The World's Worst Traffic Jams

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Paulo Whitaker / Reuters

A traffic jam in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Residents of Sao Paolo do amazing things in their cars. They shave. They apply their makeup. They chat up the girl or guy in the neighboring car and make dates. They read. They learn foreign languages. They watch DVDs. Paulistas do all these things because they have no choice; the city's crippling traffic problem forces them to spend a major proportion of their lives inching their way through gridlock.

Morning, noon and night, the people of Brazil's biggest city are stuck behind the wheel. Saturday morning, Sunday evening, weekday afternoon, the panorama is the same: cars, bumper to bumper. "Here you go," says Alexandre Teixeira, slowing to a crawl one recent weekend. "Sao Paulo, 7:30 on a Sunday night, and we are in a traffic jam."

With more than 20 million people living in the greater metropolitan area, a topography of hills and valleys that makes it difficult to get your bearings, and the hum of a city that is South America's business, design and industrial capital, Sao Paulo has never been easy to navigate. But the growing economy and higher living standards of recent years have made getting around the city increasingly difficult. More cars were sold last year than during any in history, and close to 1,000 new vehicles takes to the streets each day. The result, predictably, is chaotic congestion.

"It's gotten a lot worse over the last three years," says taxi driver Fernando Ambrosio. "And it is going to get even worse. Everyone is buying cars now. There is much more financing available. I think I am going to give up and do something else, it's too stressful to spend 15 hours a day in traffic."

Like Ambrosio, millions of Paulistas are condemned to spend large parts of their lives staring at the bumper of the vehicle in front. In the city center, the sheer volume of cars — often made worse by stop-start delivery trucks and parents on the school run — brings traffic to a grinding halt. And the absence of ring roads leaves the city's outskirts clogged by trucks and commercial vehicles, some of which are not even intending to stop in Sao Paulo, but have no route around the place. At peak hours, the accumulated tailbacks can stretch past 120 miles.

Not surprising, then, that Paulistas all have traffic stories to tell. These range from the depressingly familiar — the time it took them two hours to move one city block — to the admiringly audacious — one oft-repeated tale involves a guy throwing a cell phone in the open car window of a girl he fancied, and then calling her to ask for a date. Everyone knows someone who sat so long without moving they gave up and parked their car to wait it out at the nearest coffee shop. And with a construction boom under way, some people are now complaining of traffic jams before they even leave home, as neighbors jostle to get out of underground parking garages.

Not only does their commute eat into Paulistas' productivity and sense of well-being by taking hours out their day; it also leaves them angry, exhausted and depressed.

"I feel useless, like I am a prisoner," says Andreia de Oliveira, an architect who spends between two and three hours each day going to and from work. "I could be at the gym, studying, at home relaxing. But instead I am stressed and frustrated."

Fixing the problem won't be easy. Sao Paulo currently has a program that obliges each car to be kept off the street during rush hour one day each week, as well as special bus lanes that help public transport move more easily. It recently announced an additional series of measures to help speed up the flow.

But given the scale of the problem, these measures are timid and ineffective, and the city has rejected a full-scale day without a car program such as the one used in Mexico City. It has also refused to even consider the congestion-charge option that reduced traffic in central London by 30%.

The obvious answer is to invest in public transport systems. But Sao Paulo has just 38 miles of metro line, and although it plans to add another 22 miles to the total by 2010, that is clearly too little, too late. Even the city's traffic chief admits things will get worse before they get better.

"I am not pessimistic," Roberto Scaringella told the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper last month. "There's a limit to the amount of construction. And to the motorization too. But the consequence is that we are going to have to learn to live with longer traffic jams."