On the buses: supermodels and hyperbole

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Brazil is in trouble.

And not the kind of trouble the foreign press would like to think. You’d think we were all under siege over here, afraid of riots, muggings and vandalism. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, we are careful of our stuff and ourselves, yes things get stolen, yes, people get hurt, but it is not the all out warfare that is projected in the foreign media. It’s not all the manufactured tranquil of Zona Sul either, but that’s another blog.

In my opinion, Brazil is under threat from the car and from marketers and businesses selling outdated aspirations. (I know it sounds worthy, but stick with me here).

There was a bus strike in Rio yesterday. For anyone who’s never caught a bus here, it’s a frustrating and death defying experience. First you have to work out where you catch your bus (there will be no clues or information on the bus stops), wait between 30 minutes and 60 seconds, negotiate a cumbersome turnstile, operated by people who never have change, then spend around 45 minutes desperately clinging on to whatever isn’t nailed down as the bus driver re-enacts scenes from ‘Speed’. It’s not for the faint hearted. In fact, part of being a true ‘Carioca’ is, in fact, the ability to moan with great passion about bus drivers, traffic and transport.

It wasn’t great, we were lucky enough to borrow a car and be able to afford taxis. But not everyone can do that. In fact, people got very frustrated with the fact that their main method of transport was inaccessible, meaning they couldn’t get to work, care for their families etc. Some of these people vandalised buses, many of them switched to their cars and contributed to awful traffic conditions today too. Most of you who live in London are probably thinking ‘Yeah, well you should have been here for the Tube strike’ but this is a bigger problem than you might think. You will still get on your train/tube/bus to go to work next week (cursing maybe, but you’ll do it) and you’ll still do it five years from now (unless you move to Bath, Somerset, or Florida, none of which have much of a public transport system to speak of). But, judging by the evidence we see today, Brazilians won’t if they can help it…. and there are a lot more of them than there are of you.

According to CEBEDS, most of Brazilian’s rising middle class dream of owning a car. This was true for Gen X in the States, a car represented freedom and the ability to travel and connect with others. However, millennials in the States and Europe have largely rejected this consumption dream, preferring to stay connected through their Smartphones. As Jonah Hill observes in the hilariously satirical ’21 Jump Street’: Liking comic books is popular, environmental awareness, being tolerant. If I was just born ten years later, I would have been the coolest person ever!” This can’t happen in Rio, the infrastructure simply isn’t there. Traffic congestion now obstructs over 130 km (81 miles) of the city and in 2012 represented a loss of Us$14 billion, according to a survey by FIRJAN. And don’t get me started on the asthma inducing air quality. Traffic is strangling Brazil’s cities and causing billions of Reais in losses.

Driving itself is a pleasurable experience and owning a car is necessary and desirable for lots of people, it’s just that if everyone owns one and drives it at the same time in a place that can’t cope, there becomes a problem. Who’s to blame? Advertising and the media can take some of it. We know we get signals on how to behave from those around us, just as we do from advertising and the media (it’s called ‘peripheral processing’). To pick up magazines, or watch the television, you’d think that everyone in Brazil was rich, white and owned a car. In a place where people are less cynical towards brands, marketers and the media have a potentially enormous impact on the consumption patterns of the populace. The ‘Rolezinho’ movement want their piece of the pie and we don’t seem to have learned anything from things like the London Riots. Coupled with the unreliability of the public transport system, no wonder people dream of having a car.

Rant over, but I do think Brazil is in need of some better advertising guidelines and some good behaviour change campaigns (more on how to do that here). New road building, extensions to the Metro, bus lanes and things like the ‘Bilhete Unico’, (a time rather than trip based Oyster card type system) or apps like ‘Moovit’ have made things better, but change needs to go further to reverse the trend towards car ownership.

In his TED Talk, Sweat the Small Stuff, the polemic Rory Sutherland asks:

“Why is it necessary to spend six billion pounds speeding up the Eurostar train when, for a about 10 percent of that money, you could have top supermodels, male and female, serving free Chateau Petrus to all the passengers for the entire duration of the journey? You’d still have 5 billion left in change, and people would ask for the trains to be slowed down.”

I’m not necessarily suggesting we get zunga wearing hotties to fan us on buses (not the ‘necessarily’ in that sentence), but even a bit of bus driver training, regular fleet servicing and an end to the tyranny of  bus turnstiles isn’t going to change the idea of the ‘car as a status symbol’. Maybe glamourising car sharing is the answer, or having luxury priority buses (these already exist, but I would want a little more luxury for RS$15 a trip), or installing phone chargers and entertainment systems on some, or up playing the fact you can stay connected through mobile devices. I don’t know, but people would, if we asked them (my survey of Gringos and housemates doesn’t count) and, judging by the statistics, it’s important we do.

*Ahem, thanks. Climbs down off soap box*

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