Note: This article was first published November 14, 2015 and is being republished on September 12, 2016, in light of the Workers Party nominating Fernando Haddad as its candidate for the upcoming presidential election in Brazil. Haddad is replacing Lula da Silva, as Brazil’s Supreme Court had disqualified frontrunner Silva last week.
Sao Paulo: “O comunista, vai para Cuba (You communist, go to Cuba),” comes a shout from an SUV as it slows down along a cycle lane and a hand chucks a water bottle at a middle-aged man and his partner riding bicycles. As the startled couple try to regain their balance, more expletives are hurled at them and the vehicle vanishes into the fast lane. “Playboys,” murmurs the man, barely managing to balance his bicycle in the middle of an eight-lane, two-way avenue running through a leafy neighbourhood in this megalopolis of 19 million people. “Cycling in this city has a new hazard: the rage of car drivers,” says Ricardo Nunes, 46, a business consultant who cycles to work. “But I am not deterred by this harassment. Cycling is improving our quality of life. The roads do not belong to cars.”
Sao Paulo, an urban sprawl that is constantly expanding as it runs the engine of Brazil’s economy, is the world’s fifth most populous city. In touristy magazines, the biggest – and richest – city in the southern hemisphere is often shown as a tropical Manhattan where big cars fly by gleaming towers over which hover luxury choppers. But in just a little under three years, the city has undergone a dramatic change. Now it has brightly-painted bicycles lanes, walking paths, express BRT corridors, and speed limits for cars. Now, even during peak hours, traffic flows smoothly.
And suddenly Sao Paulo, where having a car is considered mandatory, is in the grip of a raging “cars versus cycles” debate. At the centre of this debate is the city mayor, Fernando Haddad who is being hailed an “urban visionary” at international forums and media. At home, however, some call him a “communist” who wants to “turn the city into Cuba”.
But Haddad, a former professor of political science at the University of Sao Paulo (USP), looks determined to make Sao Paulo a cidade inteligente – a smart city, to use the term Narendra Modi has popularised in India – by keeping the promises he made in his election campaign in 2012. As Haddad sits down for an exclusive interview with The Wire in his fifth-floor office at City Hall, the 52-year-old throws a quick glance at three huge screens on a wall in front of his table. One screen shows the state of traffic in the city. On the second one, he can monitor flood-risk warnings. And the third screen beams images from “Crack Land”, a square which was once notorious for drug addicts but now buzzes with shoppers.
Suave and serious, Haddad makes no tall claims. He says he is just following up on his promise to make the city more democratic and inclusive. “In my campaign, urban transport was the most debated issue. Eight years before I took over, the city had put all its attention on cars. Everything – budget and investments – focused on cars. I promised to turn around the situation and democratise the space,” says Haddad. “This is all about democratisation,” he adds in a soft tone that is more professorial than political.
Divisions, old and new
But some argue that today Sao Paulo is a divided city. In fact, it always has been divided: between rich and poor; between gated condos and favelas; and between those with cars and those who use public transport. Haddad, who got elected as the left-wing Workers Party candidate, has actually tried to bridge the gap by opening all public spaces to all citizens. But there’s been a bitter backlash.
When Haddad assumed office in 2013 and began working on public transport, he immediately came under attack. The previous government had scrapped the BRT corridors, making more space for cars. When Haddad reintroduced the corridor, a big magazine put a photo of a traffic jam in a car lane along an empty BRT corridor, with the headline: “The mess Haddad is creating”. It was a message from the car lobby: the roads belong to us. But Haddad didn’t budge. “This change was always on my agenda. But after the June 2013 protests, when people demanded better public transport, I decided to speed up the process. The protests worked as a catalyst. In just two years, it has changed people’s perspective,” says the mayor.
The perception has changed with reality. Sao Paulo is undergoing a radical change. In 2014, according to a survey, 56% of city residents used cars every day. Now the number is down to 45%. At the same time, there has been a sharp rise in the number of trips made on buses and the Metro. “We are witnessing a transport migration. There are more cycles. More people are using public transport and walking. They are thinking about their way of life. The number of accidents is falling. The number of deaths in the first semester of this year is 18.5% less than last year’s. We expect to cut the number of road deaths by 50% till 2020,” says Haddad.
A creation of late capitalism, Sao Paulo has been one of those cities where cars and speed get equated with success and social mobility. A little indigenous hamlet some 450 years ago, when the Europeans landed here, it became the centre of Brazil’s economy in the early 20th century. By mid-1950s, it had 2 million people living in a maze of steel, concrete and glass. The city encouraged the use of cars. Few mayors paid attention to public transport; cyclists were supposed to go out at their own risk.
All this began to change in 2013, when Haddad moved into City Hall.
To encourage bicycles, Haddad worked on a simple rule: if the city provides more space and infrastructure for cyclists, people would use bicycles. Now, according to a recent survey, 70% of cyclists use a bike to commute at least five times a week; and people are using bicycles not just to exercise, but to go to work, shopping and schools. “We always wanted to use a bicycle, but we never had the conditions. We were forced to use cars. Now there are cycle lanes and street signs for us. This city is changing in a very positive way,” says Nunes.
A big change has been the ease with which city buses move in the BRT corridors. Till the corridors became operational in 2013, traffic here was murderous. On weekends, traffic jams could be as long as 180 km. Despite the negative press, Haddad pushed on with his plans to get rid of the notorious jams. “All mayors face resistance. But all the measures I have taken now have people’s approval. When we created BRT lanes, there was a violent reaction. Now it has 90% approval. The cycle lanes, which were made recently, have less approval, but with time it’s going to get more approval,” says Haddad, with the conviction of a man who has no doubts about his policies.
Though Brazil has undergone a major social revamp in the past 13 years of leftist rule, Sao Paulo’s largely white, middle-class population remains opposed to all progressive policies. Sao Paulo state and city are the heart of Brazilian conservatism. The city, which ranks 6th in the Forbes list of the “Top 10 Billionaire Cities”, has more than 500 choppers that make 2,000 flights a day. In this city, where there are streets with more helipads than bus stops, Haddad’s policies are nothing short of revolutionary. No wonder then that in the conservative press and social media, Haddad is being attacked as a “communist” (It’s a slur going back to the 1960s, when an army coup deposed the then president on the pretext that he was going to introduce Cuba-style communism in Brazil).
Haddad just smiles at such insinuations. For someone who grew up politically and academically in the leftist tradition – he did his PhD on “Marx to Habermas: The Historical Materialism and its proper paradigm” – being called a communist is hardly an offence. “When you come from academic background, you are more prepared to face this kind of attacks,” says Haddad, adding that he is not an orthodox Marxist. “I like open Marxists, not dogmatic ones. That is worse than liberalism. It restricts critical analysis. I like David Harvey who is a Marxist but in the tradition that I like. My tradition is the Frankfurt School. My favorite authors are [Theodore] Adorno and [Herbert] Marcuse. They are the best thinkers of the 20th century.”
The son of a Lebanese migrant who arrived in Brazil in 1947, Haddad made a name for himself as a brilliant professor at USP in the 1990s. From 2005 to 2012, he served as minister of education in the federal government under Presidents Lula and Dilma Rousseff. Then he decided to run for mayor of Sao Paulo – to “bring change to the city”. One of his first decisions as mayor was to clear “Crack Land”, just off the City Hall. Mayors had come and gone, but drug peddlers and addicts stayed there forever. Instead of police action, Haddad introduced an Open Arms Programme under which he spent $ 1,000 per person for treatment and skill development. As expected, the conservatives attacked him but he stuck to his guns. “The war on drugs is being replaced by another approach. We had 1,500 addicts here. Now it is down to 300. We didn’t expel them. All of them became better. Two years ago, we had a lot of critics. Now, it’s diminishing as drug trafficking has gone down. It would be a big mistake to cut down these programmes,” says Haddad, pointing to the screen with live images from “Crack Land”.
Smart city, inclusive city
Unlike India, city mayors enjoy a lot of powers in Brazil. The local government has always been a strong institution, independent of state and federal governments. But, traditionally, mayors kept themselves restricted to running cities “efficiently”, with little thought to inclusive growth. Things began to change in the late 1980s when social movements and labor unions organised street protests across the country, seeking participatory provisions in the constitution. As the Workers Party was born out of a union movement itself, when Haddad became the mayor in 2013, he started creating the world’s largest participatory development plan by involving hundreds of thousands of Sao Paulo citizens. As part of the process, residents introduced 117 amendments in the city plan, including cycle lanes and better buses.
Armed with the residents’ charter, Haddad got down to creating more democratic space. He also began working to make Sao Paulo a Smart City, which in his view is all about investments in public services and focus on inclusive growth, especially for those on the margins.
In Haddad’s view, a Smart City is not about handing over the city keys to big construction firms and hi-tech corporations. It’s about, what he calls, making intelligent interventions. “You can make a Smart City with low cost innovations. It’s unbelievable what you can do in a city with low cost. The important thing is to know what people want from the city,” says Haddad, emphasizing the word “inteligente” (intelligent) for smart.
Under Haddad, Sao Paulo has become an example of innovations for inclusion. The city has installed free wi-fi in 120 public squares, mostly in poor areas. Next month, Haddad will inaugurate a favela completely illuminated with LEDs. The measures are already making a difference. “We have 85,000 daily users of free wi-fi. The majority of them live in the peripheries. They do not have enough money. The city is guaranteeing their digital rights. In the areas with LEDs, people now go out at night. Earlier, they didn’t. We are paying for this investment by saving money because LEDs savs 50% energy,” says Haddad. “It’s sustainable and socially inclusive.”
An urban visionary
In the past couple of years, several cities – New York, Barcelona, Madrid, Paris and Bogotá – have elected mayors whose focus is on providing affordable public services to people and not privatising them. Haddad feels there is a need for a dialogue between such cities to share their experiences. He is especially keen to know about urban planning and innovation in China and India – home to some of the most populous cities. “We have a partnership with many Latin American cities which are trying to find alternatives to the present system. In Latin America, there is no other city, with the exception of Mexico City, as big as Sao Paulo. So we need to be closer to cities like Shanghai, Mumbai, Delhi and Tokyo.”
Like a good teacher, Haddad is always eager to learn from other cities. Last month, as Paris observed a car-free day, the mayor flew to France (he flies economy because that’s what “the city can afford”) to participate in a debate with Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo at the Urban School of Sciences Po. It was at this debate about the social and environmental challenges of big cities that Haddad received a big endorsement from his French counterpart. When asked during the debate if he was risking his re-election with his policies, the French socialist mayor jumped in before Haddad could answer, saying she would “vote for him” if she could.
Haddad is up for re-election in 2016. Knives are already out in the war zone that is Sao Paulo. The Sao Paulo mayor is the third most powerful person in the country after the Brazilian president and the Sao Paulo state governor. The post has historically been a launching pad for a national role. A rising star of the Workers Party, Haddad is seen by many as a future presidential candidate. Even the Wall Street Journal, which hardly ever has anything positive to say about Brazil, recently called him an “urban visionary”. But Haddad seems least worried about the election. He is more concerned about his policies. “Sometimes traditional politicians are afraid to take measures that provoke a strong reaction from some people. Four years is not enough. You can even lose an election. But losing an election for a good cause is good. You can become a prisoner of power if you do not take correct steps. But if you are not attached to power, you can take measures that are going to be understood in the medium turn,” he says without a hint of worry on his face. “So, we are going to focus on policies and not elections. If we can separate the two things, it’s good for the city.”
That change may already be happening. In the tony neighbourhoods of the city, bicycle stands from where residents can hire bicycles with their mobile phones, have become very popular. In Pinheiros, a posh pocket, there are brand new Bike Cafes, where people can fix their bicycles while having coffee and snacks. And in the book shops across the city books like Eu amo bike (‘I love bike’) and Eu sou a mudanca (‘I am the change’) are selling like hot cakes. Haddad’s policies have not just given a boost to a whole new industry, it has also changing attitudes – and politics — in those parts of the city which would never vote for a Workers Party candidate. Not just the periphery, where he is extremely popular, Haddad may have won new supporters in the upper crust of the city. Nunes, who didn’t vote for Haddad in 2012 election, is hesitant to talk about his voting preference in 2016 election. But then he drops a hint. “I can’t see myself voting for the same party as those playboys who abuse me.”
Sao Paulo is the most vibrant, multi-cultural and cosmopolitan city in South America. It produces 11% of Brazil’s GDP. At times, it can be one-dimensional. But under Haddad, it seems to be turning into a smart city with bicycles and democracy.
Shobhan Saxena is a Brazil-based independent journalist. Dividing his time between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, he reports on South America and writes on international affairs.