Stepping out of the airport into a wall of hot air, my senses sharpened as I walked towards the car and prepared myself to journey through Rio de Janeiro for the first time. What I didn’t realize was that I was about to witness an idiosyncratic form of resourcefulness through the way people commute. The main highway from the international airport to the city center was packed with sluggish traffic that seemed oddly fluid and meandering as drivers totally ignored the lane markers on the road to maneuver seamlessly in order to gain position. Every inch of space was being harnessed in a chaotic ballet where awareness and vigilance kept cars from colliding with one another as they hastened their way along the freeway.
Among the cars were motorcycles, daringly weaving in between cars at perilous speeds, and waiting patiently for the flow to cease were merchants, strapped with snacks and beverages, who would go window to window capitalizing on the hundreds of passing customers. The scene made traffic seem as complicated as it possibly could have been while still maintaining functionality. It was ironic how well something as clumsy and stressful as traffic could be so gracious. Later in the week I found this smooth yet maximum stress was echoed in the bus system as well.
The busses ran through the tangle of roads with intensity, and without designated lanes like the bus rapid transportation in Curitiba, a city 100 km south of Rio, they has to in order to be efficient enough for people to ride them. People stand at designated bus zones that border busy road and flag down the bus they wanted, sometimes nearly jumping in front of the bus to stop it. Loading and unloading is as swift as it possible with busses decelerating with a skid and accelerating at full throttle as passengers simultaneously boarded and disembarked. In between stops busses traveled swift, I mean blistering for such large vehicles. Going around turns it looked like these busses were about to tip over. Google maps would indicate a 45 minute journey, the bus got there in 25. Payment was made to a separate attendant sitting behind the driver who would tender change, allowing the bus to take off as soon as passengers got on. Digging a little deeper, I discovered that the urgent driving is a result of the bus drivers being specifically trained to drive aggressive because they have a quota for the number of passengers they pick up during the course of a day. A Carioca (local) told me that in 2011 there were 126 accidents which caused death or injury and in 2012 there were 84.
What all of this fluid chaos showed is that a larger systematic change is needed in the way people traveled around the city, and it might be possible if there was the will to improve, but with the way these actors were hacking the current system, it seems unlikely that any will participate in that change. Instead people are choosing to work as efficiently as possible within the existing system, and with impressive albeit aggressive results. Perhaps there is a theme emerging about Brazilian society, resourcefulness. Doing the most with what they have.