 kilometers of the current 4,300-kilometer bus network (UN-HABITAT, 2010). A recently legalized network of privately owned minibuses is often the sole transit outlet to the urban periphery (World Bank, 2005).

Sector-Specific Climate Risks

A climate risk assessment (Mehrotra et al., 2009) shows that São Paulo can expect to face several climate hazards including higher temperatures, increasing frequency and intensity of precipitation, and storm surge due to sea level rise (Blake et al., 2011). Floods caused by rains and excessive stormwater runoff (World Bank, 2010) inundate and can wash out roads (FTA, 2011).

The population in the landslide- and flood-prone periphery grew by 30% between 1991 and 2000 (World Bank, 2011 [b]), but residents have little capacity to evacuate during extreme events (UN-HABITAT, 2010). A storm in December 2009 flooded rivers and roadways, and caused power outages, which stranded public transit passengers inside trains (World Bank, 2010).

Droughts pose a risk to train systems that rely on hydroelectric power, and current trends show decreasing precipitation in Northeast Brazil where hydropower generation is concentrated (FTA, 2011). Heat waves can cause tracks exposed to direct sunlight to buckle, slowing transit times or causing derailment, and extreme heat can jeopardize the health of passengers and transit employees (FTA, 2011).

Adaptation and Mitigation Response

The 2002 flex-fuel program reduced CO2 emissions through engine retrofits and new vehicles that accept a combination of gasoline and ethanol (Dubeux et al., 2011). License plate restrictions further reduce emissions by keeping 20% of cars out of the city center during peak hours (Biderman, 2008).

Along with a new unified fare collection system (Pereira, 2010), the 2005 Integrated Urban Transport Project improves accessibility to public transit (World Bank, 2005) and increases the number of transfers between transit modes. The proliferation of segregated lanes for low-emissions buses is increasing as well (Biderman, 2008).

The Municipal Climate Change Policy calls for a 30% reduction in emissions against 2005 levels by 2030 (IEA, 2008), and the City Climate Law seeks to reduce congestion and improve spatial distribution of roadways (Law Number 14,933, 2009). São Paulo Agenda 2012 will map and geo-reference landslide risk and prioritize vulnerability (World Bank, 2011 [a]).

Policy Recommendations for Climate Resilience

Sao Paulo’s transit projects focus on mitigating CO2 emissions but must begin to direct efforts towards the urban poor in order to improve their access to urban employment opportunities. São Paulo can expand efforts to create permeable surfaces, increase vegetative coverage in the city, and enhance rainwater catchment in order to simultaneously absorb CO2 and decrease the risk of flash floods and landslides.

Densely populated peripheral regions that are at the lowest risk to climate hazards should be strategically targeted by bus network extensions, so that future development in peripheral regions is clustered in lower-risk areas. The Ministry of Transport should coordinate with the minibuses, offering fuel price incentives encouraging shorter trips between new transport hubs located in dense peripheral areas rather than trips to the city center. A second initiative should be undertaken to gradually replace the most polluting of these vehicles with retrofitted flex-fuel engines and eventually hybrid-electric vehicles. Transit agencies should analyze their rolling stock and move it from flood-risk areas. As a last resort, communities located in extremely vulnerable and inaccessible areas should be considered for relocation to areas with improved transit access and lower risk.


This article is a product of Professor Shagun Mehrotra’s Climate Change and Cities class. Views expressed are entirely those of the individual author.



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